Proactive High Courts

Print edition : May 22, 2020

EVEN as the Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to intervene effectively in pandemic-related cases so as to ensure executive accountability, some High Courts rose to the occasion. On April 16, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court took suo motu cognisance of the plight of victims of domestic violence during the lockdown and issued notices to the authorities concerned to submit an action taken report. A division bench comprising Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajnesh Oswal proposed a slew of measures to be undertaken by the authorities to ensure immediate assistance to the victims.

On April 17, the bench directed the authorities to formulate reports and apprise the court about issues relating to welfare, safety and the basic needs of the residents and others. It also directed the Director General of Police (Prisons), Jammu and Kashmir, to file a report within 10 days on the steps taken to ensure the health of the residents of Jammu and Kashmir/Ladakh lodged in prisons in the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and in other parts of India.

The Calcutta High Court, on April 17, directed the West Bengal government to file periodic reports about its efforts to tackle COVID-19 and the steps taken to follow the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). A bench comprising Chief Justice Thottathil B. Radhakrishnan and Justice Arijit Banerjee asked the State government to take a “deeper look” at the need for testing more number of people and taking more samples on a war footing. The bench also sought a report on the manner of certification and the auditing of the reason for death undertaken by the authorities before issuing death certificates.

The Madras High Court bench comprising Justices M. Sathyanarayanan and M. Nirmal Kumar, on April 20, took suo motu notice of reports that residents of an area in Chennai resisted the burial of the body of a doctor who had died of COVID-19, and attacked the ambulance and the persons accompanying the body. The bench held that the right to have a decent burial was well within the scope and ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution. It issued notices to the authorities to explain the dereliction of duty in preventing such an outrageous act.

The bench dismissed a plea to reveal the identities of persons afflicted with COVID-19 on government websites. It was of the view that preventing the social stigma associated with the disease far outweighed the concern of the petitioner about checking the spread of the disease.

The Bombay High Court’s Nagpur bench on April 20 sought a reply from the Maharashtra government to a petition challenging a circular issued by it prohibiting door-to-door distribution of newspapers in view of the pandemic, and the continued rise in the number of positive cases in the State. The Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists and the Nagpur Union of Working Journalists had filed the petition contending that the circular was arbitrary, unreasonable and in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

A division bench of the Delhi High Court, comprising Justices Siddharth Mridul and Talwant Singh, on April 27, in Delhi Rozi-Roti Adhikar Abhiyan vs Union of India, directed the Delhi government to ensure that all ration shops remained operational eights hours a day on all seven days of the week and disbursed foodgrains on a regular basis at the designated time.

The bench directed the government to ensure that foodgrains were distributed to the poor, needy and marginalised people not covered under the public distribution system (PDS) from PDS outlets and other distribution centres. The bench also directed the government to immediately place on its official website, as well as publicise through the print and electronic media, grievance helpline numbers, so as to enable members of the public, to seek redress of their grievances by contacting the nodal officers appointed for the purpose. The action taken by the officials to redress such grievances should also be published on the website in order to ensure transparency, the bench held.

In Rare Metabolics Life Sciences Private Limited vs Matrix Labs, the Delhi High Court held that COVID-19 test kits should be made available urgently at the lowest possible price so that the virus could be controlled and people’s health safeguarded. Justice Najmi Waziri, on April 24, issued directions to three private companies to import the testing kits at a cost of not more than Rs.400 each, inclusive of goods and services tax. The petitioner companies sought the release of 7.24 lakh COVID-19 test kits from Matrix, which has the licence to import medical equipment. Matrix sought full payment upfront before delivering the kits. The companies agreed to the selling of kits at Rs.400 per test, which is lower than the rate (Rs.600 per test) approved by the ICMR. Although it is a subject matter of arbitration, the High Court applied the principle of public interest to resolve the issue. The order came as a relief to the government as it enabled the import of more testing kits at reduced costs.

V. Venkatesan

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Editor, Frontline

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