SC says it can’t be mute spectator in national crisis, doesn’t intend to supplant HC cases on COVID-19

On April 22 the Bench took note of the COVID-19 situation and said it expected the Centre to come out with a “national plan” to deal with distribution of essential services and supplies

Terming the massive resurgence of COVID-19 cases a “national crisis”, the Supreme Court on April 27 said it cannot remain a “mute spectator” and made clear that its suo motu proceeding on devising national policy for COVID-19 management is not meant to supplant high court hearings.

Also read: SC wants national plan on COVID-19 situation, including on oxygen supply

A Bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said the high courts are in a better position to monitor the pandemic situation within their territorial boundaries and the apex court was playing a complementary role and its “intervention must be understood in the correct perspective” as there are some matters which transcend the regional boundaries.

There is a need for top court’s intervention on certain national issues as there might be matters related to coordination between States, it said.

“We are playing complementary role. If high courts have any difficulty in dealing with issues due to territorial limitations, we will help,” said the Bench, also comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat.

Also read: Coronavirus | SCBA moves Supreme Court, says High Courts best suited to deal COVID-19 situation at local level

These observations assume significance as some lawyers had criticised the apex court last Thursday for taking suo motu cognisance of the pandemic’s resurgence and issues by saying that high courts be allowed to continue with hearings.

A day later on April 23, a Bench headed by the then CJI S.A. Bobde, who has retired, took a very strong exception to “unfair” criticism by some lawyers for “something which was not part of its order” in the suo motu case related to framing of national policy on the COVID-19 pandemic and said “this is how institution is being destroyed”.

The Bench on April 27 also took note of the submissions of lawyers including senior advocate Vikas Singh on differential pricing of COVID-19 vaccines and asked the Centre to apprise it of the “rationale and basis” behind such pricing.

On the government’s decision to vaccinate all citizens above 18 years, the court sought replies from States by April 29 as to how they intend to cope with the surge in vaccine demand and the infrastructure required for that.

Also read: COVID-19 | Supreme Court should’ve intervened during poll rallies, Kumbh Mela: Shiv Sena

The Bench also asked the Centre to apprise the top court of the modalities on distribution of oxygen as well as the vaccines to States and the monitoring mechanism.

In the hearing, conducted via videoconferencing, the top court also appointed senior counsel Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora as amicus curiae to assist it in the COVID-19 management case as Harish Salve had sought recusal following some controversial remarks by some lawyers.

On April 22, the Bench took note of the pandemic situation due to sudden surge in COVID-19 cases as also in mortality and said it expected the Centre to come out with a “national plan” to deal with distribution of essential services and supplies, including oxygen and drugs.

Observing that oxygen to patients infected with the virus is said to be an “essential part” of treatment, the top court had said it seemed that a certain amount of “panic” has been generated due to which people have approached several high courts seeking relief.

Also read: Supreme Court’s move on COVID-19 cases is wrong: Congress

Prior to this, the Bench had rapped some lawyers for their unfair criticism that the apex court was intending to transfer to itself the cases from HCs saying that no such order was passed.

It had also lamented imputation of motive by some senior bar members while allowing senior advocate Harish Salve to withdraw as an amicus curiae from the case after he had said that he did not want it to be decided under the shadow that he was friends with Justice Bobde from “school and college days”.

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