The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Thursday dismissed a plea by an advocate to resume physical hearings in Courts and the reopen lawyer's chambers (Ukkarapandiyan v. The Registrar, Administration and anr).
The order passed by the Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice S Ananthi also made several observation criticising the decision to move such a plea given the present COVID-19 situation in the country.
"This is an ill-advised and utterly meaningless petition made by an uniformed advocate and against public interest," the Court said, going on to record that the petition has been filed requiring courts to open so that the petitioner's business may flourish.
"The petitioner must be reminded that the entirety of the restrictions clamped by the State following the lockdown imposed in the wake of the second surge of the pandemic has not been lifted. There is no conclusive scientific opinion as on date as to when a third or subsequent surge may arrive and the number of positive cases have been going up in a neighbouring State at an alarming level over last few days," the Court further observed.
In such a situation, the Bench recounted that the Court has continuously warned that one must err on the side of caution in the public interest and to safeguard the health of all concerned.
"As it is, there is the experience of the havoc that was wreaked by the second surge of pandemic since the country was caught unaware. Experts advice that the only protection is for vaccination to be completed so that even if the virus attacks an individually the chance of fatality would stand reduced," the order further said.
Nevertheless, the Bench pointed out that courts in Tamil Nadu, including the Madras High Court, have been substantially open. Some form of physical hearing is also made possible upon permission being granted, it was noted.
"As far as virtual hearing is concerned, the performance at Madurai appears to be much better than at the Principal Bench", dictated Chief Justice Banerjee, who will be sitting at the Madurai Bench today and tomorrow.
The Court dismissed the case, observing:
"By and large, the substantial part of the working day is taken up by judges sitting in court, if not the entire of the working hours, without the board being completed in certain cases. In light of the above, uniformed petitions of the present kind are evidently avoidable, if only to allow the court to concentrate on matters which require attention and not waste time on frivolous and the fanciful ... The petitioner should exercise extreme restraint before invoking this extraordinary jurisdiction in public interest in the future."
Thought the advocate made an oral request to at least consider re-opening lawyer's chambers, the Court declined to accede to the same.
In its order, the Court also acknowledged that not all persons may have access to smartphones or laptops or other gadgets to participate in virtual hearings, particularly parties intending to appear in person.
However, it was pointed out that maters are being taken up and disposed of on a regular basis without dismissal for default or ex parte orders being made.
On a related note, a day earlier, another Bench headed by Chief Justice Banerjee adjourned a hearing in another case despite the petitioner not appearing in the matter for the third straight time. The Court had proceeded to order, "since it is possible that the petitioner may not be able to access on the virtual mode, let the petition appear eight weeks hence."
Interestingly, newly appointed Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju had said on July 25 that that he will speak to the Chief Justices of High Courts to ensure that physical hearings are restarted considering the fact that COVID situation has improved.
He had emphasised virtual hearing of cases by courts cannot be a substitute for physical hearings.