Right to Access to Justice Amidst COVID-19

So far, Covid-19 has had appalling effects on the world. The Healthcare systems are in a crisis, the world economy is almost crumpling, bankruptcy is being faced by the hospitality and energy sector and even under such demanding times, government institutions have to operate on limited manpower. Amidst such an international crisis, to keep the economy afloat, there is a dilemma met by nations as to whether to slowly remove restrictions or extend the lockdown and curb the spread of the virus. 

One such problem on whether to postpone the hearing of the cases came up before the courts until the circumstances return to normal or not. For a simple reason, the courts are indeed a quintessential part of any democratic institution. It would be denying the people their right to access to justice by a temporary halt in the day-to-day operations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 has recognized the Right to “Access to Justice” as fundamental to a life of dignity and respect of any human giving it ground in the international community.

According to the United Nations, “Access to justice” is a basic principle of the rule of law. People have their voice unheard, unable to exercise their rights and challenge discrimination, or question the decision-makers on their accountability; in the absence of access to justice. Emphasis is laid by the Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law on the rights of equal “access to justice” for all, which includes members of vulnerable groups. 

In India, the right to “access to justice” can be found enshrined in the constitution after the Supreme Court in 2016 in the case of Anita Khushwa V. Pushap Sadan read the right to “Access to justice” in Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The right to “Access to justice” has since become an inalienable right of every citizen and cannot be taken away by any constitutional or statutory pronouncements; not even in the times of emergency.

The commitment by imposing a duty on the State to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice based on equal opportunity is reflected in Article 39A. Clearly, access to justice can neither be suspended nor delayed until the Covid-19 pandemic is over, whenever that is. To assert and defend their fundamental rights, everyone needs and will need this access which includes their freedoms to safety, security, and health, more so now than ever before.

Keeping in mind social distancing, the prevailing circumstances have led the government to take stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus. The Apex court, taking into account the seriousness of the situation, has directed the subordinate judiciary to undertake obligatory steps in promoting social distancing on its premises.

The world is now facing a crisis where the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced the countries to close down their borders and businesses resulting in a complete shutdown of their economy. Hence, to accustom itself for a COVID-19 overrun world, the system now must change and evolve its surrounding as social distancing will more or less become a norm. 

As of no surprise, it should come to how poor the conditions of courts in India are, especially of lower courts. Poor infrastructure, on the other hand, also ails the subordinate judiciary and is hopelessly undermanned. 

In the view of same, taking suo moto cognizance, the Supreme court in RE: Guidelines for Court Functioning Through Video Conferencing During COVID-19 Pandemic, said: 

“The Supreme Court of India and High Courts have adopted measures to ensure the continued dispensation of justice and to reduce the physical presence of lawyers, litigants, court staff, paralegal personnel and representatives of the electronic and print media in courts across the country.

On a concluding remark, access to justice is nothing but fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy foreseen by the Constitution of India. While preserving the constitutional commitment to ensuring access to justice, the challenges induced by the outbreak of COVID-19 have to be addressed. Apparently, Covid-19 is the darkest phase in the history of the Supreme Court when it abdicated its responsibility at one go towards hundreds of millions of destitute and marginalized people and this record will take some beating in the decades to come.

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