Delhi: 94% HC lawyers opt out of physical hearings

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NEW DELHI: Courts across the city are prepared for physical hearings, although on a limited scale, but the overwhelming majority of lawyers continue to prefer virtual appearances in these Covid times. After a tepid response from Supreme Court advocates last month to physical hearings, it has now emerged that nearly 94% of Delhi high court lawyers sought virtual hearing of their cases during the first 10 days of physical functioning by the court since September 1.

During the same period, the seven district courts in the city saw a lawyer turnout of just 13% for physical appearances, with most preferring to argue their matter through video conferencing.
The data was collated by HC registry on the basis of daily requests logged on the court’s website, where nearly 94% of advocates indicated their preferred mode of hearing as “virtual”.
Physical courtrooms down to 3
Armed with these statistics, Delhi Chief Justice D N Patel and senior judges on Saturday decided to reduce physical courtrooms in the court to three from five, while also taking note of the “alarming” rise in Covid-19 cases in the capital.
The high court was reviewing the working of courts after it deferred to what it termed “persistent demands” by various bar associations in the city and the Bar Council of Delhi (BCD) to resume physical hearings. The bar leaders had insisted that courts must re-open as many lawyers, unable to afford computers/laptops and internet connections, have been left stranded without earnings due to the shutdown and virtual hearings.
Late last month, similar demands from bar association leaders had prompted the Supreme Court to consider limited physical hearing of cases on a trial basis. However, a measly 0.87% of advocates agreed to appear in person to argue cases.
The Supreme Court registry had displayed a list of 517 regular cases and 170 miscellaneous petitions and sought consent from counsel engaged by litigants for physical hearing. “Only in six of the total 687 cases, lawyers from both sides have consented for physical hearing,” a registry source had said.
On Saturday, the court issued a note saying “most of the advocates, whose matters were listed before the benches constituted for physical hearing, expressed their inability, reluctance or unwillingness to appear physically and requests, in large number, were received for taking up the matters through video conferencing…. The physical appearances were largely before the single benches, exercising criminal jurisdiction whereas the appearance before the other benches was relatively low.”
It said that the figures “emphatically revealed” that video-conferencing was the preferred mode of hearing for lawyers at present. Coupled with the spread of Covid-19, the judges decided that from September 15, only one division bench and two singlejudge benches on rotation will sit every day to take up cases in physical mode.
High court’s data also revealed that single benches handling criminal cases had seen the maximum footfalls during the first 10 days of September. In these cases, around 43% lawyers and litigants came to court for a hearing. On Friday (September 11), out of more than 320 urgent hearing requests, lawyers in only 11 cases had agreed to physical hearings while the rest had opted for VC. The same day also saw 163 matters/applications filed where just five cases were those where lawyers agreed to appear physically.
Till now, two division benches and three single-judge benches were holding physical courts on a rotational basis.
The high court in its release also disclosed that regular medical camps were organised in the high court as well as district courts for Covid-19 testing where 45 officials of the court (including contractual and outsourced staff) and 192 officers/officials of district courts have already tested positive. The UCO Bank branch situated in the high court building has been shut after three of its officials tested positive.
Despite the adverse circumstances, the full court decided not to discontinue the functioning of physical courts altogether, the note said. Meanwhile, in separate directions issued by the Chief Justice, all district judges have been asked to review the requirement of the number of physical courts in their districts and to send a report to the committee constituted for prepare a graded action plan.
The committee headed by the most senior judge, Justice Hima Kohli, was set up by the Chief Justice in April to put in place a “phased/graded restoration to normalcy plan” for courts in Delhi. It had soon received representations from several quarters including the High Court Bar Association and from the bar associations of the district courts for resumption of physical functioning.
In response to one such representation, the court registrar general had underlined that resuming physical functioning of courts in such times is not an easy decision, “since courts are places where a large body of people congregate, which includes litigants, advocates, clerks, court staff and judges.”


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