Taking note of global pandemic novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Supreme Court on Friday decided that from March 16 it will take up for hearing only urgent matters and no persons except lawyers concerned will be allowed inside its courtrooms.
The apex court, which has been mulling over the issue in its meetings held at the residence of Chief Justice of India S A Bobde on Thursday and Friday, took note of the government's March 5 advisory cautioning against mass gatherings in view of the fact that the World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 a 'global pandemic'.
The apex court's notification, issued by its secretary general Sanjeev S Kalgaonkar, said it has been decided that its functioning shall be restricted to urgent matters with such number of benches as may be found appropriate.
'On reviewing the advisory issued by the Government of India and in view of the opinion of public health experts including medical professionals and also considering the safety and welfare of all the visitors, litigants, lawyers, court staff, security, maintenance and support staff, student interns and media professionals, the Competent Authority has been pleased to direct that the functioning of the courts shall be restricted to urgent matters with such number of benches as may be found appropriate,' the notification said.
'It is hereby notified that no persons except the lawyers who are going to act in the matter, that is either for argument or for making oral submissions or to assist along with one litigant only, shall be permitted in the court room,' it said, adding that the mentioning of matters for urgent hearing will be made only before the mentioning officer.
The apex court has sought others' cooperation in this regard considering the importance of the safety measures to maintain public health.
The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) secretary Ashok Arora on Thursday had said that a meeting was held at the residence of the CJI to discuss the coronavirus outbreak and the possibility of limiting the Supreme Court's functioning.
Besides the CJI, Justices Arun Mishra and U U Lalit and Attorney General K K Venugopal, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, SCBA Secretary Arora and officials of Ministry of Health and Ministry of Law attended the meeting to discuss the issue.
It had decided to meet again on Friday to take a decision on the issue.
The Delhi high court also decided to hear only urgent matters from March 16 in the wake of coronavirus scare and not insist on personal appearance of parties unless it is indispensable.
The decision was taken at an emergency meeting of the high court's eight-judge Administrative and General Supervision Committee headed by Chief Justice D N Patel and the president and honorary secretary of the Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA) 'to contain the spread of pandemic coronavirus'.
It was decided that all possible preventive and remedial measures be taken to combat the impending threat of COVID-19, including making available sanitisers be made available in the courts for visitors and staff, 'particularly those manning windows where there is constant public dealing'.
Subsequent to the meeting, an advisory was issued by the high court in which it said that its functioning from March 16 shall be restricted to urgent matters and 'the court master shall give dates in routine matters before the court assembles'.
In the meeting, it was also decided that members of the Bar may not issue visitors pass and the high court would not insist on the personal appearance of the parties unless it is indispensable.
The Supreme Court also took a similar decision a few hours before the high court's.
The high court issued a separate advisory for regulating entry of litigants in all the district courts in the national capital.
In this advisory, it said that courts should not insist on presence of the parties 'unless it is unavoidable' and should take appropriate measures to regulate entry of litigants and general public in the court complex to avoid crowding.
'Thermal scanners (non-touch) may be procured at the earliest, handlers be trained and they be put to use at the existing check points,' the advisory said.
'Till the present situation persists, no adverse/default orders be passed in matters where parties are found to be absent,' the advisory further said.
It said that in criminal matters, trial courts should consider 'favourably' the request for exemption from personal appearance of the accused.
'The facility of video conferencing be put to optimum use for the purpose of recording of evidence,' the advisory said, adding, 'Instead of physical production of undertrial prisoners (UTPs) from jails, facility of video conferencing be availed of.'
It said in civil matters, wherever possible, service of local commissioners be availed for the purpose of recording of evidence after obtaining consent of both the parties.
It said that unnecessary crowding in the lock up in the court premises be curtailed and appropriate steps be taken in this regard in consultation with the jail authorities.
The advisory said that judge in-charge of the trial courts shall ensure that medical dispensaries in the court complex are 'well equipped to tackle the present emergent situation'.
It said that sanitisers be made available in the courts for visitors, staffs 'particularly those manning windows where there is constant public dealing'.
'Housekeeping agency/staff be asked to ensure that highest level of hygiene is maintained in the court complex and disinfectants are sprayed on a regular basis,' it said, adding a dedicated team comprising of senior judicial officers and others be constituted in each district court complexes for taking stock of the situation on a day-to-day basis.
'All the possible preventive and remedial measures be taken to combat the impending threat of COVID-19,' it said, adding, 'No function/election or any other event be permitted to be held/conducted till further orders'.
The advisory said that district court bar association may also issue necessary directions to ensure that there is no crowding in the court complexes.
It said that judge in-charge of mediation centre of all the district court complexes would also ensure that mediation proceedings are held only in cases that are of urgent nature.
Bombay HC says visit courts only if necessary
Meanwhile, the Bombay high court on Friday asked lawyers and litigants in Maharashtra to come to courts only if it is necessary.
A circular issued by the High Court's Registrar General said that 'litigants, public and advocates in Maharashtra are hereby informed that they should avoid visiting court complexes unless necessary'.
While visiting the high court, they should adhere to guidelines issued by the Health Ministry, it added.