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Review: Supreme Court notes that Citizens have a right to know the judicial proceedings of open court.

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In this roundup of Court judgements, we look at Constitutional Courts’ remarks on the concept of an Open Court, the overburdened condition of frontline workers, and the paucity of oxygen supply at hospitals due to which several lives are being lost.

Supreme Court: Citizens have a right to know the judicial proceedings of Open Court.

In the case Election Commission of India v MR Vijaya Bhaskar, the Supreme Court held that the concept of an Open Court requires that information relating to a Court proceeding, including oral remarks by the bench, must be available in the public domain.

The core issue involved in the case was regarding the authority of a judge to conduct judicial proceedings and to engage in a dialogue during the course of a hearing and the freedom of the media to report not just judgments, but also judicial proceedings or remarks made during these proceedings. 

The petition arises from an order of the Madras High Court (dated 30 April 2021) where the bench made certain remarks, attributing responsibility to the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the present surge in the number of cases of COVID-19, due to their failure to implement appropriate COVID-19 safety measures and protocol during the elections. At issue are the oral remarks made by the High Court, which the ECI alleges are baseless. The ECI claims that these remarks tarnished its image, which is an independent constitutional authority.

During the course of the hearing, it is alleged that the High Court orally observed that the ECI is “the institution that is singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19” and that the EC “should be put up for murder charges”. These remarks, though not part of the order of the High Court, were reported in print, electronic, and tele-media.

The Senior Counsel appearing on behalf of the ECI made the following submissions:

  1. The High Court ought not to have made disparaging oral observations against the ECI as these observations bear no relevance to the nature of the controversy before the court and were made without giving the ECI an opportunity to explain the steps it had taken for the maintenance of COVID-19 protocols 
  2. These remarks made by the High Court were widely reported in the media and have reduced the faith of people in ECI and undermined the sanctity of its constitutional authority.
  3. The scope of judicial review over the ECI in matters pertaining to the conduct of elections is limited and courts should exercise restraint while making observations about the ECI or the electoral process.
  4. The ECI has conducted various state elections during the pandemic and has taken adequate measures to enforce COVID-19 protocols but the actual enforcement is in the hands of the State machinery. The ECI does not take over governance by the States even during elections and has a limited number of personnel at its disposal.
  5. The media must ensure there is accurate reporting of court proceedings and proceedings must not be sensationalized.

Hence, the ECI has raised the prayer – seeking a restraint on the media on reporting court proceedings.

After examining the submissions, the supreme court noted that the concept of an open court requires that information relating to a court proceeding must be available in the public domain. Courts must be open both in the physical and metaphorical sense, except for in-camera proceedings in the exceptional category of cases. Arguments addressed before the court, the response of opposing counsel, and issues raised by the court are matters on which citizens have a legitimate right to be informed. Transparency in the functioning of democratic institutions is crucial to establish public faith in them.

The judgement emphasised that the Constitution guarantees the media the freedom to inform, distill and convey information and to express ideas and opinions on all matters of interest. Freedom of speech and expression extends to reporting the proceedings of judicial institutions as well.

Having stated that, the judgement also mentions the need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation. Judicial language is a window to a conscience sensitive to the constitutional ethos.

In conclusion, the apex court held that oral remarks are not a part of the official judicial record, and therefore, the question of expunging them does not arise. The formal opinion of a judicial institution is reflected through its judgments and orders, and not its oral observations during the hearing. Hence, in view of the above discussion, the court found no substance in the prayer of the EC for restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings. 

Himachal HC: Frontline workers should work on rotation basis or else the health system is likely to collapse.

In the case of Dr. Vishal Koundal v. State of Himachal Pradesh & Ors., the high court held that it is imperative that the frontline workers are made to work on a rotation basis or else the health system is likely to collapse with the sudden and drastic surge in COVID-19 cases.

The high court was hearing an appeal filed by a doctor challenging his deputation to a COVID-19 makeshift Hospital in Palakwah, District Una, Himachal Pradesh. According to the petitioner, he had met with an accident in the year 2018 after which he had suffered Lumber, Spine, and Sacrum injuries and was therefore unable to serve at the place of deputation. However, the court found no merit in the aforesaid claim as the petitioner was fit enough to render services at Civil Hospital, Dehra, which incidentally, happens to be his Home Tehsil. Therefore, the court held that there is no reason why he cannot serve at the COVID-19 makeshift hospital, Palakwah, District Una.

While adjudicating on this matter, the court also observed that it is imperative that the front-line workers are made to work on a rotation basis, or else the health system is likely to collapse with the sudden and drastic surge in COVID-19 cases.

The court disposed the petition stating that a government servant is an integral part of the governance system and, at times, serves as the face of the government.

High courts make strong remarks and warn of stern action on Oxygen paucity.

Several high courts in the country were grappling with similar issues of Oxygen paucity in hospitals that are facing a drastic surge in the number of COVID-19 patients. With news reports highlighting the unfortunate death of numerous critical patients due to lack of Oxygen supply, the courts expressed the following views and made the following orders. 

Allahabad HC: Non-supply of Oxygen criminal act, not less than genocide

In view of viral news and social media posts regarding death of COVID-19 patients due to lack of oxygen in the districts of Meerut and Lucknow, the Allahabad High Court stated that authorities responsible for procurement and supply of the gas are committing criminal acts akin to genocide. The news items that the Bench was referring to pertain to death of five patients in ICU of a new trauma centre of Medical College in Meerut. There were also reports of two hospitals, in Lucknow and in Meerut, that took their hands off the admitted COVID-19 patients because the oxygen supply was not made even after demand.

In its previous order, the High Court specifically observed that supply of Oxygen must be ensured at all hospitals so that no one dies for want of Oxygen. Not only the supply is not being ensured, but the Bench also noted that people are being harassed, and made to beg for Oxygen cylinders to save the life of their near and dear ones, both at the end of district administration and police administration. 

The court has therefore asked the District Magistrate, Lucknow, and District Magistrate, Meerut to enquire into the matter of such news items within 48 hours and submit their reports on the next date fixed respectively. They were also directed to appear before the Court online on the next date fixed.

Delhi HC: Issues show-cause notice to Centre for contempt for failure to ensure Oxygen supply to Delhi as per order

The Delhi high court came down heavily on the Centre for its failure to supply 700MT per day liquid medical Oxygen to Delhi Government in line with the directions passed by the Supreme Court. In an order passed on 30 April 2021, the supreme court had directed the Central Government to rectify the Oxygen deficit of NCT of Delhi on or before midnight of 03 May 2021. The direction was passed based on an assurance of the Solicitor General that the Oxygen needs of Delhi will be met. In the given order, it was the responsibility of the Centre to provide 700 MT of oxygen supply and that in case of any failure, it will be held for contempt.

The high court has directed the presence of Central Government officers Sumita Dawra and Piyush Goyal, who are handling Oxygen allocation to states, to explain the failure to comply with the High Court and Supreme Court’s order to supply the required Oxygen to the Delhi Government to treat critical COVID patients.

Jharkhand HC: Warns officials of contempt over non-compliance with court orders

In view of the current COVID-19 crisis and overload on existing medical infrastructure,  the Jharkhand High Court rapped the State Government for its failure to make Sadar hospital functional with 500 beds. In May 2017, the court had directed the State Government to complete the construction of 200 beds in Sadar Hospital and make it operational by the end of July 2017 and the rest portion of 300 beds with all facilities to be completed by the end of December 2018.

The court was informed that efforts have been taken to create 240 Oxygen-supported beds through the cylinder, however, due to the non-installation of liquid Oxygen plant, the required number of beds were not made functional.

Taking note of the State’s failure to construct the required number of beds, the Bench of Chief Justice Dr. Ravi Ranjan and Justice Sujit Narayan Prasad sternly remarked, “In the considered view, the order passed by this Court dated 11.05.2017 has not been complied with even after lapse of about five years, therefore, the officers are in contempt.”

Featured Image: Important Court Judgements

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