Opportunities come along with every threat. The same holds true for corona virus (COVID-19) because of which time has come to a standstill due to the unavoidable lockdown.
An office order dated 15 April 2020 announced that the functioning of the High Court of Delhi and all courts subordinate to it shall remain suspended till 3 May 2020. The hearing dates for all matters earlier listed between 16th April and 2 May 2020 have been adjourned en bloc by two months.
Exceptions have however been made for taking up urgent matters, especially regarding those involving the right to life and liberty which is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
District and sessions judges have been empowered to allow judges and court staff to work from home wherever possible. To decongest the courts, hearings must preferably be done through video conferencing.
Similarly, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana has limited its functioning to hearing only urgent matters and those too through video conferencing. All cases listed between 15th April and 1st May have been adjourned en bloc by one month. All officers/officials of the HC will be required to work from home till further orders.
Clearly the schedules of the courts have gone haywire. As of July 2019, more than 3.5 crore cases were pending across various courts in India. This figure will balloon up further due to the current limited functioning of the courts caused by reasons beyond anyone’s control. Urgent steps are needed to mitigate the hardships being faced by the litigants and ensure that delivery of justice is not delayed.
Simple Initiatives to Reduce Pendency In Courts
The High Court (HC) of Delhi has taken the lead by announcing vide its order dated 13 April 2020 that the HC as well as all courts subordinate to it will function during the month of June 2020 and forego their summer vacations.
At the time of writing this article, the Supreme Court (SC) was yet to take a similar decision. If the SC and other HCs also decide to work in the month of June 2020, it would immensely help to make up for the lost time.
As stated above, High Courts of Delhi and that of Punjab and Haryana have adjourned cases en bloc by two months and one month respectively. A cursory glance at the website of HC of Delhi reveals that this includes many cases which were already fixed for orders. Some of these even pertain to fundamental rights of the citizens.
This approach needs urgent review. To use an old cliché, one size does not fit all. Extraordinary times also call for extraordinary measures.
It is imperative in the interest of justice that orders must be pronounced, even during the lockdown, in cases where final arguments have already been concluded. Because of the limited functioning of the courts at present, the judges and their staff must make full use of the luxury of extra time at their disposal to finalise and pronounce the orders and bring down the number of pending cases.
The understanding of the merits of the cases, which are currently fresh in the minds of the judges must not be allowed to be diluted. This will also obviate the possibility of transfer of cases from one judge to another in the interim which only results in waste of precious judicial time and public funds. Pronouncement of the orders during the lockdown will not be prejudicial to interest of either party.
Besides ensuring timely justice, it will also position the courts to tackle efficiently the surge in fresh cases once the courts resume normal functioning.
Filling of vacancies in the courts is another step which can be worked upon constructively during the current conundrum.
Opportunities for All
The opportunities in the current scenario to reduce pendency, increase efficiency and implement the law effectively are not limited to the courts alone. Other agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigations, the Serious Frauds and Investigations Office and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) must also utilize this opportunity to conclude, wherever possible, their investigations in the ongoing cases.
In my earlier article, I had highlighted how the Wadhawans of the Dewan Housing Finance Ltd (DHFL) had made a mockery of the law by evading summons from the ED and then travelling from Khandala to Mahabaleshwar even during the lockdown. Although a little late, the ED has now moved the High Court of Mumbai for cancellation of the bail granted to Kapil Wadhawan.
Taking even a few cases to their logical conclusion is the best way to ensure compliance with the law and deter other offenders.
(Sarvesh Mathur is a senior financial professional, who has earlier worked as CFO of Tata Telecom Ltd and PricewaterhouseCoopers.)