(We will keep updating this post as and when new measures are announced/developments take place. This post is n reverse chronology)
Two PILs seeking basic amenities for migrant workers stranded in various parts of the country due to the lock down were taken up by a Bench consisting of the Chief Justice and Justice L Nageswara Rao on 30 March. Upon hearing the petitioners, the Court directed the Union to inform it of the steps adopted to take care of these stranded workers. One of the petitions - Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India - seeks the following relief from the Court: "direct the local administration/ police authorities across India to immediately identify such moving/ stranded migrant workers and to immediately shift them to the nearest government shelter homes/ accommodations with proper food, water, medicines and under medical supervision, in a dignififed manner, till the present Coronavirus Lockdown continues."
The Union was then directed to file its report by 31 March.
On 31 March, the Union filed a status report, apprising the Court of the various measures it had taken to help the stranded migrant labourers. Some of the important steps adopted by the Union, as per the Report, include:
Upon satisfying itself of the steps taken by the Union, the Court passed a few directions. In particular, it noted that 'migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down would continue for more than three months'. In light of this, the Bench directed the Government of India to release a daily bulletin through all media avenues, including social media, to clear people's doubts. The Bench also suggested that all media outlets carry the official version of COVID-19 related developments.
The Bench also directed the Union to deploy trained counsellors and/or community group leaders in the shelter camps where the migrant labourers are put up. The matter was then directed to be listed on 7 April.
On 23 March, the Court issued a new circular, further reducing its functioning. In effect Benches will only be constituted to hear matters of "extreme urgency". Here's a breakdown of the key take-aways:
In its third major judicial intervention, the Court held that the time period for filing of cases before all courts/tribunals shall stand extended. Typically, if an individual/entity has a grievance/cause over which he wants to approach a court/tribunal for relief, the same is to be done within a prescribed time frame. Such time frame is referred to as the period of ‘limitation’. With this order of the Court, the clock on such time period has been paused with effect from 15 March, till such time the Court passes a further direction.
It may be recalled that the Court had, on 16 March, expressed its apprehension over what may happen if COVID-19 were to affect the already overcrowded prisons and remand homes. In this regard, it had directed the relevant State Government and prison authorities to file a report with details of measures taken to contain a potential outbreak.
On 23 March, the Cour took stock of the reports filed and issued certain additional directions. It noted that State Governments had already taken substantive measures. Such measures include creation of isolation wards, quarantine of new prisoners including prisoners of foreign nationality for a specific period, preliminary examination of prisoners for COVID-19, ensuring availability of medical assistance, scanning of staff and other service providers at entry points, sanitisation and cleanliness exercise of prison campus and wards, supply of masks, barring or limiting of personal visits to prisoners, suspension of cultural and other group activities, awareness and training with regard to stoppage of transmission of COVID-19 and court hearings through video conferencing, among others.
After noting the measures already taken, the Court went on to issue certain additional directions. Some of the important directions include:
In order to address the issue of over-crowding, the Court directed the setting up of a High Powered Committee. Such committee shall consist of (i) Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, (ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) by whatever designation they are known, and (ii) Director General of Prison(s). This committee will have the discretion to decide which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for a period of time it finds appropriate.
Although the class of prisoners who may be released was left to the Committee's discretion, it gave certain broad guidelines which shall be taken into account while taking such a decision. For instance, the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced, the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial may be taken into account. Furthermore, the Undertrial Committee set up by the Court in In re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, (2016) 3 SCC 700 shall meet every week and take appropriate decision on the question of interim bail and parole, in consultation with the High Powered Committee.
States which have not yet filed their reports have been directed to file them within three weeks, when the matter is expected to be heard again.
On 22 March, the Court decided to reduce its functioning even further. On the same day, the Court also instituted a bench to hear urgent matters. These decisions come amid the deployment of more stringent measures by the executive to tackle COVID-19.
Two important notifications were issued by the Court on 22 March, Sunday. The first one was issued with a view to further reduce the number of benches hearing cases. Thus, on 23 March, only two benches will take up matters. The first one, presided over by the Chief Justice and Justices L Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, will hear eight cases starting from 11 am. Once this bench finishes hearing, another bench comprising the Chief Justice and Justice DY Chandrachud will assemble and hear two more matters. This bench though will not hear the lawyers in person. Instead, the lawyers will make their submissions through the video conferencing facility arranged within the Court premises.
Following the decision to cut down on the number of benches, the benches comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Deepak Gupta and MR Shah, as well as the one consisting of Justices SK Kaul, KM Joseph and Sanjiv Khanna will no longer hear cases, as they were originally expected to.
As per the second notification, starting 25 March, a two-judge bench will be available to hear extremely urgent matters. Whether or not a matter is urgent enough to be heard by this Bench will be decided by the Presiding Judge of the Bench. The Presiding Judge will make this decision based on a written submission by the lawyers who wish to have their matters heard. In their submission, lawyers will have to justify the urgency.
On 18 March, Court decided to take judicial note of another impending Corona related crisis. It noted that since most schools and Anganwadis were being shut, children and lactating mothers may be deprived of nutritional food. Under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, school students and lactating mothers are eligible for nutritional food through these institutions.
Court expressed its concern that inability to access mid-day meals may lead to malnourishment among those who are dependent on it, especially lactating and nursing mothers in rural and tribal areas. Given this, it directed all States to come up with a uniform policy to ensure that mid-day meals are continued.
The matter is now listed for 27 March for the reply of State Governments.
Outside of the administrative measures, the Court also took suo motu judicial cognizance of the threat posed by the epidemic in prisons in India. In its 16 March Order, the Court acknowledged that ‘social-distancing’ – a critical measure in the fight against spread of the disease– was difficult to enforce in the overcrowded Indian prisons.
In light of this, the Court directed that any prisoner diagnosed with COVID-19 virus should be immediately quarantined and subjected to medical treatment. The Court also expressed its appreciation for the measures taken by the Kerala Prisons Department as well as the authorities of Tihar jail for already initiating measures like testing new inmates and isolating them for a few days before they join the rest of the prison population.
The Court has directed the concerned authorities of all states to submit in writing the measures taken to prevent the possible spread of the disease among prisoners/juveniles. The matter is now expected to come up on 23 March.
Soon thereafter, on 14 March, the Assistant Registrar came up with a slew of measures meant to limit crowding of the Court. For instance, lawyers and litigants can request the registry to not list their matters till such time the pandemic related restrictions are eased.
Another measure which is being mulled by the Court is to encourage electronic filing of documents and also participate in proceedings via videoconferencing. Nevertheless, no official notification has been issued in this regard till date.
Other measures put in place include the closing down of the cafeterias, suspension of guided tours, sanitization of common areas etc.
On Friday, 13 March, the Secretary General of the Supreme Court notified that the Court will function at a reduced capacity from 16 March. This was in view of the advisory issued by the Government of India and the World Health Organization against mass public gatherings to avoid the spread of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
A two-level pruning of the Court proceedings was put in place through this notification. One, the Court is now only taking up ‘urgent matters’. Second, entry to the court room is restricted to a select group of people. Thus, only those lawyers who are ‘acting’ in the matter – arguing or making oral submissions or assisting such counsels - along with one litigant are being allowed inside.
Image: "Influenza virus" by Sanofi Pasteur is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND)