HC to reduce physical benches in view of rising Covid-19 cases in Delhi

With Covid-19 cases on the rise in the national capital once again and several court staffers testing positive for the virus infection, the Delhi high court has decided to reduce the number of benches holding in-person hearings. The new roster is set to be implemented from September 15, sources in the know of the matter said.

On Saturday, Delhi reported 4,321 fresh cases of Covid-19, taking the city’s overall tally to 214,069. Delhi’s Covid count has risen exponentially ever since the government ramped up testing from the first week of September.

On September 1, the high court had started in-person hearings with five benches,which will now be reduced to three.The others will continue taking up matters through videoconferencing, the way they have done since the nationwide lockdown started on March 25.

The high court has so far reported 45 cases of Covid-19 from among its staffers, while the seven district courts have reported 192 cases in all. A bank branch situated within the high court complex had to be closed recently after three of its officials tested positive for Covid-19.

A recent feedback from advocates had revealed that nearly 84% of them preferred the virtual mode of hearings to physically appearing in court. This had prompted the court to consider reducing the number of benches.

“Most of the advocates, whose matters were listed before the benches constituted for in-person hearings, expressed their inability, reluctance or unwillingness to appear in person. We received a large number of requests for taking up matters through videoconferencing,” a high court official, privy to the decision, said.

The official pointed out that when physical hearings resumed on September 1, only five benches were holing hearings on a rotational basis. These included two division benches and three single judge benches. “The physical appearances were largely before the single benches…whereas the appearance before the other benches was relatively low,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

After deliberating over the issue, the judges and the chief justice decided that beginning September 15, physical hearings will be conducted only by three benches – one division bench and two single judge benches.

“Despite the adverse circumstances, the court has decided not to discontinue physical hearings altogether,” the official said.

Chief justice Naranbhai Patel has also directed the district and sessions judges to review the requirement physical courts in their respective districts.

However, not all advocates are in favour of virtual hearings. Dhan Mohan, a member executive of the Delhi High Court Bar Association, said there are multiple problems with virtual hearings.

“In these financially tough times, novice lawyers are forced to spend on purchasing laptops and other devices to be able to attend physical hearings. The hearings themselves are now of shorter duration and hurried as lawyers are afraid that their internet connectivity will be lost midway through the hearing. Due to network issues, judges are also unable to hear the lawyers completely,” Mohan said.

He, however, said once can’t do without virtual court at this juncture . “The pandemic is set to last for many more months and there are senior advocates and others who can’t risk an in-person appearance,” he said.

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