The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) today wrote to Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, saying that the fresh standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by the top court for resumption of physical hearing is "a non-starter" as its members would not like to take the options with so many conditions attached.
The Bar body raised objection to several conditions of the SOP, including the one which prohibits the entry of lawyers to the high security area of the Supreme Court without special passes.
SCBA president and senior advocate Vikas Singh, in the letter to the CJI, said the Supreme Court being the top court of the country should be a guiding star for resumption of normal work in courts in the country as the High Court and lower judicial courts look upon it for such guidance.
"Therefore we should resume normal functioning at the earliest to send the right message down the line," the SCBA said.
"In our view, the SOP is a non-starter as our members would not like to take the option for physical hearing with so many conditions attached," the SCBA president said in his letter.
The communication stated that the Supreme Court has a distinct architecture where the lawyers are moving from one court to the other in an open corridor -- without any air-conditioning -- where the chance of infection is negligible.
"According to us, the restriction should only be with regard to going inside the court room and not with regard to entering the high security area," the SCBA said.
The letter said high security area in the top court has large open areas in the form of corridors where lawyers wait for matters and it also has a large number of bar rooms, libraries, canteens where the lawyers can sit with the Covid protocol in place.
The SOP prohibits the entry of lawyers to the high security area without special passes which will, in turn, dissuade members from applying for physical hearings, the letter said.
The bar body suggested that entry to the high security area should be permitted by the use of proximity card and the waiting areas would be the libraries and the lounge where lawyers will wait on their own after observing Covid protocol.
If those areas were to get full then the lawyers can easily wait in the corridor which is like being in an open space where minimal restrictions are required, it said adding that the system of issuing special pass should be dispensed with in the standard operating procedure (SOP).
The letter also said that as far as limiting the number of people to 20 in every courtroom is concerned, the same is also arbitrary as the size of the courtroom differs substantially.
The number of persons permitted to enter the courtroom should be based on the size of a courtroom and the number of 20 can be justified only in the smallest courtrooms, it said.
Moreover, the discretion given to a judge to adjourn the matter last minute if the number in a particular matter increases more than 20 people is also unjustified as this will disrupt a lot of hearings in the court.
With regard to matters involving PILs where all states are parties and matters involving a large number of respondents are known to the Registry in advance, SCBA said they may be listed only through the virtual mode for some time until physical hearing is resumed.
SCBA submitted that though it is apprehensive about the third wave of COVID-19, it will be immediately known either when the mutation of the virus takes place or if the number of cases suddenly starts spiking.
"We can take our call with regard to the manner of the functioning of the Supreme Court at that stage and the said fear does not justify restricting the functioning of the Supreme Court now," the letter said.
The top court has issued fresh standard operating procedures to accord final hearing of cases in physical mode from September 1, and will employ a hybrid option from Tuesday to Thursday amid strict observance of Covid appropriate norms.
The top court has been hearing cases through video-conferencing since March last year due to the pandemic and several bar bodies and lawyers have been demanding that physical hearings should resume immediately.
The SOP, issued by the Secretary General on August 28, made it clear that the courts would keep hearing miscellaneous cases through virtual mode on Mondays and Fridays.
"Wearing of mask, frequent use of hand sanitiser and maintaining physical distancing norms are mandatory for all entrants into the Supreme Court premises, including into the Courtrooms," the SOP said.
The procedures mandated that once litigants and the lawyers opt for the hearing through physical mode then "hearing through video/tele-conferencing mode to the party concerned will not be facilitated".