New Delhi: The commencement of hybrid proceedings in the Supreme Court since March 15 has found no takers yet as none of the advocates have appeared before the court to argue their matters physically.

The top court had come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs) on March 5 for hybrid proceedings, a combination of virtual and physical hearing, amid demands by lawyers for resumption of complete physical hearings.

Hybrid hearings are “a joke”, and lawyers will attend court physically, when it resumes its complete functioning, Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president Vikas Singh said.

The top court has been hearing cases through video-conferencing since March last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and several bar bodies and lawyers have been demanding that physical hearings should resume immediately.

The court in the SOPs had said that hybrid hearings would commence from March 15 and will be held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of every week except for Monday and Friday being the days on which miscellaneous matters are heard.

For hybrid hearings, the top court has made adequate arrangements in court rooms, including partitions between the judges dais and lawyers side, and installing of reverse cameras to facilitate advocates to join proceedings physically or virtually, the sources said.

After the SOPs were issued on March 5, the top court had subsequently come up with a module to facilitate entry of advocates into court rooms to attend proceedings in hybrid mode, but sources said that despite all these facilities, no lawyer has so far attended proceedings.

“Despite all arrangements made for hybrid hearings, not a single lawyer has appeared before the court physically,” said an apex court official, who is in the know of the things.

Singh on the other hand said, “They (SC) have listed 200 cases virtually and 20 cases for hybrid mode. Lawyers are more or less same in most of the matters. How will they attend the hearings in both the modes. This is just a joke. Unless complete physical hearing resumes, no lawyer is going to appear in hybrid mode.”

A day after the SOPs for hybrid hearings were issued by the top court the newly elected SCBA executive committee had unanimously sought immediate resumption of physical hearing in the court and rejected the SOPs.

The lawyers’ body has also filed a writ petition challenging the SOPs on the ground that no consultation was held between the judges committee, looking at the resumption of full-fledged functioning of the top court, and the advocates on the issue of hybrid hearings.

On March 16, a bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul had asked the secretary general of the top court to request the judges committee to fix an early meeting with the Bar so that the issues arising from the SOPs are ironed out.

“We are of the view it is in the fitness of things that the members of the Bar are able to iron out the differences in their perception of the SOP for which the appropriate course would be to hear the current newly elected representatives of the Bar. The meaningful consultation can only be with the Judges Committee,” the bench had said.

Singh, however, said that despite the judicial order of March 16, the SCBA has not received any intimation for consultation with the judges committee.

On March 2, Singh had written to Chief Justice of India S A Bobde requesting him to open the apex court for physical hearing completely saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is on the decline.
He had said that that hearing in open court is both the convention and the constitutional requirement in the top court.

Virtual hearing was only a stop-gap and interim substitute to open hearing only to keep the wheels of justice moving during the pandemic and it cannot by any stretch of imagination be equated to open hearing, the senior lawyer had said.

“There is no justification to not open the Supreme Court for physical hearing completely. As far as safety is concerned, it can be ensured that the lawyers continue to wear their masks and maintain as much practicably possible social distance so that we are not compromising the safety of the lawyers,” Singh had said.

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