How Litigation has changed amid the Covid-19 crisis in the country

The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus across the globe has resulted in a plethora of changes being implemented by nations trying to cope with the new reality of living and surviving amid this crisis.

The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus across the globe has resulted in a plethora of changes being implemented by nations trying to cope with the new reality of living and surviving amid this crisis. India too had brought about several new policies and changes in order to deal with the threat of this virus consuming the population and with it, the economy as a whole.

Although this may necessitate the creation of a specialized advisory vertically focused on guiding businesses in navigating various challenges that will come up- both in the long term, and the short term; the proactive steps taken by Courts, both in India and abroad, have made it comparatively easier to effectively strategize and manage Litigation. In particular, after the order passed by the Government of India imposing a complete nation-wide lockdown for 21 days beginning 25th March, 2020, courts have revolutionized the conduction of hearings in India. Till now, about 25 cases have been recorded as being conducted or to be conducted via virtual video conferencing, although this may go up in the near future.

Therefore, in consonance with the world’s efforts to curb the spread of this virus, India has changed the way it conducts court proceedings completely. Keeping in mind the growing number of cases in India, our judicial system has undertaken some remarkable steps in order to control the spread of this virus while making sure that legal procedures and remedies are still made available during this time of a global pandemic. Many courts and tribunals in our country have been partially suspended with only urgent hearings being carried out in order to ensure that no human interaction is made possible. Several courts and tribunals have also issued directions for the closing down of filing counters and advocates chambers. Due to this current scenario, the Supreme Court of India has also decided to promote visual court proceedings, e-filing etc. in order to prevent lawyers from coming to courts which will ensure that there is full cooperation amongst all individuals towards maintaining the lockdown orders and social distancing norms.

The several changes which have been implemented by the Indian judiciary have been enumerated below for further reference:
  1. Extension of limitation periods in preferring appeals before the Apex Court
 
Keeping in mind the need to alter the way litigation is to be conducted in India, a three-judge bench comprising of Chief Justice S A Bobde, Justice L. Nageswara Rao and Justice Surya Kant, has exercised its power granted under Article 142 read with Article 141 of the Constitution of India and extended the period of limitation for filing appeals, petitions, suits and all other proceedings in Courts and Tribunals owing to this serious outbreak of the pandemic. This has been done to ensure that any lapses that occur during this period of lack of human contact can be remedied and justified under the law as a lapse occurring due to the present crisis.

The Hon'ble Apex Court has extended the period of limitation in the filing of petitions, appeals, suits, applications and all other proceedings after taking suo moto cognizance of the current situation in the country and the challenges being faced by the lawyers to come to the courts physically for filing of petitions, applications, suits, appeals and all other proceedings within the period of limitation prescribed under the general law of limitation or Special Laws (both Central and/or State).

Article 142 of the Constitution of India gives inherent power to the Supreme Court of India to pass any such decree or order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it.  Further, Article 141 states that the decision of the Supreme Court would be binding upon other courts in India.

The Hon'ble Court vide Order dated 23.03.2020 has directed as under:-

"it is hereby ordered that a period of limitation in all such proceedings, irrespective of the limitation prescribed under the general law or Special Laws whether condonable or not shall stand extended w.e.f. 15th March 2020 till further order/s to be passed by this Court in present proceedings".

Appeals, Petitions, Suits or any other proceeding which are to be time-barred if not filed before the respective Courts or Tribunals shall be deemed to have been extended in this present situation until the Hon'ble Court passes any further order.
  1. Interim Orders extended till 15.05.2020
This is another move made by the Delhi High Court keeping in mind the difficulties being faced due to the present scenario and the lack of sufficient legal remedies available in the country. Thus, the Hon'ble Delhi High Court vide an order dated 25.03.2020 has directed that the interim orders passed by the High Courts and any other court subordinate to it, which were subsisting as on 16.03.2020 and expired or will expire after 16.03.2020 shall stand automatically extended till 15.05.2020 until further order. The Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the situation that due to the lockdown, routine matters have been adjourned to particular dates in the month of April 2020 as advocates were not in a position to appear in their matters including the matters in which stay, bail and parole have been granted by the Courts.
  1. Digital hearing of cases:-
The norms of social distancing have led us to adapt to technology and its various methods of aiding us in the legal arena. Keeping this in mind, the Supreme Court of India has set the ball rolling for the first of its kind proposal of digital hearings in order to hear important cases from the respective judges’ chambers. This comes at a time when the country is facing a lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak and human contact has been avoided as much as possible.

Apart from a few select cases, the apex court is likely to postpone all hearings due to the rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the country. Moving forward, the courts will hear cases via video-conferences in urgent matters.

The court said that there will be no more in-person hearings until further orders. “The Court will conduct video-conferencing to hear extremely urgent matters and a bench of two judges will be available for this.”

CJI S A Bobde said, “I will take a call by today itself on possible shutdown or preponing summer vacation, as demanded by lawyer bodies.” Further, the Supreme Court has ordered the lawyers’ chambers inside the Court premises to be closed down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“All lawyers' chambers in and around SC premises to be sealed by Tuesday evening,” the apex court said.

The apex court has also said that there will be no more in-person hearings until further orders regarding the same. The Court shall conduct video-conferencing to hear extremely urgent matters and a bench of two judges will be available for this. Amid the top court directions and restricted on its functioning to just urgent cases at least 415 confirmed cases of Covid-19 virus have surfaced in the country.The Supreme Court Bar Association and Supreme Court Advocates On Record Association have passed resolutions urging the Chief Justice to halt the functioning of the top court.

Meanwhile, the apex court has barred any gathering of lawyers in top court premises till further orders. All proximity cards (entry cards) to dissuade lawyers from coming to court are likely to be cancelled. Also amid suspension of all transportation services across NCR advocates from Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurugram would not be able to reach the Supreme Court, which also means that in these cases the hearing is likely to be postponed.
  1. Dress-Code changes implemented:-
Owing to the present condition of virtual hearings and digitalized legal proceedings, the courts have allowed for a more relaxed dress code for lawyers appearing in such digitized hearings. This Coronavirus outbreak has changed the dress code for lawyers while appearing for virtual court hearings! As the Coronavirus outbreak has only escalated in India, the Supreme Court decide to relax the dress code for all advocates as a measure to contain the spread of the COVID-19 infection. The website of the Supreme Court of India has provided the notification dated 13th May 2020. According to this latest Supreme Court notification related to the dress code of lawyers, all lawyers can now make their appearance in virtual hearings without the mandatory black gown as well as the coat. This simply means that the advocates do not have to wear their professional black robes or even the coats during virtual court hearings.
 
Now, the lawyers are allowed to wear plain white-shirts or white salwar kameez/ saree along with a plain white neck band while appearing for the virtual court hearings. The court further said that it has released this after taking some medical advice in consideration and this will remain in practice until further orders. The directions have come into force with immediate effect, as the notification stated.

Conclusion:

Health and safety are everyone's priority today as COVID-19's unprecedented impact continues to grow each day. Needless to say, the outbreak of Covid-19 has left its impact on litigation and arbitration in various ways, ranging from an increased use of remote hearings to general court closures, depending upon the countries and institutions concerned. With a view to ensure minimal disruptions, courts around the world have swiftly embraced technology, including mandatory electronic filing, restricting hearings to only critical cases and conducting them through video conferencing.

The outbreak of the novel Covid-19 virus has affected the process of litigation in our country in multiple ways and has thereby crippled the courts across the country as judges, advocates and litigants are trying to achieve justice under the law while balancing public safety and health. The rapid spread of this virus has led to the closing down of Courts and Tribunals in the country in order to avoid human association and to curb the spread of novel coronavirus in the country via social distancing norms. However, the Central Government and the Judiciary have undertaken multiple steps to provide relief to the people who are facing the backlash of this unprecedented challenge. Even though the courts have been shut down, the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India as well as high courts and several trial courts have decided to take up urgent matters via virtual techniques so that the advocates and litigants don't have to appear physically in the court in this present situation and legal remedies are still made available to the citizen of the country. The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India has also directed the respective Bars to promote virtual proceedings and e-filing in order to transition from physically filing documents and thereby paving the way for a new procedure of conducting litigation entirely. Even the Courts have taken due cognizance of the fact that it is extremely difficult for lawyers to present before the Courts as they wil not only be endangering themselves but also others through their physical presence in the area. The time limit for filing of appeals, petitions, etc has been extended along with the period of limitation until its further order. With this, hopes to fight against coronavirus and put an estoppel on its widening territorial jurisdiction has been raised amongst the citizens and the law makers and it is a revolutionary move as far as revamping court procedures is concerned.

However, this new regime poses its own set of issues since the courts are trying to have the virtual hearings as far as possible, but virtual hearings aren’t as easy as they seem and pose a big challenge, particularly for trial courts, where thousands of matters are listed before one particular district court. Moreover, the systems for handling such large number of cases through videoconferencing isn’t not well equipped. And lastly, most of the lawyers, particularly in district courts are not technology friendly which in turn is a huge problem for ensuring a longevity within this new regimen.