Limited Court Functions: Lawyers, litigants left distressed
The Supreme Court buildings, most of which were constructed in the beginning of the 20th century, stand still with an eerie calm hanging all over the premises.
The flurry of activity that used to reverberate through the Renaissance architectural style buildings is absent now: no crowd of lawyers, litigants, clerks, and staff at the court compound.
This has been the scene at the country's highest judicial institution since the Covid-19 outbreak in March last year brought the regular functions of all the courts across the country to a halt, badly hampering the justice delivery system.
Court activities, however, have gone virtual, albeit at a limited scale.
As a result, the rates of case filing and disposal fell drastically, leading to increased backlog of pending cases and sufferings of the justice seekers. Neither the government nor the SC administration have devised any major plan of action to recover the damage caused by the pandemic.
According to the latest decisions of the chief justice, all the benches of the Appellate and High Court Divisions of the Supreme Court will run judicial functions virtually from tomorrow, read two notices of SC administrations.
Since Covid-19 struck the country, all benches have remained operational together only for half this period -- about eight months.
A report by Law Lab, a law chamber that conducts research on legal and constitutional issues, shows some 2,48,458 new cases have been added to case backlogs in over 1,600 courts, including the SC, in the last one year.
The SC administration does not have any latest data of cases that remain unresolved till now. The Law Lab report states a total of 39,33,186 cases remained pending with the courts till December 31 last year.
On an average, 4,234 cases were filed and 3,194 cases disposed of per day in the courts across the county in 2019.
Last year, on an average, some 3,017 cases were filed and 2,026 cases settled per day, said the report.
Advocate Mohammad Shishir Manir, chief of Law Lab, said the pandemic has hampered judicial activities badly.
"During the pandemic, the rate of hearing and disposal of all kinds of cases across the country are very low," he told The Daily Star.
Dr Momtaz Uddin Ahmed Mehedi, an SC lawyer and former secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said as regular court activities remained suspended, lawyers were facing difficulties in performing their work, and thereby facing financial troubles.
"The backlog of cases is increasing day by day, causing sufferings to the litigants because of the limited scale of court functions," he said.
Although some courts are operating virtually, most of the lawyers are not still habituated with this system, he said.
Momtaz, the convener of a platform of lawyers demanding opening of all the 53 High Court benches for hearing and disposal of cases, said normally the HC benches used to hear and dispose of cases from 10:30am to 4:15pm on working days with a lunch break.
They are operating only from 11:00am to 1:30pm during this pandemic, he added.
"We have been demanding opening of all the 53 High Court benches both virtually and physically and operation all subordinate courts across the country physically. We have placed our demands to the chief justice several times," he said.
Advocate Khurshid Alam Khan, an SC lawyer and editor of Dhaka Law Reports, said many lawyers have been facing financial difficulties as they cannot usually move cases due to limited court functions.
"There are 15 staff members including clerks and computer operators in my chamber. I used to give Tk 20,000 as a bonus to each of them during Eid festivals every year.
"But I could not give such an amount of bonus to them last year. This year, my income drastically fell due to the closure of regular court functions."
He said he used to move at least 20 cases on a working day before the suspension of regular court activities.
"I can move only four to five cases a day now, but many of the lawyers cannot even move a single case a day," he said.
Contacted, Law Minister Anisul Huq said, "I am worried over the situation. I don't know when the pandemic will be over. Two judges of subordinate courts have died from Covid-19 infection and more than 900 judges and staff members of the court have been affected."
Worryingly, some court staff also died from Covid-19 infection, he said.
"I had a plan to clear at least six lakh cases from the present backlog of pending cases, but it will be difficult now. We cannot even implement the alternative dispute resolution system for quick disposal of cases outside courts on compromise due to the pandemic," he said.
Anisul Huq said he will meet the chief justice and discuss with him soon to find a wayout to recover these losses.
Despite the concerns, SC's Special Officer and Spokesman Mohammad Saifur Rahman said the justice delivery system has not been hampered in any manner during the pandemic.
"Court functions are going on very well through virtual systems. The rate of hearing and disposal of cases is as usual. The virtual court proceeding is the normal course now," he claimed.
He claimed that the rate of disposal of cases by the Appellate Division of the SC increased during the pandemic.
The Appellate Division disposed of around 10,500 cases from July 13 last year to July 15 this year, which is higher than the numbers in 2019.
He, however, could not say the numbers of filing, disposal, and pending cases at the HC and lower courts across the country.
SC Registrar General Md Akbar Ali refused to make any comment on this issue.