COVID-19 | Few people approach courts to seek inquiry, damages or fix responsibility, say counsels

Economic status of litigants, delay and judicial system being not litigant-friendly are some of the reasons cited.

“My father could have been saved. It was not just COVID which killed him,” tweeted an actor recently.

This is a common sentiment among most people who had lost their loved ones due to the raging pandemic but not many of them have chosen to approach the courts of law against alleged unpreparedness of the State in the handling the crisis. And legal experts cite multiple reasons for the hesitation.

No doubt, activists have been filing numerous public interest litigation petitions on general issues concerning COVID-19 and the Supreme Court as well as several High Courts in the country have also taken up suo motu proceedings to monitor the State’s action in the fight against the pandemic. However, individual cases demanding an inquiry to fix responsibility or seeking damages for the loss have been few and far.

Senior Counsel R. Vaigai says there is certainly a “grave failure” on the part of the State in having “failed to save lives” as people can be seen running from pillar to post in frantic search of hospital beds, oxygen, drugs and vaccines. Yet, many had not approached courts to hold the State accountable because of reasons which differ from individual to individual, depending upon their economic status and other factors, she points out.

The counsel says people in the low-income group do not choose to litigate because their primary concern is to earn the next meal of the day. And those who can afford to litigate do not choose to do so because the judicial system is not litigant-friendly. E-filing of cases is yet to become a norm in the country and the long delay in disposing of even writ petitions, filed under Article 226 of the Constitution, is the dissuading factor, she says.

Two writ pleas so far

So far, only two individual writ petitions related to COVID-19 have been filed in the Madras High Court. One is a case filed by the wife of a neurosurgeon whose body could not be buried in a Christian cemetery in April 2020 because local residents had objected fearing the spread of COVID-19. A single judge ordered for reburying the body as per her wish, but a Division Bench stayed the order on an appeal preferred by Greater Chennai Corporation.

The other case is filed by a vaccine trial volunteer who had reportedly suffered medical complications after the trial. He had filed a writ petition, through his counsel N.G.R. Prasad, seeking a compensation of ₹5 crore and this case is also pending adjudication after ordering notices to the Centre, the Drugs Controller General of India, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the vaccine manufacturer.

Senior counsel M. Ajmal Khan says not many in the country choose to sue the State because it is very difficult for a common man to put up a legal fight against the “mighty government” which has a number of law officers at its disposal to defend itself. Constitutional courts also do not entertain writ petitions easily because such cases involve disputed questions of fact. Most of the time, the litigants are forced to approach civil courts.

“In civil courts, a litigant has to pay a considerable amount of court fee to file a suit for damages and almost half of his/her lifetime would be spent on conducting the case. Cost of litigation and time are also prime reasons why many do not resort to this course of remedy. These anomalies must be addressed in our country so that people could be encouraged to stand up against injustice and put up a legal fight,” he adds.

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