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Supreme Court to begin limited physical hearing on trial basis from March 15

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India — The Supreme Court will begin limited physical hearing of old/regular matters on three days in a week beginning March 15 where lawyers will have the option to either appear in person or argue through videoconferencing.

A circular was issued in this regard by the Supreme Court Secretary General on March 6 stating that the hearing of cases through the hybrid mode is a pilot scheme carried out on an experimental basis following requests to restart physical hearing of cases received from Bar Associations. Even a Committee of Judges of the Supreme Court comprising the top seven senior most judges had held wide-ranging consultation with lawyer bodies and recommended to start limited physical hearing in August last year. Lawyers were asked for consent but only three to four lawyers consented which led to the plan being junked.

In January this year, Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde ruled out any reopening of courts for the present. Sitting in a three-judge bench composition, CJI remarked, “We have received medical advice from medical authorities that it is dangerous for people to congregate at this time. If physical courts are started, the number of fatalities will increase.”

The present circular issued by SC Secretary General said, “As a pilot scheme, the final hearing/regular matters listed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays may be heard in the hybrid mode, as may be decided by the Hon’ble Bench, considering the number of parties in a matter as well as the limited capacity of the Court rooms.” All other matters, including fresh matters listed on Mondays and Fridays shall continue to be heard through video/tele-conferencing mode, the circular added.

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As per Covid-19 norms, only 20 people per courtroom will be granted entry. The lawyer or litigant appearing in person who wishes to appear through physical hearing will be required to give their option in advance, latest within 24 hours of the weekly list being published or by 1 pm the following day of the weekly list being out. The weekly list for the coming week is generally out by Friday of the previous week. In case the advocate/litigant makes no specific request for physical hearing by the stipulated time, it shall be presumed that counsels for the party seek to appear through video/teleconferencing mode.

If the bench receives requests for physical hearing in a case where the number of lawyers are more than the average working capacity of 20 in a courtroom, the matter shall invariably be listed for hearing through videoconferencing. In a case listed for hybrid hearing, every party to the case will be allowed to have an arguing counsel, the advocate-on-record (one who files the case in Supreme Court), and a registered clerk to carry the files/books required during arguments.

Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA) President Shivaji Jadhav said, “Our demand was to begin full-fledged physical hearing of cases and not limited physical hearing. We are happy at least this has started. But consent from lawyers may not be forthcoming in cases where a stay is operating or where the client has defaulted on payment of fees. However, this was much needed as the litigants and lawyers were suffering a lot in the post-lockdown phase.”

Entry into the courtroom for the physical hearing will require lawyers to make “special hearing passes” to be issued by the SC Registry. They will be permitted into the courtroom ten minutes prior to the beginning of their case. Till then they will be seated in the bar longue or library. After following the sanitization procedures, on entering the courtroom, the lawyers/litigants will be required to maintain minimum prescribed physical distancing norms by sitting on chairs at the earmarked places.

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