The North East Bar Council set a September 1 deadline for the resumption of physical proceedings in Gauhati High Court (GHC) and its outlying benches and subordinate courts in the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland.
If the courts failed to reopen courts by then, the Council would resort to “appropriate democratic” agitation, according to a four-point resolution adopted in a recent emergent meeting of the Council.
Lawyers associations in many other parts of the country too are demanding immediate resumption of physical courts citing immense financial hardship faced by their members due to the restricted functioning of the courts.
Representatives of the Bar Council of India (BCI) and Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA) also told a parliamentary standing committee earlier this month that courts should resume physical hearings at the earliest.
In the Northeast, however, the issue has snowballed into a tussle between the courts and lawyers with the Council issuing an ultimatum.
The Council’s chairman Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury said the court needed to revert to normal physical proceedings considering the acute financial crunch being faced by many lawyers due to the restricted functioning of courts.
Due to the nationwide lockdown imposed by the central government from March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, the functioning of all the courts under the jurisdiction of the GHC has been restricted with “staggered roaster”, and the proceedings are held through video conferencing.
In the absence of physical court, more than 60 percent of the lawyers, particularly those who practise in lower courts became jobless, Choudhury said, adding that many of them were forced to take up menial jobs to run their families.
Though the council is also the apex statutory body of the lawyers of the Sikkim High Court, Choudhury said the ultimatum was applicable only to courts under the jurisdiction of the GHC.
The council issued the deadline soon after a five-member committee constituted by the chief justice Ajai Lamba to examine the feasibility of resumption of physical court extended the existing system of virtual court till September 5.
The council in a press release issued by its secretary Kulesh Goswami dubbed the decision of the committee, comprising five sitting judges, as unilateral.
The committee was formed on August 11 and it held a meeting with all stakeholders including the Bar Council to chart modalities for reopening of the physical court. In the meeting the committee asked the stakeholders to submit suggestions and modalities about how to revert back to normal court proceedings.
Accordingly, the bar council submitted modalities on August 21. On the same day, the committee issued a notification deferring its decision to the first week of September and thereby extending the existing system of virtual court till September 5.
“This unilateral deferment has caused wide resentment amongst the members of the legal fraternity,” Goswami said.
The council on August 19 requested the government of Assam to release ₹25 crore to the Assam Advocates’ Welfare Fund and also to earmark at least ₹5 corre in the annual budget towards the welfare fund.
Assam has about 29,000 registered lawyers out of them only around 19,000 practices law in various courts regularly.