The Supreme Court has issued standard operating procedure (SOP) for the proposed physical hearing of the cases which will commence on an experimental basis on the request of various lawyers bodies.
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.
A seven-judge committee headed by Justice N V Ramana has earlier this month after consideration of requests made by various Bar Associations has recommended to the Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, to resume physical hearing of the cases on an experimental basis while adhering to additional safety norms.
However, no date has been mentioned in the SOPs, as from when the physical hearing of cases in a limited manner will commence.
The SOP issued by secretary-general Sanjeev S. Kalgaonkar of the top court said On an experimental basis, and as a pilot scheme, physical hearing of matters may initially commence in three Court-rooms; eventually, the number of matters or the number of Court-rooms may be increased or reduced, as the situation may warrant or permit.
It said that only such number of lawyers or parties may be permitted to appear during physical hearing inside Courtrooms, so that the total number does not exceed the working capacity of the Court(s) as determined considering the physical distancing norms.
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If in a matter the number of parties is more, then one Advocate on Record AOR and one arguing counsel per party will be allowed entry; one registered Clerk per party, as may be chosen by the AOR, shall be allowed entry to carry paper-books/journals etc. of the Counsels upto the Court-rooms, it said.
The top court administration has said that entry into the High-Security Zone through proximity cards/long term passes shall be kept suspended, till further orders.
It said that the entry of counsels/parties or such other stakeholders to appear for such limited physical hearing will be through daily Special hearing passes which will be issued by the Registry, on the basis of authorization by the concerned Advocate on Record.
The two-page SOPs said that multiple sets of one chair and table are being placed inside the Court Rooms, in the areas demarcated for Advocates/Parties-in-Person, and it shall be incumbent upon the users to maintain minimum prescribed physical distancing norms between each set, which should not be removed from their positions.
Advocates/Parties-in-Person/Clerks or other stakeholders, who have been issued Special Hearing Passes, upon completion of necessary formalities, online or otherwise as may be notified in due time, shall enter the High-Security Zone through the designated Gate, after subjecting themselves to the thermal and such other scanning devices as may be installed for detecting body temperature, infection status, it said.
The administration said that on entering the High-Security Zone, Advocates/ Parties-in-Person would proceed to the staging areas/vacant Court-rooms as may be designated, and wait for their turn to enter respective Court Rooms where the physical hearing of their respective case(s) may be scheduled, and they would proceed only through the movement corridors created and demarcated for the purpose.
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The entry into and exit from each Court Room shall be by separate doors; entrants into the Court Rooms are advised to use the sanitization devices for sanitizing their hands and also the papers and other items/articles that they may seek to carry into the Court Rooms, with them, it said.
Earlier, the top court administration had informed bar bodies that three among the bigger courtrooms will be readied within that time for physical hearing of the final hearing cases, while adhering to the prescribed distancing and other norms and as per medical advice.
It had 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 (SOP) till further orders.
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 judges panel has met leaders such as Bar Council Chairperson Manan Kumar Mishra, Supreme Court Bar Association President Dushyant Dave and Supreme Court Advocates On Record Association (SCAORA) 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.
However, several lawyers have been opposed to the idea of starting of physical court hearing of the cases while referring to the rise in number of COVID-19 cases.
Justices Ramana, Arun Mishra, Rohington Nariman, UU Lalit, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and LN 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.