New Delhi: All their life, senior lawyers appeared in the court physically to argue their cases. But they are now opposing the Supreme Court's decision to move away from virtual hearings – which are on since March 2020 -- to physical hearings just twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, senior advocate Kapil Sibal and many more senior lawyers have urged Chief Justice of India N V Ramana not to make the physical hearings mandatory.
The top court's decision to shift gears from virtual to physical hearings became a subject of heated debate on the very first day of the court’s reopening after Dushehra break on Wednesday.
The Supreme Court Bar Association, a registered body of lawyers practising in the Apex Court, has repeatedly urged the Chief Justice to revert to the physical mode of hearing, since the Covid-19 surge has receded.
Sibal argued that the physical hearings should not be made a "hard-and-fast rule." His logic was that some cases had records running into 50 to 60 volumes and the new rules allowing just one briefing lawyer inside the courtroom would affect proper legal representation of the matter.
Earlier, all lawyers concerned with different aspects of the petitions used to be in the courtroom to assist the senior lawyer, but the new standard protocol will allow only one lawyer to prevent crowding.
Chief Justice N V Ramana said the lawyers should not put the blame on him; also, they were clamouring that the court was "shirking" from physical hearings which was not true. This was the reason that the court was forced to modify its standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to make physical hearing mandatory on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The CJI said some of his colleagues still had reservations about the physical hearings, but the court went by the pleadings of the BAR. The modified SOP gives an option to the lawyers to opt for either physical or virtual mode on Tuesdays.
Sibal pleaded that further thought be given to physical hearings and any positive action on it should be deferred till after Deepavali, when the court goes on vacation in the first week of November.
Explaining that the decision on physical hearing was taken by a committee of judges set up by his predecessor S A Bobde, the CJI said Sibal's request had to be put before this committee. Sibal offered to meet the committee, along with other lawyers, later this week. The CJI agreed to place the issue before the other judges later in the day.
Supreme Court Bar Association President and senior advocate Vikas Singh objected to Sibal's plea, asserting that he was in favour of the physical hearings every day. “Many young lawyers are on the verge of starvation. Senior lawyers can take a break for six months. I am myself willing to take a break,” Singh submitted.
The CJI had said the court was apprehensive about crowded courtrooms exposing lawyers and staff to infection.
In the modified rules, therefore, there would be a 15-minute break at the discretion of the Bench during physical hearings. The courtrooms had to be vacated during this interval for being sanitised.
Lawyers would be called in a case one after the other. They can wait at the Bar lounges in the building for their cases to be called. This was to avoid crowds in the corridors, they were told.