After nearly five months of restricted functioning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court has decided to start physical hearing of cases within a week's time, though in a limited manner.
The top court administration has informed bar body Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association that three among the bigger courtrooms will be readied within that time for physical hearing, while adhering to the prescribed distancing and other norms and as per medical advice.
Subject to the decision of the competent authority, it has been suggested that a limited number of cases will be listed for physical hearing on an experimental basis upon prior consent and willingness in writing of all parties to such matters/cases, the communication sent by an apex court registrar said.
"On an experimental basis, and as a pilot scheme, three amongst the bigger court rooms may be got prepared, within a week's time through the concerned agencies, strictly adhering to the prescribed distancing and other norms and as per medical advice with regard to physical infrastructure required in these court rooms," a communication dated August 18, sent to the president of the bar body said.
"Subject to the direction of the competent authority, only a limited category/number of matters for final hearing may be listed for physical hearing inside such court rooms, and the numbers may be gradually increased if the ground situation so warrants and permits," the communication said.
It clarified that all other matters, including miscellaneous ones which are listed on Mondays and Fridays, shall continue to be heard through video/teleconferencing mode, as per existing standard operating procedure till further orders.
The top court administration said that considering the vulnerability of some stake-holders and their family members to the COVID-19 infection, it has been recommended that requests for exemption from physical hearing may be considered favourably.
The top court administration has also clarified that these initiatives are being taken in view of demands and requests made by certain sections of the bar with regard to the functioning of the Supreme Court and these steps would not apply nor be made to apply in respect of any other court, tribunal or adjudicatory authority in the country.
On August 17, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, during hearing of a matter through video conferencing, had told a lawyer that glass partitioning is being done in the courts, as the top court was readying itself for physical hearing.
On August 11, a committee of seven Supreme Court judges, which is looking into the suggestions and requests for resumption of physical hearing, recommended sitting of three out of the 15 benches in the apex court with some additional safety measures.
The apex court has been holding hearings through video conferencing since March 25 due to the COVID-19-induced nationwide lockdown and even after the restrictions were relaxed, it has decided to continue with the practice.
In the last week of July, the 7-judge panel headed by senior most judge Justice N V Ramana had apprised the bar leaders of its decision to not open the apex court for physical hearings "for the time being" and had assured to meet them again after two weeks to reconsider the issue.
The judges' panel has met leaders such as Bar Council Chairperson Manan Kumar Mishra, Supreme Court Bar Association President Dushyant Dave and Shivaji Jadhav on the issue of resumption of physical hearings in the top court.
Bar leaders have been demanding the start of the physical hearings as soon as possible, while continuing with virtual court hearings with an improved system for limited types of matters.
Justices Ramana, Arun Mishra, Rohington Nariman, U U Lalit, A M Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and L N Rao are part of the committee set up by the CJI to look into the issue of resumption of physical hearings in the top court.