SC directs bar members be heard by judges' panel on new SOP for hybrid hearing

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New Delhi, Mar 16 (PTI) The Supreme Court Tuesday said its 7-judge committee, looking at re-opening of the top court, be requested to listen to the bar members to resolve differences on the new standard operating procedure (SOP) on commencement of hybrid hearing of cases.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and R S Reddy asked the secretary general of the apex court to request the judges' panel to hear the members of the new committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA).

During the hearing, the bench perused the minutes of the meetings leading to finalisation of the new SOP and told the newly elected SCBA president Vikas Singh, appearing for the lawyers’ body, that members of the bar participated in the deliberation. Singh said there was no consultation held on the issue of physical hearing and neither new nor old committee had been consulted by the judges' panel.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic is a dynamic problem which changes every time and the government in January allowed the opening of auditoriums and cinema halls, then why can’t physical hearing take place in courts.

Singh alleged that the new SOP was arbitrary as it says SCBA president can allow lawyers with his consent to enter their chambers but at the same time their proximity cards for entry into the premises were suspended. “Judges are completely protected as there is barrier created to isolate them from the bar members but on the lawyers side, they should be allowed to take precautionary measures,'' Singh said.

He said lawyers and litigants are the sufferers with no physical hearing taking place as many of them are not of well-to-do background and they have faced serious brunt of the pandemic.

“Many lawyers don’t have money to even pay for their rent. How will they sustain their families”, Singh said, adding that in Delhi coronavirus positivity rate has been 0.3 in past couple of week and has now increased to 0.5, as many people have stopped wearing masks and protective measures. He said the court should have discussed the matter with the bar members and then prepared the SOP.

“This SOP for hybrid hearing needs to be quashed as there was no consultation process and new SOP needs to be formulated with consultation,” Singh said, adding that lawyers may have resorted to agitation path but being responsible members of the institution they decided to file a petition.

The bench said that medical opinion was taken before finalisation of the new SOP.

Singh said that whole Bihar election tool place last year, when pandemic was at its peak but for SCBA election, the medical exerts gave their opinion that gathering of 2,000 lawyers should be avoided. “What kind of medical opinion is this,” he said.

The bench said however that it does not appreciate this kind of argument and it is just trying to find a middle path but if Singh wants to remain adamant then he can remain so. Singh the apologised to the bench and said that he was trying to bring the facts to the notice of the court as for past 16 days he was waiting for being called for consultation but he was not called.

The bench noted the Singh’s grievances in the order and directed that secretary general of the top court may request the judges committee to listen to the members of bar.

It said that if the judges committee thinks that the SOP shall be recalled then it may be taken back and new norms may be issued. Similarly, the bench also took up for hearing an appeal against the SOP for hybrid physical hearing of Delhi High Court and said that it should hear out the grievances of the lawyers.

The top court, however, left it to the high court to take a call on fine tuning of some clauses of the SOP saying it would not like to interfere with it. On March 12, the top court had orally observed that its SOP on commencement of hybrid physical hearing from March 15 would go if it has been framed without consulting the bar body.

It had sought minute of the meetings held by the judges committee and said that the court will look into whether bar members were consulted or not. The top court, which has been hearing cases through video-conferencing since March last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, came out on March 5 with the SOP and a day after, the newly-elected executive committee of SCBA rejected it in an emergent meeting.

'On an experimental basis, and as a pilot scheme, the final hearings/regular matters listed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays may be heard in the hybrid mode, as may be decided by the bench, considering the number of parties in a matter as well as the limited capacity of the courtrooms; all other matters, including those listed on Mondays and Fridays, shall continue to be heard through video/tele-conferencing mode,' said the SOP issued by the apex court. PTI MNL SJK SA