The Bombay High Court and lower courts across Maharashtra stepped into the mostly uncharted waters of virtual hearing during the year as the coronavirus pandemic forced the state into lockdown. After actor Sushant Singh Rajputs death shocked the country in June, there was a flurry of litigation related to the case. Actor Kangana Ranaut also found herself at the courts doorstep when the Mumbai municipal body demolished 'illegal' construction at her Bandra bungalow.
The lockdown led to some important criminal cases such as the September 2008 Malegaon blasts and Sheena Bora murder getting stuck, as examination and cross-examination of witnesses posed a difficulty due to movement restrictions. In April, a few benches of the high court in Mumbai started hearing urgent matters through video conference. The facility was also made available at the benches at Aurangabad, Nagpur and Goa and in subordinate courts all over the state.
Justice Dipankar Datta of the Calcutta High Court took over as new Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court towards the end of April. Amid lockdown, he chose to drive from Kolkata to Mumbai with his son, covering the distance of 2,000 km in three days. The high court functioned through the annual summer vacation. The number of benches hearing matters virtually was gradually increased and by October all the benches were back in action.
In November, the high court decided to resume physical hearings. But as a few lawyers' associations demurred, Chief Justice Datta said the high court would conduct virtual hearings once a week and physical hearings on other days. This system is to be in operation till January 10, 2021. In April, the high court passed a directive that all interim orders passed in civil and criminal cases shall continue till further decision as litigants could not travel to courts. The directive has been extended till January 2021.
In September, when all hearings were being conducted virtually, the high court came to the rescue of Kangana Ranaut by staying the demolition of her office-cum-bungalow in Pali Hill area, initiated by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The court held that the action was illegal and smacked of malice. Ranauts legal troubles, however, continued with a magistrate's court ordering police to lodge a First Information Report against her and her sister Rangoli Chandel for alleged offences of sedition and trying to incite hatred and communal tension through Twitter posts.
They moved the high court, which in November granted them interim protection and asked them to appear before police to record statements on January 8, 2021. Lyricist Javed Akthar filed a defamation complaint against Ranaut over some of her statements. A magistrate's court on December 19 directed the Mumbai police to probe the complaint and file a report.
Actor Richa Chadha filed a defamation suit against another actor Payal Ghosh, who had accused filmmaker Anurag Kashyap of sexual assault, for making false statements about her. Ghosh apologised to her, following which Chadha withdrew the suit. Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami was arrested by Alibaug police for alleged abetment to suicide of interior designer Anvay Naik in 2018.
He failed to get interim bail from the Bombay High Court but was granted relief by the Supreme Court after he had spent a week in jail. Goswami and his channel also moved the high court seeking the quashing of a case registered by Mumbai police over an alleged Television Rating Points (TRP) rigging racket.
Following Sushant Singh Rajputs death on June 14, 2020,his girlfriend and actor Rhea Chakraborty was accused by his family of abetting the suicide. She, in turn, filed a complaint against Rajputs sisters for allegedly forging a prescription to procure drugs for anxiety for him. Rajputs sisters moved the high court which granted them interim protection from arrest.
A petition was filed in the high court by some former IPS officers and others seeking regulation of media coverage in cases such as Rajputs death which spawned many conspiracy theories. The high court has reserved its order on the plea.
An offshoot of the probe into Rajput's death was the discovery of evidence about alleged drug use in Bollywood. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in September arrested Rhea Chakraborty, her brother Showik and others for allegedly procuring narcotics. While Rhea was granted bail by the high court in October, her brother managed to get bail only in December.
The NCB later arrested comedian Bharti Singh and her husband Harsh Limbachiya for alleged consumption of drugs but both were released on bail by a magistrates court. In February, the high court granted bail to former media baron Peter Mukerjea, who along with former wife Indrani Mukerjea is accused of being party to the conspiracy to kill Sheena Bora, her daughter from an earlier relationship.
Indrani Mukerjea is still behind bars. Some of the accused in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case had to knock on the courts door for simple amenities in jail such as winter clothing.
Stan Swamy, 82, suffering from Parkinsons disease, filed an application in the sessions court seeking a direction to jail authorities to provide him a straw and sipper. Activist Gautam Navlakha, another accused, complained that his spectacles were stolen in jail and the authorities refused to accept the new pair sent by his family.
The high court said these are humane considerations and should not be denied. It suggested that a workshop should be conducted for jail officials to sensitise them.