Amongst other things, Covid-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on Indian courts where it is impossible to control mass gatherings as the volume of people physically present is the very antithesis of what current social distancing norms require. Apart from judges, lawyers, litigants, there is a battery of support staff that provide direct and ancillary services and whose presence is necessary for courts smooth functioning. The need of the hour is for all courts to enforce urgent measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Since March 13, 2020 when the affected count in India was 81, Supreme Court of India (“SC”) and various other subordinate courts have issued numerous circulars. Today, with 30 states and UT’s in India under complete lockdown and number of cases over 500, the measures have become more stringent. On March 23, 2020, additional circulars have been issued by various forums encouraging the use of technology to hear urgent matters in order to prevent mass gatherings. The current position as of March 25, 2020 is summarized below.
1. Supreme Court
On March 23, 2020, via its circular, the SC directed that a special bench will be constituted to only hear matters involving extreme urgency and prescribed the procedure for proceedings to take place through video-conference. The SC also laid down a detailed procedure for approval of the reason for extreme urgency. A request has to be sent electronically to email@example.com and a standard operating procedure is in place which provides relevant details regarding video conference. We are not detailing the procedure here, but once the urgency is approved, the matter will reflect in the cause list on the SC’s website and a one-time link for video-conference would be shared with the advocate-on-record or the party on the e-mail address mentioned in the urgency application. If not approved, the advocate-on-record or the party will be permitted to orally mention before the presiding judge telephonically from 10:30 am to 11:00 am.
This step shall filter to ensure only absolute critical matters which require urgent attention are heard. Further, in order to avoid parties filing urgent applications to protect limitation, the SC has extended the limitation period for filing of all petitions, suits, appeals etc. from March 15, 2020 until further notice. This extension of limitation shall apply to all tribunals and courts in India.
2. Delhi High Court (“DHC”) & District Courts (“DC”)
DHC has suspended its functioning and of all subordinate courts for all pending matters listed between March 23 to April 03, 2020. Through its notification dated March 23, 2020 the DHC would hear only extremely urgent matters through video-conference. For a matter to qualify as urgent, the parties have to first contact the registry officer(s) telephonically, explain the urgency and his decision on whether a matter is urgent or not shall be final. If urgent, thereafter the officer shall take all necessary steps to inform the party about the date and time of listing. Like the SC, the period of lockdown and suspension of work shall qualify as closure under the Limitation Act. This effectively means that the necessary filing can be done the day after the courts reopen.
On March 23, 2020 itself, the District and Sessions Judge of Rouse Avenue issued a few directions regarding extremely urgent and bail matters. All such matters shall be dealt with by phone. For fresh filings and extremely urgent matters, the officers of the court should be contacted by phone who, once satisfied with the reason for the urgency, will call the judicial assistant who, in turn, has to follow the procedure laid down for a Special Judge to be deputed to hear the matter on the same day.
3. Other Forums
3.1 National Company Law Appellate Tribunal: On March 24, 2020, NCLAT withdrew its earlier notifications and in view of the complete lockdown, has directed that no matters will be heard by the tribunal. In case of any extreme urgency, the Registrar may be contacted telephonically for listing any matter on/before April 01, 2020. The limitation for filing appeal will be extended from March 15, 2020 till further orders.
3.2 National Company Law Tribunal: On March 22, 2020 NCLT issued a notification directing that all benches shall remain closed from March 23, 2020 to March 31, 2020 except NCLT Chennai will hear urgent matters but without physical presence of any person. The party seeking urgent relief may approach the registry of NCLT Chennai through e-mail and the Acting President will examine and pass orders twice a week i.e., on Wednesday and Friday. The notification clarifies that matters pertaining to extension of time, approval of resolution plan and liquidation should not be construed as urgent.
3.3 National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission: NCDRC has issued an office order on March 24, 2020 directing that the registry shall be closed from March 25, 2020 to April 04, 2020 and any extremely urgent matter shall be mentioned before the President, NCDRC at 11:00 am at his residential office.
3.4 Debt Recovery Appellate Tribunal & Debt Recovery Tribunal, Delhi: On March 23, 2020, DRAT issued an office order stating that irrespective of the lockdown, the officials will be available on telephone in case of any urgent hearing/relief.
3.5 Real-Estate Regulatory Authority: On March 16, 2020, RERA issued a precautionary notice adjourning cases listed on various dates up to April 07, 2020 to avoid mass gatherings.
3.6 Madras High Court (“MHC”) & Subordinate Courts, Chennai: On March 25, 2020, MHC issued an order suspending court work in its premises and all its subordinate courts. Only extremely critical matters shall be heard with the permission of the judge presiding over that bench. In the subordinate courts, permission from the Principal District Judge is to be sought. For filing anticipatory bail, MHC has advised that such applications may first be filed before the concerned District and Sessions Court before approaching the High Court. If dismissed at the first level, one can approach the MHC.
3.7 Tamil Nadu Real-Estate Regulatory Authority: As a precaution, the TNRERA issued a public notice stating that all complaints scheduled for hearing from March 19 to April 09, 2020 be adjourned. For any urgent hearing, an application should be addressed to the Administrative officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3.8 Income-Tax Appellate Tribunal, Chennai Bench: On March 23, 2020, via an office order ITAT notified that physical office of ITAT at Chennai will remain closed till March 31, 2020. However, all urgent communications can be sent to Chennai.email@example.com.
In effect of the 21 days lockdown period announced by the Prime Minister on March 24, 2020 and basis the circulars and directions mentioned above, all matters across various forums shall not be heard until April 14, 2020 unless there is an unavoidable urgent situation.