First ‘virtual’ Constitution bench hearing in SCUpdated: Jul 15, 2020 02:08 IST
The Supreme Court held its first Constitution bench sitting through videoconferencing on Tuesday, with, for the first time since March 5, five judges sitting together in one court to take up critical matters that require an interpretation of the Constitution.
The court moved into virtual mode on March 25, as the coronavirus disease started infecting more people across India. The country declared a 68-day hard lockdown (in four phases), between March 25 and June 1.
A bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran, MR Shah and Aniruddha Bose appeared wearing masks and maintaining nearly two-feet distance between themselves on the bench. There were previously concerns in some quarters that the Constitution bench would not be able to sit during the pandemic.
Several important cases are awaiting the attention of the Constitution bench.These include the matter on rights versus faith relating to religious practices that restrict women from entering mosques, Parsi worship places and the Sabarimala temple, petitions challenging scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Articles 370 and 35A, validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act granting citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Islamic countries, and the legal case to determine what is a money bill.
The first case the five-judge bench heard was a legal tussle on whether the Centre has the power to provide reservation to in-service candidates (those already in government service, as doctors in this case) in post-graduate medical degree courses. The plea was brought up by the Tamil Nadu Medical Officers Association.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar opened arguments in the case, sharing the extensive compilation of his arguments including cases to be referred through Google drive . One of the lawyers, senior advocate Vikas Singh appearing for Medical Council of India (MCI) complained of being unable to access the Google Drive. He objected to Datar referring to the same. The problem was sorted out when the court asked Datar to give case law citations.
As the hearing proceeded, Datar was inaudible to the court. Justice Shah commented in a lighter vein, “Don’t keep social distancing with your mike.” Datar heard mike as “wife” leaving the bench in splits.
“There is no bar if the Court continues hearing Constitution bench matters but the present system must be geared up to support such hearings. Screen sharing must be activated on VIDYO app to allow documents to be exhibited. Case files should be digitized and given to judges. There must be a steady bandwidth to support multiple video links. And lastly, the online platform must provide an enclosure allowing privacy of discussion happening between senior lawyers and their briefing counsels,” said senior advocate KV Vishwanathan.
Other matters listed before the Constitution Bench could not be taken up.
The day also witnessed veteran jurist Fali S Nariman make a maiden appearance through videoconferencing before a three-judge bench headed by CJI SA Bobde. Seeing him, the CJI remarked, “So happy to see you Mr Nariman. For the first time you are appearing through videoconferencing.”
True to his tradition at the bar to stand and address the Court, Nariman stood and addressed the Court expressing his inhibitions of appearing in a “virtual court”. The CJI corrected him by saying, “This is not a virtual court. It’s a real court where only the hearing is virtual.”
The Court began hearing of urgent cases through a videoconferencing app called VIDYO in March . The volume of cases taken up on a daily basis has been less in the past three months.Beginning March 23, the SC took up close to 7,000 cases till June 20.
Beginning this week, the Supreme Court has listed Constitution Bench matters for hearing as well. With the pandemic showing no signs of let up there is uncertainty over when physical court hearings can resume.
The Constitution Bench heard and reserved judgment in the first case it took up through videoconferencing .