The present hearing arose out of a batch of Public Interest Litigations that was filed in the Bombay High Court to permit the members of the legal fraternity to travel by local trains. The Court not only permitted lawyers and legal clerks to travel by local trains but also asked the State to identify employees of the other sectors who can be permitted to utilize the local train services.
A batch of PILs was filed in the Bombay High Court by members of the Bar Council of Maharashtra & Goa to allow lawyers and legal clerks to utilize the local train services, among a few other reliefs. On 15th September 2020, the Court had allowed a limited number of people from the legal fraternity to travel by local trains on an experimental basis.
During the hearing held on 7th October 2020, the Court directed the State to consider the request for increasing the frequency of train services in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (“MMR”) & in the Western & Central Railway lines to ensure less crowding.
The State argued that before the Order directing the State to consider increasing the frequency of trains was passed by the Court in the previous hearing, the Government of Maharashtra had passed an Order dated 30th September 2020 on “Easing Restrictions and Phase-wise opening of lockdown” (Mission Begin Again). As per Paragraph 8 Annexure-II of the aforesaid Order, to meet the increasing demand, the frequency of trains in the MMR region would be increased after appropriate assessment in that regard which was subsequently approved on 6th October 2020.
Besides this, fourteen categories of essential service staff have been identified who are permitted to travel by the local trains that include employees of judiciary and dabbawalas amongst others. Apart from the train services, the BEST has been operating a large number of buses in and beyond Mumbai. The State also agreed to double the number of buses in MMR.
Based on the above, the Counsel for the State submitted that a part of Mission Begin Again, the State is keen on ensuring more public transport facilities. However, keeping in mind the present situation and the capacity of the public sector to treat Covid-19 patients, the Government is taking a controlled and judicious approach to keep a check on the number of Covid-19 patients. In this regard, the Government and the railways have also agreed to conduct joint deliberations to devise measures for not only lawyers & their clerks to use to local trains, but also for those belonging to other sectors.
In response to the request of extending the interim arrangement of allowing a limited number of lawyers to travel by local trains even in the MMR Region, the Counsel for State expressed scepticism due to non-conformance of social distancing norms in trains however subsequently agreed. The Additional Solicitor General, Mr Singh, concurred with the submissions put forth by the State, however, submitted that the Railways would have no objection in increasing the frequency of train services & permitting non-service providers to utilize them.
According to Mr Singh, the issue of overcrowding is acute between 8 am and 10 am & 4 pm to 7 pm. In light of this, he further suggested that although the increasing frequency of train services is a necessity, staggered office timings can be introduced to avoid crowding in trains and prevent a surge in cases of infection.
The Learned Senior Advocate, Dr Sathe, representing the Bar Council of Maharashtra & Goa submitted that due to paucity of time, it has not been possible to ascertain the exact number of lawyers and clerks who would be inclined to attend physical hearings and travel by trains. However, due to the present situation, not more than 25% of the 9030 lawyers registered with the Bar Council would travel on any given day.
Moreover, not all lawyers travelling by the local train would be required to de-board at one specific station since the Courts are located at different sites. The Petitioners also submitted that since the lawyers practising in the subordinating courts in MMR have been facing the same issues as the lawyers practising in the High Courts, similar benefits should be extended to them.
Mr Abhay Anturkar, Learned Advocate representing the registered clerks submitted that they are required to physically file petitions/affidavits in the High Court. Therefore, the Court must extend the benefits of utilizing the local trains to them. In light of the plight faced by the lawyers during the pandemic, lawyers and the registered clerks must be allowed to avail of the local train services.
The Court observed that the interest of the Judicial Officers posted in MMR courts was of paramount importance. Moreover, allowing the Courts function normally as was the case in the pre-pandemic days is presently at some distance. Therefore, allowing all the lawyers from the MMR region to travel by local trains would also not be advisable.
However, after the reopening of other services in pursuance of Mission Begin Again, the Court stated that it was time for the State to identify employees of other sectors who could be allowed to avail of the local train services. For this, the State must devise a comprehensive policy to ensure that no sector is completely left out while ensuring that social distancing norms are adhered to.
The Court extended the benefits granted on 15th September 2020 to the lawyers practising in the MMR Courts who may be required to attend physical hearings & to the registered clerks required to file documents in courts on similar terms till 19th October 2020. The lawyers and clerks who wish to travel must obtain a day’s pass from the Judicial Officer-in-charge. The Court held that they shall also be required to file an undertaking vowing to not misuse the certificate along with photocopies of their cards issued by the Bar Council. The Court stated that the matter will be further heard on 19th October 2020.
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