The Covid-19 pandemic has taken toll of Justice also. At this juncture when government offices, banks, shops, institutions and transport services have started working gradually, there appears no reason why courts should not resume work with all precautionary measures as per guidelines.
While law-abiding persons are adversely affected being remedy-less due to no hearing being conducted in courts, it is the criminals, offenders and persons breaking the law who are getting advantage on the pretext of pandemic to go scot free.
Even hardened criminals got bail on the pretext of Covid-19, while victims are only waiting to be heard. While old cases are pending, new cases are not being filed leading to the victims being without remedy.
If this situation continues even for another month, the accumulation of work in courts would become unmanageable and the damage to bona fide litigants would become irreparable. It will take years to get a grip on such a situation.
Justice social, political and economic are the opening words used in the Preamble to our Constitution. Denial of justice on whatever ground is in fact an onslaught on the bedrock of the soul and spirit of the Constitution itself.
In the case of Naresh Shridhar Mirajkar Vs. State of Maharashtra 1966, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had clearly held that ‘Public confidence in the administration of justice is of such great significance that there can be no two opinions on the broad proposition that in discharging their functions as judicial Tribunals, courts must generally hear causes in open and must permit the public admission to the court-room.’
About two months ago, Bar Council of India had written to Registrar General of Delhi High Court suggesting various methods which can be introduced to ensure safe conduct of Court proceedings with measures of restricted entry and sanitization of all entrants. As for videoconferencing, not all District Courts and Advocates are well equipped and tech-savvy enough to use such a system without glitches.
It will take a long way to get such a system. In his email to the Delhi High Court Bar Association, this author too had suggested that courts can still function by affixing time-slot for every case and allowing only two advocates – from rival parties – entry in the court room for a limited time. I had also suggested that for minor tasks like seeking adjournments or filing of applications and documents or papers etc. the job be left with Court Masters so that Advocates may not keep waiting for their turn and crowding be curtailed.
Sanitisation tunnel and proper thermal body temperature checking before entry are methods which are being applied and there is no hurdle in introducing such precautionary measures.
According to data laid on the table of Lok Sabha by the Law Minister, there are 59,867 cases pending with Supreme Court, 44.75 lacs cases pending with High Courts and a whopping 3.14 crore cases pending with District Courts all over the country as of November 2019.
The position of pendency of cases in Tribunals is even more disturbing.
The wheels of justice suffer due to high rate of filing of cases as against low rate of disposal. For example, in CAT (Central Administrative Tribunal) which hears only specified cases relating to government servants of only those departments which are notified, 48,000 cases are pending.
The number of disposal of cases is shockingly lower than the number of cases filed. In its report tabled in Rajya Sabha by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, it is lamented that of the sanctioned strength of 32 Judicial Members in CAT only 19 have been appointed.
The Committee reports that massive backlog and delay in disposing of cases has defeated the very purpose for which the Tribunal was set up under the Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985. The reasons for such growing pendency include vacancies not being filled up and penalties not being imposed for non-filing of replies by Government departments.
There are cases where replies to Original Applications have not been filed by respondents for more than two years and yet no meaningful action is taken. Inability of Tribunals to prevent seeking of frequent adjournments by counsel of departments provides another reason for delays accumulating.
Further, there is no plausible reason for CAT not to hold hearings on Saturdays when all District Courts held their sittings as normal. Although the timing of the CAT for holding hearing is from 10.30 a.m., most of the Benches do not commence work before 11 a.m. or even 11.30 a.m. and hardly any hearings are conducted after 2.30 p.m. Judgments are often not pronounced for months after final arguments.
Dates of hearings and other details are not often posted on a website and this creates confusion. Insensitivity towards justice is another cause behind growing pendency. Take the example of the Delhi Cooperative Tribunal which takes up cases of thousands of societies.
It has been without a Chairman for last about 7 months and cases are piling up there. Government has hardly taken any action to fill up the post to see the wheels of justice move. Similar is the position regarding other tribunals. No meaningful action is taken to transform the dilatory and archaic system of appointment of judges.
It is high time that the Courts resume their normal functioning with all safety precautionary measures and restrictions. Vacancies in Tribunals need to be filled up. Saturdays should not be allowed as holidays for the Tribunals. It is only with such drastic steps that the wheels of justice will move again.
The writer is Advocate, Delhi High Court.