The nationwide lockdown implemented on March 25th due to COVID19 bought the working of all institutions to a standstill. Supreme Court, the apex court of India has also been hampered by this pandemic but opened up with a virtual way of functioning with the use of video conferencing but with reduced strength. With so many significant cases standing by to be heard, it really highlights the importance of a scientific approach in delivering justice and why the lack of it could be the reason for not delivering justice.
There is the challenge of the annulment of Jammu and Kashmir’s exceptional status and the decision to recognize it as a union territory. There are many petitions in relation to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which resulted in fights in many parts of India. Also, there is the electoral bond case that addresses the opaque mechanism related to the funding of elections in India.
According to data by the Indian Express, from 23rd March to 1st May,
“43 benches were designated for main matters and 73 benches for review petitions. The number of matters heard was 538, apart from 297 connected matters, sources said. Judgments were delivered in 57 matters that had been reserved or were Curia advisari vult and another 268 connected matters “comprising all categories of matters”. In addition, 58 prayers for interim relief and mentioning were heard. A total of 49 special leave petitions, 92 writ petitions, and 138 review petitions were disposed of.” (Chishti)
But most of these verdicts are given on connected matters, involving petitions related to the same cases clubbed together. Although there are thirty-four judges, including chief justice hardly a bench or two have functioned on a regular basis. The longer the delay in giving key decisions on important constitutional cases, the firmer the new decision would take place in the society, and questioning it then might not be fruitful.
It is quite evident that over the most recent two months, the greatest effect of the lockdown has been on poor people, kids, and migrant laborers, Dalits, women, transgender, Adivasis, sex laborers, and other oppressed segments of the society. They comprise over 70% of our populace. In the event that the Courts can’t do anything for those, who in this national emergency are jobless and without sufficient food or safe house, it shows how at the moment the judiciary hardly is conveying equity. The judiciary has its own confinements yet this can’t pardon or legitimize its complete inability to try and help these underestimated segments or a significant number of whom, who are dying because of hunger.
On March 23 they guided each state and Union Territories to choose High Powered Committees to make proposals concerning the release of certain under-trials and convicts for the time of lockdown. Perhaps because of the weight of answering to the Supreme Court such High Powered Committees were comprised and countless detainees were discharged. One may address whether an adequate number of detainees have been discharged or not, however, the way that the fact that states got enacted due to the Supreme Court can’t be denied. This was a living case of what some legal pushing could accomplish.
On April 13, when the issue came up once more, the Supreme Court likewise coordinated that those in detention centres in Assam ought to be discharged following 2 and not 3 years of detainment and also, the bond/guarantee sum was decreased from a prior Rs 1, 00,000 to simply Rs. 5,000. This was a reasonable and welcome approach intervention by the Supreme Court
This was, however, an exception. In other issues, the Supreme Court failed. The initial reluctance of the Court can be put down on the reason that they might be uncertain that when the pandemic will end and had a wait-and-see attitude, but as weeks passed by and the situation worsened out, the ignorance of the Supreme Court cannot be supported by these excuses. It was obvious that there are a huge number of people starving and pregnant women and children who were walking hundreds of kilometres to get home, and the refusal of the Supreme Court to intervene cannot be taken as a delayed response rather a complete abdication of responsibility. If suo motu action could be taken about prison congestion much before the lockdown started, surely similar suo motu actions could and should have been taken on issues of food and migrant workers.
The petitions that were recorded related to the pandemic where not because of how people are dying due to COVID but were filed because these poor people lost their job, had less amount of food and basic necessities, and how there was a lack in planning for their sustenance during this pandemic. Without a doubt, this situation was unforeseen by everyone, including the Government, but the response by the Supreme Court to these situations was not acceptable.
Some of the High Courts showed more courage than they showed during the 1975-77 emergency but, not all High Court judges have reacted with similar activism and there are numerous decisions of numerous High Courts that basically follow the example set by the Supreme Court. Conceivably, Covid-19 is the darkest stage throughout the entire existence of the Supreme Court when it relinquished its obligation towards a huge number of marginalized individuals and this record will take some beating in the decades to come.
Chishti, Seema. “116 Benches of Supreme Court Heard 835 Matters during Lockdown.” The Indian Express, 4 May 2020, indianexpress.com/article/india/india-coronavirus- lockdown-supreme-court-matters 6392423/#:%7E:text=Figures%20accessed%20by%20The%20Indian,297%20connected%20matters%2C%20sources%20said.&text=A%20total%20of%2049%20special,re view%20petitions%20were%20disposed%20of.
This blog is written by Amrit Rathi, Jindal Global Law School
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