CJI orders tweaking of SOP to permit virtual hearings on Wednesdays, Thursdays if benches convinced



NEW DELHI: Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana is learnt to have directed the Supreme Court Registry on Thursday to tweak the standard operating procedures (SOP) to allow virtual hearing of cases even on Wednesdays and Thursdays, earmarked for hearing through physical mode only, if judges are convinced.

The decision to tweak the SOP has been taken by the CJI who along with other senior judges met Attorney General K K Venugopal, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, and senior advocates Kapil Sibal, C U Singh, and SCBA President Vikas Singh, and BCI Chairperson Manan Kumar Mishra in the afternoon, a source said.

Recently, the apex court had come out with the revised SOP saying all the matters listed on Wednesdays and Thursdays would be heard in the physical presence of lawyers and litigants in courtrooms only.

“After hearing out the concerns at length, the CJI, taking the sense of the meeting, directed the apex court’s registry to tweak a part of the latest SOP (of October 5),” a source said.

“After some time the whole thing (including the mode of hearing) will be reviewed,” the source said.

The bench concerned may hear cases virtually on Wednesdays and Thursdays once it is convinced that valid reasons are being cited for this by the lawyers and litigants and accordingly the term “for any reason has been ordered to be incorporated in one of the SOPs.”

“If Hon’ble Bench is of the view that in a particular matter listed on non-miscellaneous days, the number of Counsels is more than the working capacity of the Court-room, as per Covid-19 norms, the Registry will facilitate hearing of such matters through video/teleconferencing/hybrid mode,” reads the SOP, which will now be tweaked.

Earlier in the day, the CJI said that he will take a call on all the issues including the mode of the hearing, and welcomed lawyers for appearing physically.

The apex court, which first switched to the virtual and then hybrid mode of hearing after March 2020 due to the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, Thursday resumed the physical hearing of cases for the first time and will continue with it on Wednesdays and Thursdays till further orders.

“You see, it has been two years almost,” the CJI said when senior advocates Rakesh Dwivedi and Ranjit Kumar thanked him for taking steps to resume physical hearings of cases.

The CJI said that a decision on mode of hearing will be taken up after Diwali vacation and the glass partition, set up between the dais and the lawyer’s area because of strict COVID protocols, may be dismantled.

“We wait for the day when these glass walls will be removed,” Dwivedi said.

“It will be removed after Diwali,” the CJI responded.

Another bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud expressed happiness over the resumption of physical hearing and said: “We are happy to see you all. You cannot imagine how lonely it is to see the screen every morning.”

“It is so good to see all the faces who bring joy and sunshine intellectually. Let us hope that we keep seeing the faces physically,” he said.

Several senior lawyers including Kapil Sibal and C U Singh have differing views on the mode of hearing with bar leaders such as Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President and senior advocate Vikas Singh and BCI chairperson Manan Kuma Mishra.

While some senior lawyers, including Venugopal and Sibal, wanted a hybrid mode of hearing to continue on all days, the bar leaders such as Singh, BCI chairperson wanted the physical hearing to commence on all working days.

The SCBA President said the “sero-positivity” rate of Delhi is more than 90 per cent as informed by Satyendra Jain, the health minister of the Delhi government and hence there was no impediment in opening the courts for physical hearing.

Earlier, the CJI had said that he will discuss with other judges the plea of a group of lawyers that the proposed hearing of cases through physical mode only on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Supreme Court be deferred till the Diwali vacation.

The observation had come after a group of senior lawyers including Kapil Sibal, Mukul Rohatgi, A M Singhvi, and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had mentioned the issue and had said that the revised SOP to have mandatory physical hearings on Wednesday and Thursday will create a lot of difficulties and hence the “hybrid mode”, having both the options of physical and video conferencing, be allowed.

Seeking the option of the hybrid mode of hearing on all working days, the senior lawyer had sought permission to meet the panel of judges on the issue.

The submission for a hybrid hearing was vehemently opposed by the SCBA President who had said that the senior lawyers should take a break but the courts should function in physical mode as many advocates are facing starvation.

Earlier, the apex court registry had come out with the revised SOP saying that from October 20, all the matters listed on Wednesdays and Thursdays would be heard in the physical presence of lawyers and litigants in courtrooms only.

In the fresh standard operating procedures (SOP), the apex court had said the decision was taken because of the encouraging response from the Bar.

The top court has been hearing cases through video conference since March last year due to the pandemic and several bar bodies and lawyers have been demanding that physical hearings should resume immediately.

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