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LEGALITY OF THE LOCKDOWN AND ITS EFFECT ON THE INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM


ABSTRACT

Coronavirus is a textbook example of an unforeseen occurrence. Global economic instability has been exacerbated by the global Coronavirus outbreak, which has resulted in lost revenues for both businesses and individuals, a rise in the unemployment rate, and a catastrophic decline in financial markets. As India deals with the aftermath of the Covid-19 tsunami, the threat of a worse worldwide impact grows. For an uncertain period of time, the global pandemic, which has resulted in lockdowns in a number of countries, has afflicted all segments of society. Segregation from the rest of society has shown to be the most successful method of combating the development of this highly contagious disease. However, various sectors throughout the world have been reformed and revolutionized as a result of these social distancing conventions.

Additionally, this pandemic has transformed and significantly affected India's legal landscape. With the country once again on lockdown and social distancing duties, Indian law firms and the Indian judicial system have been compelled to close their doors to the general public. Nonetheless, because a complete shutdown of the Indian court system would be unfavourable, law firms have developed work-from-home policies, and judges have embraced technology by conducting hearings through video conference.

The purpose of this paper is to examine and analyse the legality of the lockdowns imposed alongside the global pandemic's impact on India's legal system. Additionally, the study will examine and analyse the efforts made by judges and legal professionals to mitigate Covid-19's impact on Indian legal operations.


INTRODUCTION

On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated on national television that India would be placed on lockdown for 21 days in order to combat the global COVID-19 outbreak (Coronavirus). The Prime Minister made the announcement two days after advising Indian residents to adhere to the Janta Curfew, a voluntary curfew. The Janta Curfew was established to prepare Indian residents for the current state of lockdown. Official notification was made by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the lockdown was carried out in accordance with Section 6 of the Disaster Management Act. Under his authority under Section 10 of the Disaster Management Act, as Chairman of the National Executive Committee established under Section 8 of the Act, the Home Secretary provided regulations for the lockdown.[1]

The COVID-19 crisis in India arose at a time when India's justice and court administration were on the verge of a new era, with much groundwork already done, particularly in the last decade or so, in the sphere of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet. Following the passage of the Information Technology Act in 2000, e-Government programmes in justice and court administration were expanded. Then, as part of the National e-Governance Plan, which was launched in 2006, E-courts were established around the country.

The COVID-19 crisis, on the other hand, has created new issues in the country's justice and court administration, particularly those confronting the courts in the aftermath of the lockdown. To put things in context, we'll begin by explaining in further detail the considerable technological advancements in court administration in India prior to the COVID-19 crisis, such as court-related apps. Following that, we examine how the judicial system responded to the challenges raised by COVID-19, including how courts at all levels, including Lok Adalat’s (People's Courts), adjusted their procedures. We discuss how the COVID-19 crisis affected the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the District and Subordinate Courts, in particular, hastening the transition to e-Judiciary, before discussing the Bar's reservations and some of the major challenges facing court administration in India in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.[2]


LEGALITY OF LOCKDOWNS: SIMILAR TO EMERGENCY OR NOT?

During times of emergency, the constitution allows for a muddled understanding of the finer elements of the separation of powers between the three branches of government, as well as the distribution of powers between the Centre and the states. If an emergency is declared, the constitution authorizes the Centre to issue administrative and legislative orders to the states in areas such as public health, law and order, and police, which are typically state responsibilities with the Centre playing a limited role. Even in normal situations, Article 256 permits the Centre to provide assistance on how to effectively implement enacted legislation. Article 257 requires states to execute their executive authority in a manner that does not "hinder or prejudice" the Centre's executive authority. In this regard, the Centre has the authority to give directives to the states. Article 355 compels the Union to safeguard states against "external aggression" as well as "internal disturbances," which the government may have ignored in its purge of "internal disturbances" from our constitution. While the "coronavirus pandemic" undoubtedly qualifies as an "internal disturbance," it does not fall under any of the three existing grounds in Article 352 that allow the Central government to declare an emergency, suspend fundamental rights, including Article 19 that protects citizens' fundamental freedoms, and exercise control over executive and legislative functions.Under the constitutional framework, two legislations provide the statutory foundation for the Centre and the states to act against the Coronavirus. The two laws in discussion are the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 (EDA) and the Disaster Management Act of 2005. (DMA).[3]


TERMINOLOGY AND LAW: UNDERSTANDING THE BASIS

There exists no definition for the phrases "lockdown" and "curfew" in Indian law, but they are still used to restrict the basic right to mobility guaranteed by Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution. This cannot be considered unconstitutional because, pursuant to Article 19 of the Constitution, this right is subject to reasonable limitations (2). The term "lockdown" is most precisely defined in the Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA). Sections 2 and 2A of the EDA empower state and federal governments to take essential measures to halt the development of an epidemic, even if such measures are not explicitly mentioned in national legislation or doctrine.[4]

Section 2(d) of the Disaster Management Act, which was used to impose the lockdown, defines "disaster" as any catastrophe, mishap, calamity, or grave occurrence in any area, caused by natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence, resulting in significant loss of life or human suffering, or damage to and destruction of property, or damage to and degradation of the environment, and repercussions.[5]

The terms like lockdown, curfew, quarantine, and isolation are being used to limit our fundamental rights, it's vital that we understand what they really mean.

· The phrase "lockdown" is not legally defined. The term is used by government officials and others to describe a situation in which free movement of products is forbidden, with the exception of necessary articles proclaimed by the Indian government under Sections 2, 3, and 4 of the Epidemic Diseases Act. Lockdown is not the same as curfew. One of the most important distinctions between the two is that during a lockdown, state enforcement forces such as police are banned from detaining anyone who does not comply with the lockdown without the agreement of a competent court.

· The Ministry of Home Affairs released guidelines under Section 10(2)(l) of the Disaster Management Act outlining the procedures that state and federal governments must conduct over the next twenty-one days in support of the statewide lockdown declaration. According to the instructions, all modes of transportation (air, train, and road) will be inaccessible at this time. All commercial and private institutions would be closed, with the exception of ration shops, banks, ATMs, media services, and telecommunications businesses. Anyone who violates these containment measures will be held liable under Sections 51 to 60 (Offenses and Penalties) of the Disaster Management Act, as well as Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which establishes the punishment for disobeying a duly promulgated public servant order, according to paragraph 17 of the guidelines.

· Once again, the term "curfew" is not a legal term. In layman's terms, a "curfew" is the use of a power granted to the District Magistrate, SDM, or any other administrative magistrate under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The authorities may make such orders in these instances to prevent a threat to human life, health, or safety, a disruption of public order, or a riot or affray. Anyone who disobeys such orders issued under Section 144 CrPC has the right to be detained/arrested by the enforcement agencies. The terms 'quarantine' and 'isolation,' as defined by the Indian Aircraft (Public Health) Rules, 1954, now apply. Similar restrictions are imposed on passenger ships, cargo ships, and cruise ships under the Indian Port Health Rules 1955, which were adopted under the Indian Port Act.[6]

· The term "quarantine" refers to the restriction of activities and/or separation of suspicious individuals from others who are not ill, as well as suspect baggage, cargo, containers, aero planes or conveyances, facilities, products, and mail parcels, to prevent the spread of infection or contamination.

· Isolation is the separation of sick or dirty individuals, baggage, containers, aircraft or other modes of transportation, facilities, goods, or postal boxes from the rest of the world in order to prevent infection or pollution from spreading.[7]

The Supreme Court ruled in Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of West Bengal[8] that the government is responsible for providing basic health care to Indian citizens. However, given the current state of medical facilities (including, but not limited to, testing kits, hospitals, and the number of people trained to combat something like this), India may require more than a Disaster Management Act or an Epidemic Diseases Act authorizing the government to take whatever actions it deems necessary. India requires a rigorous and all-encompassing organisation to combat an epidemic of this magnitude.[9]


ADAPTATION OF THE JUDICIARY: INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM IN PRE-COVID-19 TIMES

Prior to the COVID-19 issue in 2019, India had made tremendous strides in digitalizing justice and court administration. The E-Courts Project, the Supreme Court, and the E-Court Services Apps were three notable developments.[10]

· The E-courts project was one of the country's national e-Government programmes prior to the COVID-19 controversy. The E-courts used Internet-enabled technology to give residents with a transparent, accessible, and cost-effective justice delivery system. The E-courts Project, in particular, enables the digital interconnection of all courts, from the district and taluka courts to the Supreme Court. The e-courts programme was initiated in 2005 by a National Committee Policy and Action Plan for Implementing Information and Communication Technology in the Indian Judiciary. 7 It was approved in 2010 and has since saved users both time and money. A Judicial Service Centre within a court building made several E-Court services available to the public. 8 Most courts had already implemented electronic service of summons, notices, and warrants, and electronic cause lists, case status, online filing, and orders and judgments in PDF format were available on the courts' websites, along with other important court information such as working days, holidays, and judges' names.[11]

· The Supreme Court App was developed as part of the ongoing digitization of the judicial administration system, which began prior to the COVID-19 incident. The Indian Chief Justice expressed his hope that artificial intelligence-powered law translation systems can increase translation quality and judicial efficiency when discussing the application's utility. The Supreme Court App is a mobile application that interprets Supreme Court judgements into nine regional languages. Manual translation used to be a serious issue in court because it was time consuming and caused unnecessary delays. This official Supreme Court of India smartphone app includes a customizable dashboard in addition to Cause Lists, Case Status, Daily Orders, Judgments, and other critical information on pending and resolved cases. Everything is readily available, downloadable, and shareable.[12]

· The E-courts Services mobile app was released in 2017, prior to COVID-19. Case information from the country's Subordinate Courts and High Courts is sent via the E-Court Services App. It is admissible in both District and High Courts. A lawyer or litigant can use the App to search for cases by CNR (Case Number Reference), which is a unique number assigned to each case filed in India's District and Taluka Courts via the Case Information System. Cause List and Calendar are two other search choices. The 'My Cases' feature allows the litigant or lawyer to keep track of the status of their cases. You can use this to establish and manage a case portfolio or personal case diary. The E-Court Features App also provides more services, such as:


It allows anyone to view the whole history of a lawsuit, including the case status, cause list, and next hearing date. Court fees can now be paid electronically by lawyers and litigants. Scanning a QR code will provide you with the case status. Furthermore, the app connects to all 18,000 District and Subordinate Courts, as well as 21 High Courts, and contains over 30 million case statuses. The fact that the App received over 17 lakh (1.7 million) downloads in a few months, with over 5,000 downloads each day, demonstrates that efforts to modernize the court system were well received. For example, the App's History of Case Hearings option displays the case's hearing history from the beginning to the present. The Judgment option connects to all judgments and orders issued in a case, and judgments can be downloaded via the App.[13]


ADAPTATION OF THE JUDICIARY: INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM INCOVID-19

The influence of Covid-19 on the Indian legal system has been extraordinary. It has shined a sharp light on the outmoded methods of administering justice, teaching law, and providing legal services. Coronavirus has unlocked the possibilities of underutilized tools and new work models that the Indian legal business has long resisted. Traditional modes of operation have been altered and adopted at a breakneck pace and with ease.[14]

Within days, law schools had shifted to online education and study, courts to the Virtual Courts System, and law firms to working from home, indicating that technology is a lifeline for India's legal landscape.The pandemic's greatest impact has been felt in Indian courtrooms. To adhere to social distancing conventions and prevent the spread of the second wave of this infectious illness, Indian courts have once again turned to Virtual Court Rooms to ensure that justice is administered in an orderly fashion. It should be mentioned that India is not a newcomer to the concept of virtual courts. The Supreme Court of India held in State of Maharashtra v. Prafulla Desai that a court may record evidence via video conferencing as per the procedure prescribed by law. Numerous subordinate courts in India have already established norms and conducted judicial processes via video conferencing since then.

The spiraling Covid-19 pandemic in India has had a huge influence on the Indian legal system, with the virus being detected in the majority of judicial officers and court staff members. Regrettably, this disease has claimed the lives of numerous court authorities. In these confined times, and in the interest of public health, the Indian Courts are now hearing only the most urgent issues filed in the year 2021 at all levels. All other cases were adjourned en bloc, depositions were cancelled or rescheduled, and deadlines were extended. Along with the parties and their respective advocates whose cases are being heard by the Bench, parties and/or advocates awaiting their turn are also permitted to participate 'virtually' ahead of time in this Virtual Courts System, just as they are in physical Courts. On their monitors, these individuals follow the live proceedings of matters taken up by the Bench. Additionally, as public representatives, the Media has been allowed access to the Virtual Court Room and is permitted to view all case processes conducted by the Bench/Benches.[15]

Due to the pandemic and to halt the spread of this highly contagious illness, many Indian criminal courts have granted interim bail to inmates awaiting trial who are being held in overcrowded prisons. Indian courts have urged parents to replace physical visits with electronic contact in matters concerning child custody and visitation rights. However, in light of the pandemic's challenges, the Supreme Court of India has prolonged the statutory deadlines for all cases, including the filing of pleadings, until further orders, regardless of the limitation term provided in general or special laws, whether condonable or not.[16]

The Covid-19 pandemic has also harmed the process of liquidation under the 2016 Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC). The shutdown period has been ordered to be omitted from the calculation of any statutory deadlines under the IBC. Additionally, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal has ordered that any interim orders/stay orders remain in effect until the next scheduled hearing date, which may be announced later. In response to the epidemic, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI) amended Regulation 47A of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 as well to make it as follows: "Subject to the provisions of the Code, the period of lockdown imposed by the Central Government in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak shall not be counted for the purposes of computation of the time-line for any task that could not be completed due to such lockdown, in relation to any liquidation process".

Similarly, India's alternative dispute resolution processes have been damaged by the Coronavirus outbreak. The nationwide shutdown precludes physical mediations and arbitrations from taking place. Hearings have been rescheduled or held digitally via video conferencing in the majority of cases. Nonetheless, in light of the pandemic's severity and the fact that India is once again subject to curfews and lockdowns, the Supreme Court of India has suspended the statute of limitations for passing arbitral awards, as required by Section 29A of the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act, 2015, until further orders.[17]

Additionally, the pandemic has altered the way law schools educate their students. To preserve the learning process's continuity, law schools in India have discontinued on-campus instruction in favor of online instruction. Additionally, in order to adapt to the new normal and maintain a connection to the law, numerous judges and lawyers across the country have hosted webinars, lectures, and discussions on a variety of legal themes.

Additionally, law firms have implemented work-from-home rules during this countrywide lockdown period in order to mitigate any commercial damage from Covid-19. The pandemic has kept lawyers and law companies busy advising and counselling clients with regard to force majeure provisions and contract termination. Lawyers are increasingly re-examining contract articles, especially those relating to arbitral seats and sites, controlling laws, institutions, procedures, and force majeure. The global pandemic has also resulted in a dramatic increase in the country's unemployment rate, resulting in numerous legal issues for businesses. Thus, legal professionals have been immersed in assisting these enterprises as they navigate issues such as unemployment, secrecy and non-compete clauses, gratuity, and severance pay, among others.[18]


CONCLUSION

As observed in India, particularly in the period following the lockdown, the global COVID-19 issue forced a swift, unprecedented adjustment in the structure of court administration at all levels of the judiciary. The transition from E-Courts to E-Judiciary, via virtual hearings, was important in accomplishing this.

To summarize, it is impossible to predict whether the COVID-19 issue will be resolved in the near future. Only time will tell, as the COVID-19 virus has long-term effects, and long-Corona cases continue to emerge, as do new variants of the COVID-19 virus and the virus continues to represent a scary potential global threat. We do not appear to be completely secure at the moment. As a result, it is unclear how long the COVID-19 crisis-induced temporary technology breakthroughs and new judicial working procedures will endure. Given the circumstances, it's difficult to determine if this will become the country's permanent "new normal" in the future. Nonetheless, once the COVID-19 argument is resolved, this is a critical component that will be the topic of future quantitative legal research.

In this case, the question that arises is, what happens next? India may have arrived to the level of E-judiciary earlier than expected as a result of the COVID-19 scenario, but is that the end of the story?

India's legal system is anticipated to undergo significant change in the near future as a result of the current situation. Covid-19, without a doubt, will usher law into the digital age and restructure its landscape. The court's mandate to build the Virtual Court System in order to increase public access to the justice delivery system is a step in the right direction. Thus, Indian courts have affirmed a basic notion of the Indian legal system: justice must be not only done, but also considered to have been done. Arbitration is widely regarded as the most popular and adaptable technique of resolving conflicts in today's time.The difficulties of these trying times should be used to enhance and restructure the Indian legal system's operational procedures in order to mitigate the pandemic's consequences as quickly as feasible. That is, while a rapid shift is necessary, the eventual capacity of stakeholders to react and adapt to this dynamic environment will be determined.

[1]V. S., & J. T. (2021, May 17). India: Covid-19 And The Revamping Of The Indian Legal System. mondaq.com. https://www.mondaq.com/india/operational-impacts-and-strategy/1068670/covid-19-and-the-revamping-of-the-indian-legal-system. [2]Grover, A. (2021, May 18). COVID-19 In India: Lockdown, Legal Challenges, And Disparate Impacts. Bill of Health. https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/2020/05/18/india-global-responses-covid19/. [3]Ghose, S. (2020, March 28). Is The National Lockdown In India Constitutionally Valid?. thewire. https://thewire.in/law/is-the-national-lockdown-in-india-constitutionally-valid. [4] Supra, Note 1. [5] Ibid. [6]Tandon, K. (2020, March 29). Coronavirus: The Legal Framework Behind Lockdown, Curfew, And Quarantine. Bar and Bench. https://www.barandbench.com/columns/coronavirus-the-legal-framework-behind-lockdown-curfew-and-quarantine. [7]Goyal, T. (2020, April 25). COVID-19: The Law Of the Lockdown. The Jurist. https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/tanay-goyal-india-lockdown/. [8]1996 SCC (4) 37. [9] Supra, Note 7. [10] Supra, Note 1. [11]Rattan, J., & Rattan, V. (2021, May 6). The COVID-19 Crisis – the New Challenges Before the Indian Justice And Court Administration System. International Journal for Court Administration. https://www.iacajournal.org/articles/10.36745/ijca.391/. [12] Supra, Note 1. [13] Supra, Note 11. [14] Supra, Note 7. [15]Ahsan, S. (2020, April 4). During India Coronavirus Lockdown, the Laws That Come Into Play. Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-in-lockdown-the-laws-that-come-into-play-6346379/. [16] Ibid. [17] Supra, Note 1. [18] Supra, Note 11.

About the researcher - B.A.LLB. Honours, 2nd Year, 3rd Semester, Symbiosis Law School, Pune


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