More Warriors Want Protection

On May 19, the Delhi High Court asked the state government to consider declaring judicial officers working in lower courts as Corona warriors/activists in the frontline of the battle against the epidemic. The Court said that even in this epidemic, judicial authorities were making the justice system easier for people.

A division bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Jasmeet Singh was hearing an application of the Delhi Judicial Services Association. The Association said that even though meetings were held between district judges and magistrates with regard to Covid centres and medical concerns of judicial officers and their families, little progress had been made. The bench observed that judicial officers were working and exposing themselves to the risk the way armed forces and the police were doing.

“We have lost three judicial officers already. Look at the number of judicial officers and their families being infected, it’s staggering. Because of the nature of their job, they have to expose themselves so we need to protect them,” said the bench. It said that judicial officers were performing an important duty and should be given preference like other frontline workers like doctors and government officers. Many judges have to go to court physically or to jails even during the pandemic as they were dealing with remand cases.

The Court further said a different protocol applies to the Supreme Court and High Court judiciary, but the same cannot be said about district judiciary. It added that three judicial officers had already succumbed to Covid-19 in Delhi, and the number of those who had suffered was staggering. It is important from the point of view of their mental space that they are protected, said the bench.

It said that a system has to be put in place and the government should not wait for a crisis to arise. “You don’t expect a judge to discharge his duty when his son, daughter, wife or any other family member is seriously ill. Take steps on your own, you (government) don’t need to wait for orders on this,” the bench said.

The Court noted the submissions of senior advocate Rahul Mehra who said that the state should consider whether judicial officers rendering services to keep the wheels of justice moving and exposed to the risk of Covid-19 can be declared as frontline workers.

Senior advocate Dayan Krishnan, representing the Association, said the district nodal officers facility was not working in case of an emergency and there was a need for a centralised nodal officer of the Delhi government. As the Delhi government counsel Santosh Tripathi argued that facilities had been put in place, the Court said it was “very difficult” for bu­reaucracy and political leaders to accept failure and inability. “It is not in their veins,” the Court remarked.

The Delhi Judicial Service Association on May 5 moved the Delhi High Court seeking directions to establish Covid care centres with full medical facilities such as beds, oxygen and medicines within the judicial complex in a suitable place provide by the applicant association in every district court in Delhi. The Association has filed its impleadment application in a similar case before the High Court. The Court had asked the district and sessions judge of each district to coordinate with the respective district magistrate to address the medical concerns of judicial officers and their families.

In its petition filed through president Rajesh Malik, the Association also asked for directions to make necessary arrangements for reimbursement of expenses incurred in hospitals other than empanelled ones in case of an emergency or any specialised treatment.

The Association also sought directions to create a uniform policy for compassionate appointment for relatives of deceased judicial officers, who had succumbed to Covid-19. It is pertinent to note that the application by the Association was filed in a pending petition by a group of lawyers to give directions to the Union and Delhi governments to treat judicial officers as frontline workers. The plea said that the officers had selflessly devoted themselves to speedy and effective justice delivery mechanism even during the present grave situation. In doing so, they had been imm­ensely exposed and should be protected.

On April 29, the Delhi High Court allowed a petition filed by Advocate Shobha Gupta, which was argued by Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose before the bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli.

However, on May 19, a Bombay High Court bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni refused to declare advocates and judges as frontline workers so that they could be given priority in the ongoing vaccination drives. The Court said not all those performing public duty could be labelled as frontline workers. The chief justice said only those working for hospitals and medical staff can be called frontline workers. Also, those who are helping enforce lockdown and other norms and are keeping a close watch on Covid management such as the police, civic officials, etc, can be called frontline workers, it clarified.

Earlier on May 13, the chief justice of India, at the launch of a mobile application which will enable journalists to virtually report without having to visit court premises, said the pandemic had taken a toll on the Indian judiciary, judges and court staff who have been severely impacted, both physically and psychologically, by the virus. He further said that 2,768 judicial officers and 106 judges of the High Court had tested positive for Covid and 34 judicial officers and three High Court jud­ges had lost their lives battling the virus.

A Lucknow-based lawyer, Shailesh Tripathi, said: “It is pertinent to assert the position and importance of judicial officers and advocates in society. They form the pillars and arms of one of the three organs of the State. Other than the usual work, advocates by means of public interest litigations had played a vital role in enforcing the fundamental right of health and safety of the common man as enshrined in the Constitution.”

Advocates have to deal with a range of infections as legal files and papers often pass several hands and they have to meet the families of accused who come from different areas and localities. Even when many people are working with half their staff or under lockdown guidelines, lawyers and judges have to work on their own as there is no substitute for them; they could not delegate work as it requires legal acumen, explained Tripathi.

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As there are a limited number of judges in the country, they need special treatment in these pandemic times and it is high time judicial officers and advocates are declared as frontline Corona warriors, he added.

_By Shivam Sharma and India Legal News Service

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