A Conspectus of the Indian Judicial Response to COVID-19

Judiciary is the strongest pillar of a Democracy. In customary times, the Constitution is of course of utmost importance, but it is in times of crisis that Constitution along with its mechanisms to enforce is tested, which is why in the contemporary circumstances, the role of judiciary becomes more important than ever. This article is about how the Courts have dealt with the various issues concerning Coronavirus and how our Courts have risen to the occasion and shown a humanitarian facet. The Supreme Court has over 200 judgments which iterate that our nation is a welfare state. In addition to this, there are a large number of directive principles which have been transfigured into statutes which therefore have acquired the status of implementable rights. Even before the lockdown became a reality, the Judiciary was far-sighted and way ahead in implementing precautionary measures, much before the Executive could foresee the situation.

THE ROLE OF MEDIA IN JUDICIAL ACTIVISM

Mass Media: Amicus Curiae for courts in the unceasing times of coronavirus outbreak.

Media is that tool of communication which aids in diffusing information, bringing to light the everyday events happening in our society. It helps in developing awareness. One of the vital role of Mass Media today is that the information is spread expeditiously via internet (social media), television, print media, etc which has allowed an easy access to news mere minutes after an event has taken place.

Mass media helps in fostering empathy due to which courts today rely on the credibility of the information coming from media outlets which has enlarged the scope of the Court’s power in exercising Suo Moto Cognizance. An Amicus Curiae is someone who is not a party to a case rather someone who assists a court by voluntarily offering insight, information etc that has a bearing on the issues in the case. In layman’s term, Amicus Curiae means friend of court. At present, the executive is so occupied trying to mitigate problems related to novel coronavirus, that at the ground level, the people who are facing the atrocities first hand due to it are not being looked after. The media is highlighting their issues, which is helping courts take Suo Moto cognizance. Before the media performs the role akin to an amicus curiae, there are two questions that arise. First, whether the Judiciary has the powers to tell the Executive what to do. What is the ambit of this power, if conferred? Second, what could the judiciary have done in unprecedented times like these? The Supreme Court has time and again stressed that it cannot fill-in its own wisdom for that of the executive and that it cannot impede in the matters of policy making. Nevertheless, the Judiciary has come a long way. There was a time when the Supreme Court was not able to rise to the occasion at the time of Emergency imposed in 1975, however this time around, when we are in Pandemic, the Supreme Court did. The unabridged purpose of Constitutional Courts is to oversee the decisions of the legislature and executive or what is called the Judicial Review. We had to come in terms with the situation where the whole country was under complete lockdown because of coronavirus, the Executive is making pompous claims, the media is constantly reporting major cases of starvation and monumental problem of migrant labourers. It has become definite that in the last two months, substantial impact of the lockdown has been on the Poverty-Stricken and Migrant Workers

Unprecedented times seek Unprecedented Measures: The Power of Suo Moto Cognizance of the Court during Covid-19 Pandemic: Supreme Court.

It is pertinent to mention how swiftly the Supreme Court of India assessed the need of the hour in the outbreak of Coronavirus crisis and cautioned how mass gathering could result in becoming a centre for its spread. Sans any precedent, the move to decongest the jails and other correctional homes has been the most significant suo-moto decision ever made by the Apex Court. As recently as on 26 May, 2020 a three judge bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan, at the Supreme Court of India took notes of the plight of migrant workers during the lockdown and the atrocities they are facing which galvanized the judges who observed “We take Suo Moto cognizance of problems and miseries of migrant labourers who have been stranded in different parts of the country. Newspaper reports and other media reports have been continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable condition of migrant labourers walking on foot and cycling long distances.” The bench said and remarked “the crisis pertaining to migrant labourers could be linked to lapses and inadequacies of the governments and that the need of the hour was to provide them free transport, shelter and food.”

DELHI HIGH COURT

On May 28, 2020 a Division bench at Delhi High Court took Suo Moto notice of the report in the newspapers, Delhi Edition noting the factual details in W.P. (C) No. 3270 of 2020, observing that “We, as citizens of Delhi are pained at the aforesaid state of affairs and as judges find the situation as reported and if true, to be highly dissatisfactory and violative of the rights of the dead” and further observed ”Supreme Court, as far back as in Pt. Parmanand Katara, Advocate vs. Union of India, (1995) 3 SCC 248, held that right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is not only available to a living man but also to his body, after his death. Right to decent burial or cremation was also emphasised in Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan vs. Union of India (2002) 2 SCC 27. The Division Bench of the Chief Justice of High Court of Bombay, recently vide judgment dated 22.05.2020 in a Public Interest Litigation titled as Pradeep Gandhy vs. State of Maharashtra, has also emphasized the same.”

PATNA HIGH COURT

An incident happened on 25th May, 2020, when a video got viral on social media platform which got highlighted and made headlines in a lot of newspapers dated 28th of May, 2020, the division bench at Patna High Court headed by Chief Justice took Suo Motu cognizance of report on the viral gut-wrenching video showing a two- and-half-year-old child trying to wake up his dead mother by pulling the makeshift winding sheet at the railway platform in Muzaffarpur. “If the contents of the new items are correct which we have no reason to disbelieve, for the paper being of national repute having wider repute having wider circulation, then the incident is rather shocking and unfortunate. This warrants intervention by us in exercise of our jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and as such we take suo motu cognizance of the news item and issue notice” observed the division bench headed by the Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar.

HIGH COURT OF MADHYA PRADESH

Another exemplary example can be seen in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, where a single judge bench of Justice S.A. Dharmadhikari has directed the bail applicants to donate money for utilization in preparation of food and its distribution to downtrodden persons including migrant laborers by any government agency/NGO as a part of their bail conditions, depositing money with the district collector.

The Indian Judiciary is Covid-19 Battle ready! It is because of the precedents of Suo Moto cases, faith and trust in judiciary is further strengthened. The judiciary has its own limitations but this has not come in the way to deliver justice to these marginalised sections. Due to continuously evolving situation because of Covid-19 outbreak, the Indian judiciary is proposing and implementing innovative measures to ensure that access to justice remains as unimpeded as is possible in the present circumstances.

Adv. Vijay Aggarwal practices at the Delhi High Court, Adv. Shephalie Ailawadi practices at the Delhi High Court.

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