This article is written by R Sai Gayatri, from the Post Graduate College of Law, Osmania University. This article deals with the plight of Indian Courts during the COVID-19 pandemic and the case of Sanser Pal Singh v Union of India.
We all know that the COVID-19 situation has impacted various aspects of our daily life be it personal or professional, as a result, we are forced to find new ways to adjust accordingly. In the post-pandemic days, the corona situation has been named the ‘new normal’ based on the assumption that the virus will not be vanishing soon from the world. Almost all the professions were and are still severely affected due to Coronavirus and the legal profession is no exception to it. However, certain steps have been taken by the courts to adapt to the said ‘new normal’ situation. Through this article, we will know how the Indian courts had to cope with the pandemic and nationwide lockdown situation about the recent case of Sanser Pal Singh v Union of India.
Indian Courts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
The Indian courts did not delay in employing technology to continue with their affairs. The conventional approach of the courts quickly changed to a technology-driven one to adapt to the changes brought in by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, virtual courts became the new normal courts and the e-filings was being accepted by such courts. Technology can be considered as the rescuer of the Indian judiciary during the peak pandemic time as it provided a platform to continue the court processes without any hindrance and reduced crowding in the courts as well, posing a big relief to the courts, litigants and the common man. Reviving a ‘dead’ judiciary would be next to impossible, given our Indian legal approach, all thanks to technology for being an excellent backup medium.
The Indian Judiciary recognized the need to expeditiously deal with the cases/legal issues that increased due to the coronavirus pandemic while on the other hand it also provided interim protection to those defaulting parties which prima facie seemed to have filed a case of protection due to the pandemic. However, the Judiciary was also cautious about such parties that were trying to escape the courts to wrongfully protect themselves by taking undue advantage of the pandemic situation. This balancing phenomenon of the Judiciary was greatly appreciated as it took steps keeping in mind the plight of the people and that no one is denied justice as a result of the sudden pandemic/lockdown situation.
The coronavirus pandemic had not only brought the nation to a standstill but also invited various new problems that posed as barriers in the daily life of the common man. Among the affected people there were wage workers who started migrating back to their hometowns due to lack of money and facilities. This created a migrant crisis in the country during the lockdown period which the courts had to deal with. The courts did not just blindly continue with the cases but they also took notice of the ongoing issues in the country and tried to provide immediate legal relief to the people stuck in such situations. Although the pandemic caused a ruckus in the courts, it also paved the way towards establishing a strong technological infrastructure for court hearings and other purposes. For example, for virtual hearings, the courtrooms were equipped with video-conferencing facilities, cameras, screens, etc. The e-courts must be considered as a boon to the Judiciary as it eliminates the problems envisaged in the conventional approach to the courts. It can be noted that the coronavirus situation will someday free all of us but the judiciary will still be held back as there will be a plethora of pending cases that might slow it down even more. In such a situation the e-courts can be employed as a tool for quick disposal of the cases.
COVID-19 pandemic and the Indian laws
Provisions under Indian Penal Code, 1860
This section talks about the negligent acts likely to spread the infection of disease that poses a danger to life. As per this section, any person who acts negligently to spread the infection/virus shall be liable for imprisonment or fine or both.
This section talks about the malignant acts likely to spread the infection of disease that poses a danger to life. As per this section, any person who knows that the consequences of his acts might lead to the spread of the infection/virus continues to do so shall be liable for imprisonment or fine or both.
This section talks about disobedience towards the quarantine rules. As per this section, any person who disobeys the quarantine rules shall be held liable and will be penalized with imprisonment or a fine or both.
This section talks about the disobedience of an order duly promulgated by a public servant. As per this section, any person who does not obey the orders given by the public servants and loiters around during lockdown shall be penalized.
Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 – Section 144
This section talks about the power of the executive magistrate to restrict a particular person or group of persons residing in a particular place while visiting a certain area. This section is of key importance to curb the crowding of people and encourage social distancing.
Disaster Management Act, 2005 and National Disaster Management Guidelines, 2008
Essential Commodities Act, 1955 – Section 3
The categorization of goods into essential commodities and non-essential commodities must be done by the citizens as per this section.
Essential Services (Maintenance) Act, 1968
The said Act through its first Schedule elucidates a list of essential services that shall be provided during the lockdown period.
The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897
The said Act provides power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to a dangerous epidemic disease.
Powers of the state government
If a state government at any given time is satisfied that the State or any of its part is visited or threatened by an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease then such State Government, in case it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law in force are inadequate for the purpose, may take or require or empower any person to take such measures and through a public notice, prescribe the required temporary regulations to be observed by the public, any person or class of persons as it shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or its spread and determine in what way and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be settled.
The state government in particular and without any prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions may take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of travelling persons where the mode of transport is railways or otherwise and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of those persons who are suspected to being infected with any such disease by the inspecting officer.
Powers of central government
If the central government at any given time is satisfied that India or any of its part is visited or threatened by an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease then the central government, in case it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law in force are inadequate for preventing the outbreak of such disease or its spread, may take measure and prescribe regulations for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port in the territories to which the said Act extends and for such detention thereof or of any person intending to sail therein or arriving thereby as may be necessary.
Protection to the persons acting under the said Act
Any person who does an act or in good faith intended to do an act as per the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 shall not face any suit or other legal proceedings against himself.
Sanser Pal Singh v. Union of India
Due to the pandemic, legal procedures have shifted to digital platforms and the non-uploading of the required data on such digital platforms causes unnecessary inconvenience and delay in the advancement of a case. A similar situation occurred in the present case, let us know more.
Facts of the case
Advocate Sanser Pal Singh through other two lawyers Yogesh Swaroop and Kapil Kishor Kaushik filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court seeking direction to upload the Daily Order Sheets as per the prescribed time limit. The petition also carried the request to take necessary action against the erring court officers and staff in case of default in uploading the Daily Order Sheets and issue appropriate guidelines in such regard.
The petitioner contended that he has to inspect the court files to read the court orders which not only consumes the time of the petitioner, the court and court staff but also requires court fee. As a result, the petitioner further stated the non-uploading of the Daily Order Sheets on the online portal/website of courts is causing inconvenience to him and many other lawyers and litigants like him. The petitioner also stated that the said PIL will benefit the lawyers, litigants and public at large.
The issue before the Court
Based on the above-mentioned facts of the case, the petitioner requested the Delhi High Court to issue a writ like mandamus or any other such appropriate writ/direction/order to the respondents for uploading the Daily Order Sheets as per the prescribed time and issuing appropriate guidelines against the erring court officers and staff in case of default.
After examining the case, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to all the respondents on the PIL seeking the direction to upload the Daily Order Sheets as per the prescribed time limit. However, the Division Bench of Justice Jasmeet Singh and Justice DN Patel while seeking a response from the respondents stated that they will put their house in order by the end of next month (April 2021) and adjourned the case for 30th April 2021.
Legal-tech – a boon or bane for Indian courts
Legal-tech is a term used to describe the technology and software employed in facilitating legal services. This method has recently hit the Indian legal market by the young generation of lawyers intending to eliminate the tardy procedures of the courts. Legal tech can be an exceptional breakthrough for lawyers as it challenges the conservative Indian approach towards legal issues. The young generation of lawyers is more open to bringing a change in the Indian legal system through the means of technology, as it might most probably result in efficient and expeditious disposal of the cases and reduce the burden on the Indian Judiciary.
But, when we look at the current scenario even after having the required technology for establishing a robust digital infrastructure, our legal system is not fully ready for a complete make-over. For instance, the Legal-tech concept might be appreciated by a tech-savvy lawyer but it will pose a threat to conventional lawyers. Taking the example of the above-mentioned case, even if technology is put to use properly, there must also be a strong team of people who are ready to administer and appropriately harness such a hybrid system. It is not an easy task to transform the conservative Indian legal infrastructure into a technologically driven one but it is always better to take the first step. However, it seems that the answer to the above question of technology being a boon or bane to the Indian courts lies in the many years to come.
The Indian Judiciary must be appreciated for not choosing to take a break from delivering justice even during the hard times of the Coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdown. However, to ensure the smooth functioning of the courts, the lawyers and litigants that turn the wheels of the Judiciary must not be taken for granted. The provision of e-courts and virtual hearings will all be helpful only when the administration of the court system is working in sync along with the lawyers. The pandemic will end someday but the real question is whether the burden on the Indian Judiciary will reduce if the same approach towards legal technology is continued?
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