All courts were permitted to carry on with virtual hearings after the Covid-19 outbreak in March last year.
On Tuesday, senior advocate Kapil Sibal articulated some of these positions in the top court saying that “if physical courts were to reopen, lawyers would be forced to appear in person” and this would lead to a “further spread” of the Covid-19 infection.
The Delhi High Court had earlier announced that it would resume physical hearings from January 18, a decision taken perhaps on the strength of the falling infection rate and the beginning of a nationwide vaccination drive.
It had also instructed the subordinate courts in Delhi to hold physical hearings on alternate days.
Some members of the bar challenged this move in the top court. Sibal said virtual courts should remain an option for the time being.
The court’s insistence that no adjournments would be allowed in physical courts was unreasonable, a plea filed in the top court said.
Physical courts represent a “clear and present danger” to lawyers, Sibal contended.
Reacting to the plea, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said that generally the top court doesn’t interfere with any decision of a high court’s chief justice on the administrative side. “We understand your concerns, but why can’t you go to the high court,” he asked Sibal.
The CJI had earlier been dismissive of a claim to resume physical sittings in the top court immediately. “We will take a decision based on medical advice and not what the Constitution says,” he had said.
In this case involving the Delhi high court though, the CJI agreed to examine the claims on Wednesday.
The bench will also hear a plea–filed on behalf of some female lawyers—that says physical courts must not be resumed as it will force them to appear in court, thereby putting their families at risk of contracting Covid-19, while not appearing will mean losing the brief.
Meanwhile, a clutch of lawyers led by advocate DD Sharma has been pressing for the return of physical courts by sitting on a hunger strike in front of the top court building. They are not the only ones clamouring for a return to the good old days.
The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), under former president Dushyant Dave, had also made repeated requests to the court to go back to physical hearings, saying technical glitches in virtual courts prevent effective hearings on crucial issues and that the plight of lawyers affected by the suspension of courts should not be ignored.
On Monday, the SCBA urged the government to treat judges and lawyers as frontline workers and vaccinate them on a priority basis so that the institution can get back to functioning normally. It is now urging the court to seek medical advice on the next course of action for the bar and the bench.
The Covid-led lockdowns had forced the courts to switch to the virtual mode, but with the pandemic lingering on, the technical glitches in virtual courts and the limited hearings have reopened the debate on the need to get back to physical courts.
Suspension of physical courts has hit the less affluent and the young lawyers hard. The big law firms and successful lawyers have not been affected much with easy access to technology and multiple appearances in all courts throughout India.