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Friday, 10 September 2021

Covid-19: Delhi District Courts unable to check on over-crowding of Courtrooms, sparks fear

 Courts and COVID.png 

After district courts in the capital resumed partial physical hearings from August 24, the judges and court staff are struggling to check overcrowding of courtrooms. While some courts are able to enforce social distancing, others are terribly overcrowded, a risk when the battle against Covid-19 is yet over.

TOI visited the Patiala House Courts, Tis Hazari district courts, Karkardooma district courts and Saket district courts in the past two weeks and saw several instances of how the judge’s repeated requests to people to heed social distancing and vacate the courtroom fell into deaf ears.

At one proceedings in Tis Hazari, at least 20 lawyers, who were not parties to the case being heard, were present for the entire several-hours’ duration of the hearing.

It was only when the judge threatened to conduct the case in his chamber if the lawyers didn’t leave that some did.

In another instance at the Saket court, all those whose cases were listed before a judge that day were present with their counsels in the courtroom, more than 10 of them with their lawyers.

 Add to that, the police officers, court staff and the public prosecutor, and it was a veritable crowd there.


Similarly, in three courtrooms at Patiala House, the judges struggled to have the intransigent lawyers and clients stick of Covid protocols.

Senior advocate Rebecca John described this as a “serious problem”.

“Not all courts are overcrowded, but I have certainly gone to some courts that are crammed. That’s partly because of the architecture of the court — very small rooms, not enough space for the number of people there,” John said. “Criminal courts particularly should liberally exercise their powers to grant exemptions to accused persons.”

The senior counsel added that despite the numerous directions by the high courts to trial courts to exercise their power of exemption, the later appeared hesitant to do so.

“This is a serious problem. You cannot open courts without taking into account the potential for overcrowding and its impact on the spread of the virus,” John told TOI.

“In the few courts that I have physical gone to, particularly trial courts, my experience has been a mixed bag. Some have been okay, but most are way too overcrowded.”

Senior advocate Vikas Pahwa also said Covid protocols weren’t being “scrupulously” followed in the trial courts, primarily due to lack of space and the unending cases, pointing out how Delhi High Court didn’t have such problems because of its big corridors, glass partitions and use of microphones because of which mask weren’t required to be removed.

“Trial courts are accessible to the public and there is crowding. And invariably masks have to be taken off when arguing, exposing the judges, lawyers, clients and court staff to the risk of the coronavirus,” said Pahwa.

Advocate Vijay Aggarwal said Enforcement Directorate cases usually involved defendants in double digits.

“A courtroom with 10 clients and 10 lawyers besides the others and social distancing goes for a toss,” he remarked.

He, however, said the dual physical-and-video conferencing hearings were “too hard on lawyers”.

He said, “Managing cases in courts having physical hearings and then trying to be present for virtual hearings is a big problem for the lawyers.

According to advocate Manoj Taneja, a lot is expected from the presiding officers in the courtrooms in the matter of Covid-appropriate behaviour.

“The presiding officer is expected to control the crowd, including the lawyers and litigants,” he said.

“Some judges do deal with this strictly and refuse to start the hearing till only the lawyers concerned are left in the courtroom.”

Advocate Manish Bhadauria too felt that the judges should allow only those lawyers to enter whose cases were being heard.

“The court should call one accused at a time to mark their presence and then summon their counsels into the courtrooms to present their arguments,” Bhadauria added.

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