The state government informed the Bombay High Court on Friday that the representation made by lawyers seeking direction for individuals from the bar to be permitted to travel in local trains amidst present restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic has been rejected by the Secretary, State Disaster Management, Relief and Rehabilitation.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Ajay Gadkari was additionally informed that the state has likewise turned down the request by lawyers to exclude or exempt legal services from the lockdown rules and declare them as essential services.
Advocate Shyam Dewani, counsel for the main petitioner Chirag Channai, told the bench that several lawyers lived in suburbs in Mumbai, and that they were experiencing tremendous inconvenience in traveling to courts and their workplaces because of limitations on local train travel.
Dewani, and advocate Uday Warunjikar, counsel for another petitioner, also revealed to HC that lawyers had already written to the state government seeking that their services are perceived as essential services during the lockdown and they be allowed local train travel.
Dewani also called attention to a Delhi High Court judgment of May allowing lawyers to travel to the national capital from neighboring states unhampered.
Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, representing the state government, told the judges that on August 5, the state’s disaster management and rehabilitation unit chief had passed an order expressing that lawyers couldn’t be permitted to travel in local trains as on date. The authority additionally refused to categories legal services as fundamental and essential.
Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, however, told HC the Delhi HC judgment dealt with travel by private vehicles and not public transport.
Therefore, the petitioners could not seek parity based on such judgment, he said.
In its order, the authority said, “The restrictions on traveling in local trains were brought in to ensure social distancing and avoid overcrowding. Initially, the services were made available for essential service providers only, but later on, other members of the public, who are helping to normalize the economy, were allowed to travel in the local trains.”
To the contention of the lawyers that they get late in reaching the courts, the authority in its order noted that no specific data has been placed on record showing that cases (of these lawyers) got dismissed because of them reaching late to the court.
The state government also submitted, through its affidavit, that there were no limitations on the use of personal vehicles except the number of travelers in a single-vehicle.
The lawyers, thus, were allowed to drive in private vehicles as long as they wore masks and took other COVID-19 related security and safety measures.
The petitioners also said in their plea that the court staff and staff of government pleaders’ offices were already included in a list of essential services to be eligible to travel by local trains and the BEST is offering its services.
The state, accordingly, was discriminating by preventing lawyers from using local trains.
The state, however, said in the affidavit there was no discrimination since just government pleaders’ staff were allowed to use local trains and government pleaders’, who are the state’s lawyers, had no such consent.
HC has now guided the petitioners to respond to the state’s affidavit within seven days.