COVID Impact On Legal System: What Should Be The Way Forward ?
Following declaration of nationwide lockdown and other preventive measures to confront COVID-19 pandemic some interesting facets have come to light as regards the working of the judicial forums from the magisterial court to the Supreme Court of India. It is a very interesting experience to see that custody of criminals is no more important for the state and the criminal law enforcement agencies. Similarly, urgency for obtaining interlocutory orders, which the common man perceives as a ‘stay order’, seems to have sublimated.
After ‘Janata Curfew’ on March 22, it was seen across the country that the police and other civil law enforcement agencies were more geared up to enforce social distancing than wait for a PCR call for recording some crime. Except the stress of the infection, the police force had no stress of any law and order situation. In my memory I can’t recollect a time like this when there was no enforcement of traffic rules because there was no traffic on the road and the routine parade and ritual of carting the under trial prisoners (UTPs) from the jails to the courtroom was conspicuous by its absence. The gates of lower courts, where UTPs used to be herded in, were closed and it looked as if they had not been opened last for 100 years.
Interestingly, there was no news reporting regarding any burglary, theft or crime against human body save a few videos where police beating of lockdown violators were being streamed on social media. I guess it was a crime-free period for the country though the reason maybe something other than Ramarajya. Fear had taken over human instincts of aggression and it was more effective than the khaki of the police force.
The unnoticed menace of overcrowding of Indian prisons proved a boon this time to UTPs and convicts of smaller offences as the states were compelled to release them sometimes without any cumbersome and lengthy process of application for parole or sometimes with an application. This exposed the lack of correctional infrastructure of the country as a whole because the state governments apprehended that the jails might become COVID centres and they would not be able to provide medical assistance to the inmates. This very well indicated that substantial portion of the UTPs, who are languishing in jails for long periods, can be enlarged and social correction measures would be more effective than putting them behind the bars.
The Supreme Court’s persistent view for speedy trial, which though pronounced, has been a far cry and is one of the reasons for overcrowding of Indian prisons. From the human rights point of view this exposes lack of adequate and proper medical infrastructure in the jails and it directly hits Article 21 of the Constitution’s “right to life” of an UTP as well as of a convict to possess it with dignity though curtailed by the application of statutory provisions as established by law. The lawyers on the criminal side lost some substantial professional work due to COVID impact.
COVID-19 has sublimated the immediate urgency of interim relief from the High Court and the Supreme Court. With the virtual courts only functioning, around 80% of the daily judicial workload has disappeared. The Supreme Court is functioning at 15–20% of its strength on the judicial side with 4 to 10 judges presiding out of present strength of 32 judges and the litigation load is around 10% to 15% of the usual list of business on a daily basis. In the apex court, the corridors look deserted; it seems no one is interested for the ‘stay’ which comes as a prize on a miscellaneous day for the litigant and the lawyer.
I wonder as to where has the endless haste writ large on the foreheads of the ever-busy lawyers gone? The entry pass counters are waiting for the filled-in forms. It is a matter of realisation that litigation urgency is more virtual than real; now I recollect the soft ‘there is no urgency’ whisper of the judges. Even the judges, who usually have extremely stressful workload, would have recouped some of their energy in this COVID-19 suspension of judicial work.
In the near future the judicial forums will have to develop, adopt and adapt new patterns of work culture. Restricted entry to all court and judicial forum premises would reduce overcrowding. Hygiene and sanitation of the premises would also be a priority for the judicial administration and should be strictly followed. Technology would have to substitute manpower and court tourism of few chronic litigants would also have to be curtailed. Hygiene at the lowest level has to be meticulously implemented because it is the place where a citizen has the first interaction with judicial forum and these places due to lack of proper infrastructure suffer from inhuman working conditions. In a nation of 137 crore the lower courts have very poor infrastructure and the states need to address this issue.
Now at least the government needs to spare a thought to the non-planned sector of police and jails, which also get impacted but usually go unnoticed. These are clear cases of violation of human rights and the state has to be sensitive to these issues as life of every individual is precious and needs to be safeguarded at all costs. The trial court magistrates and judges dealing with petty offences should now explore the possibility of imposing community service rather than jail custody of small duration as this should help reforming small and petty first-time offenders. The tax paid by the overburdened taxpayers could possibly be better allocated.