NEW DELHI: The unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the nationwide lockdown a year ago, could not deter the judiciary from delivering justice as courts across the country adopted virtual mode of proceedings which also served as an opportunity to test the robustness of its digital infrastructure.
While the courts in the national capital started hearing cases through video-conferencing from March last year due to the pandemic, the functioning is gradually inching towards normalcy with the Supreme Court commencing hybrid hearings since March 15 this year.
Hybrid hearing is a combination of both virtual and physical hearing.
Similarly, physical hearings have resumed from last week in the Delhi High Court which had restricted its functioning to urgent matters only since March 16 last year and had later shifted to virtual mode of proceedings a few days later, from March 24.
Despite several challenges faced by the judiciary during the lockdown, courts dealt with several unprecedented issues having far reaching impact.
The Supreme Court took cognisance of many COVID-19 related issues, including on migrant workers and providing treatment to patients infected with virus as well as dignified handling of dead bodies in hospitals.
It also dealt with issues related to providing adequate PPE kits to doctors and health workers, loan moratorium and also measures to reduce over crowding in jails across the country amid the pandemic.
However, in view of resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the country, the Delhi High Court has recently issued a notification stating that hybrid and video-conferencing hearings would be allowed in cases where such requests are made by the parties or their advocates.
The high court recently directed the district courts in the national capital that wherever possible, hybrid hearing be conducted.
As India came to a standstill during the coronavirus-induced lockdown which commenced from March 25 last year, the apex court not only swiftly switched to hearings through video-conferencing but also ensured that people have uninterrupted access to justice from the highest court in the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had last month said that the Supreme Court in India has conducted the highest number of hearings via video-conferencing from among the top courts of all the countries in the world during the pandemic.
On November 26 last year, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had complimented the judiciary for hearing over 49 lakh cases digitally during the challenging times of COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only did the courts continue functioning amid the pandemic over the last one year, they also dealt with a plethora of issues arising out of the situation including the migrant crisis in which workers started returning to their native places from big cities with their families trudging hundreds of miles due to the sudden nationwide lockdown.
The virtual mode of hearing also tested the robustness of digital infrastructure in the courts with adequate arrangements, like installation of cameras, screens and rooms equipped with video-conferencing facility, were put in place so that courts can function smoothly.
Lawyers and litigants were provided with web links to participate in the virtual hearings.
The challenges posed by the lockdown and the pandemic resulted in upgradation of digital infrastructure in the courts across the country.
The pandemic also witnessed courts including the apex court and the high court adopting the system of e-filing of cases to curb physical contact.
In the high court, COVID-19 tests are being conducted at regular intervals for lawyers and court staffs in the premises.
The pandemic also saw the courts curtailing the summer vacations last year and continuing with hearing of matters.
The lawyers' body in the apex court -- the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) -- has been demanding immediate resumption of physical hearing and they had also challenged in the top court the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued for hybrid proceedings.
The apex court in its SOPs had said that hybrid hearings would commence from March 15 this year and will be held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of every week except for Monday and Friday being the days on which miscellaneous matters are heard.
"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," the SOP, issued by the apex court, had said.
The SOP said unless otherwise directed by a bench, the final hearings or regular matters where the number of lawyers for the parties is higher than the average working capacity of the courtrooms according to the COVID-19 norms, that is 20 per courtroom at any given time, shall invariably be listed for hearing through the video or tele-conferencing mode.