Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde told the bar leaders today that physical hearing in the Supreme Court will soon resume in a hybrid manner amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bar Council of India (BCI) has said.
Amid protest by several advocates demanding resumption of physical hearing in the top court, a meeting was held today in which the CJI, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, bar leaders including BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra as also office bearers of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) as well as Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association and senior advocate Vikas Singh discussed the issue.
The top court has been hearing cases through video-conferencing since March last year amid the pandemic and several bar bodies and lawyers, including former SCBA President Vikas Singh, have been demanding that physical hearing should resume immediately.
"The Chief Justice of India made it clear that the judges of Supreme Court themselves are willing to restart the open court hearings but there are medical and technical issues which the registry of Supreme Court of India is trying to sort out and solve. Therefore, it will be done gradually," said a press release issued by the BCI Chairman.
"The secretary general (of the top court) was asked by Justice Bobde to get the technical problems solved at the earliest so that courts could resume its functioning physically from the first week of March 2021," Mr Mishra, who is also a senior advocate, said.
The release said that after deliberations, it was also decided that though there shall be hybrid system of hearing till the pandemic period is over but as proposed by senior advocate Vikas Singh, the "video-conferencing (during the hybrid hearings) could only be done by the lawyers who are present in Delhi and that should be done only through cable connections either in the lawyers chambers or the cubicles (to be installed in the premises of Supreme Court)".
It said Mr Mishra requested for evolving an effective and expeditious method for mentioning and listing of urgent matters, on which the CJI "gave a positive assurance".
"Most probably one or two judges will sit on all the working days for 'mentioning matters'' only. A decision to this effect shall be taken soon by the Chief Justice of India in consultation with the other judges," the release said.
During the day, former SCBA President Singh led a group of lawyers who assembled in the top court premises to protest and seek immediate resumption of physical hearing.
"Today, the CJI called us for a meeting in view of our protest call. He suggested hybrid mode of hearing for which he said infrastructure will have to be upgraded. I on behalf of the members of the bar insisted on full physical hearing as before and that too immediately. The CJI did not agree and hence we have decided to continue our protest till our demand is met," Mr Singh said.
"Hybrid could have been an option if implemented today but agreeing to hybrid without restoration of normal functioning was not acceptable," he said.
The Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA) said that in the meeting, it was assured that process for resumption of physical hearings has already began and would be "available soon in a hybrid manner that is in both modes of physical hearing and virtual hearing at the earliest; after considering the medical advice and clearing the existing impediments regarding to health of the stakeholders, technology infrastructures and availability of staff of registry."
In its press release, the BCI chairman said that during the meeting all the leaders of the bar were of the view that open court hearings should start in the top court forthwith as normal functioning in all government offices have resumed and most of the high courts are also having physical courts.
"But, due to continuation of video-conferencing, majority of lawyers of Supreme Court are facing a lot of difficulties. Lawyers are in agitating mode," it said.
Mr Mishra said that on the proposal of leaders of SCBA and SCAORA, the CJI assured that lawyers'' chamber will be allowed to remain open from 9 AM to 7 PM on all seven days.
"It was also resolved to evolve the required SoP for the physical and hybrid hearings and for laying down such SoP, the secretary general is to coordinate with the leaders of the Supreme Court bar very soon. This apart, the lawyers were also requested to make their suggestions to the secretary general through e-mail in order to make the procedure easy and practical," he said.
Mr Mishra said the CJI has asked him to coordinate with senior advocates of the top court and other bar associations to make them agreeable for physical court hearings.
"From today's meeting, it is clear that the physical hearings are going to start in the top court within three-four weeks. The Chairman, Bar Council of India also made the Chief Justice of India acquainted with the feelings and strong resentment of the bar with regard to the statement of the some of the judges of Supreme Court of India where the judges have talked of continuation of virtual hearings, even after the pandemic period is over," the release said.