The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed that a meeting be held between the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), Vikas Singh and the Judges Committee of the top court to iron out differences regarding the proposal by the Court to employ a hybrid system of functioning of the Court (Supreme Court Bar Association v. Supreme Court of India).
The Court was hearing a challenge mounted by SCBA to the decision of the Supreme Court to limit physical hearings by laying down a hybrid system which allows lawyers the option to appear virtually as well.
The SCBA had filed a petition under Article 32 challenging Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) notified by the top court on March 5 laying down the way ahead for hybrid mode.
A Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and R Subhash Reddy did not prima facie take any unfavourable view of the SOP during the hearing of the case on Tuesday.
The Court said that it appeared that the SOP had been framed after consultations with the Bar and that administrative issues stemming from the SOP can be resolved through discussions.
The SCBA in its petition had stated that the SOP for hybrid physical hearings was issued by the Registry of the Court without consultation with the Bar even though Bar is an equal stakeholder in the dispensation of the justice delivery system.
“I have minutes of meetings where representatives of the Bar were present. You said no one was consulted. I find it odd that you say there was no consultation,” said Justice Kaul.
SCBA President, Senior Counsel Vikas Singh who was recently elected to the post maintained that he was not consulted by the Chief Justice of India before the SOP was finalised.
“As the president of the Bar we are not called for meeting for last 16 days. If CJI does not have time to hear me and if my views are not relevant then it’s a closed door,” he submitted.
The Court eventually proceeded to direct that a meeting be held between Singh and the Judges Committee to resolve differences.
“Appropriate recourse will be to hear new president of the Bar and a consultation with the judges committee. The Secretary General will fix a meeting with judges committee,” the Court ordered.
The SCBA also contended that if virtual hearing can continue permanently, it will disturb the level playing field in the profession by allowing lawyers to argue from territories where the members of SCBA do not have opportunity to argue due to lack of reciprocity.
“Chennai lawyers can now argue in Supreme Court but there are times when I cannot argue in the Supreme Court (due to technical issues). We don’t want to damage the institution. Ten percent SC lawyers are benefitting (from virtual/ hybrid hearing),” Vikas Singh said.
The SCBA’s petition filed through advocate Rahul Kaushik further highlighted that entry of lawyers into High Security Zone through proximity card remains suspended by virtue of the SOP.
Further, registry officials are allowed entry into the High Security Zone though the same is kept suspended insofar as lawyers are concerned, it was said.
Singh submitted that it was improper for the Court to lay down criteria on an issue which affects the Bar without consulting the Bar representatives.
“Judges pass through sterile route and sit behind glass and you are protected. But for us , we should make rules. Why should you (Supreme Court’s administrative side) decide on behalf of us. Let us decide our SOP,” he said.
He also pointed out certain shortcomings in the SOP.
“Read Clause 2 of SOP. It says twenty lawyers per courtroom. But all courtrooms are of different sizes and there cannot be a uniform number. Just see how arbitrary it is. Entry into High Security Zone is set to be kept suspended,” he said.
Along with SCBA’ s plea, the Court also heard a plea by All India Association of Jurists (AIAJ), a Chennai based organisation of lawyers, praying that the option given to lawyers/ litigants to appear before the Supreme Court through video conference should be continued as “a matter of right” even after the Court resumes physical hearing.
This petition filed through advocate Sriram Parakkat effectively supported the Hybrid hearing SOP issued by the apex court and sought continuance of the same so that lawyers and litigants from far-off places will be able to appear before the Supreme Court without coming to Delhi and by spending far less amount of money as costs of litigation.
Senior Advocate Santosh Paul, appearing for AIAJ submitted on Tuesday that the organisation does not have any objections to the SOP and operational issues, if any, can be resolved by discussions.
“Whatever operational issues that can be worked out. We are facing a fluid situation. As far as SOP is concerned, we don’t have objections, but operational issues can be ironed out,” he said.
The Bench seemed to agree.
“We have thought of this. Cases can be filed in the same way but appear in virtual set up. We feel a lot of administrative issues can be sorted out by discussions,” Justice Kaul remarked.
The Court nevertheless ordered the Judges Committee to consult with Singh to resolve differences between SCBA and Supreme Court as regards the SOP.
The case will be heard next on March 23.