The COVID-19 imposed curbs continued to affect the functioning of the Court in April. These restrictions, imposed on March 16, mean that the Court is functioning at a drastically reduced capacity (both on the administrative and judicial side).
Despite the limitations, the Court took up a number of COVID-19 related Public Interest Litigations (PILs). Of note was the Court’s decision to relax the conditions for release of detainees convicted under the Foreginers Act. In another significant order, the Court modified one of its previous orders and held that free COVID testing in private labs will be limited to Ayushman Bharat beneficiaries.
On 18 April, in an important move, the Court decided to hear more types of matters, other than just “extremely urgent” matters. Specifically, the Court announced that "short category matters, death penalty matters and matters related to family law" may be listed for hearing through video conferencing mode. In addition, the Court also announced that it will take up by Curative and Review Petitions ready for hearing by "Circulation in-Chambers".
In non-COVID news, the Court delivered judgments in cases relating to 100% reservation for Scheduled Tribe teachers and making NEET mandatory for all medical institutions, including minority ones.
Relaxation of conditions for release of detainees: On 23 March, the Court had directed all States/Union Territories to form High Powered Committees to determine the class of prisoners who can be released on parole or an interim bail. The Court’s direction came in light of its concern that the novel coronavirus may easily spread in overcrowded prisons.
On 13 April, when the matter was taken up again, the Court heard an intervention application regarding prisoners who have been declared as foreigners under the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946. The applicants sought for the release of persons who had served long periods of time in detention centres.
In particular, it sought for the modification and implementation of the Court's order on 10 May 2019, wherein certain conditions were imposed for release of detainees who had served a long time in detention centres. The applicants asked the Court to relax some of these conditions in light of the COVID-19 situation. In particular, they requested the Court to allow the release of prisoners who have been in detention for only two years. Further, it requested the Court to reduce the value of the bond from 1 lakh to 5,000 rupees. The bond must have two sureties of the specified sum. The Court agreed to these relaxations.
Free testing in private labs only for Ayushman Bharat beneficiaries: On 8 April, a Bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and SR Bhat had directed both government and privately owned labs to make COVID-19 tests available free of cost. In a significant reversal, on 13 April, the Bench modified its order and held that such free testing in private labs need only be made available to those who are eligible under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana ('Ayushman Bharat Yojana').
The question of who will compensate the private labs was left open by the Court in its previous order. In its modified order, the Court left it to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to issue appropriate guidelines in this regard.
Court issues video conferencing guidelines: On 5 April, a Bench comprising the Chief Justice, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice L Nageswara Rao took suo motu cognisance of the need for uniform guidelines to govern video conferencing in courts across India.
On 6 April, it resorted to its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution to issue guidelines to implement video conferencing and other measures in courts across India. In its order, it emphasised that courts must strike a balance between preventing the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring access to justice.
Court strikes down 100% reservation in Scheduled Areas: On 22 April, a Constitution bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran, MR Shah and Anirudha Bose struck down a notification of the Andhra Pradesh Governor providing 100% reservation in Scheduled Areas to teachers belonging to Scheduled Tribes. Through this judgment - Chebrolu Leela Prasad Rao and Ors. v. State of AP and Ors. - the Court overturned the decision of the Andhra Pradesh High Court which had upheld the validity of the notification.
NEET applicable to minority institutions: In another significant Fundamental Rights judgment – Christian Medical College Vellore Association v. Union of India and Ors. – the Court held that the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) did not violate the rights of minority institutions under the Constitution.
NEET was introduced in 2013 as a single, national level entrance examination for admission to medical and dental courses. Minority institutions had challenged it on the ground that it went against their right to administer educational institutions under Article 30 and also their freedom of occupation and trade under Article 19(1)(g).
Other than tracking the Court, we have added a wide range of content to the website in April. In the 'Judges' section, we have added the updated biographies of Justice Subhash Reddy, Justice Surya Kant, Justice BR Gavai and Justice Indira Banerjee.
In the ‘Court Data’ section, we first did an audit of the reasons given by the Supreme Court while rejecting RTI requests placed before it. We also did a deep dive into the effect that COVID-19 has had on Court’s output in the lockdown period. In our final Court Data piece for the month, we looked at how the Court’s registry has increased in size over the last decade and if it has any co-relation with the Court’s pendency.
In our ‘About the Court’ section, we added the procedure involved in the selection of judges to the Court, case allocation to them and the controversies which have riddled the Court on these matters.