A Supreme Court bench on Thursday stopped the Delhi High Court from going ahead with a suo moto case the latter had taken up to consider including the legal fraternity in the priority list for COVID-19 vaccination. The bench that was headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, in response to the petitions filed by vaccine manufacturers Bharat Biotech and Serum Institue of India (SII) seeking to transfer the case in the Delhi High Court to the apex court, issued notice on the same.
The bench that also comprised Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian went on to observe, "Since the issue pending before this court is the same as the one pending before the Delhi High Court, and in any case, related, we are of the view that suo moto writ petition pending before the Delhi High Court be transferred to this court"
"The High Court shall not proceed in the matter meanwhile," the bench ordered.
The vaccine manufacturing companies had approached the apex court against the Delhi High Court's order to take a suo moto case to examine if judges, advocates and court staff can be regarded as frontline warriors for the vaccination priority, and for that, the High Court had sought affidavits from SII and Bharat Biotech on their capacities and had asked the Centre for an explanation on the rationale behind the vaccination criteria.
During the proceedings, the bench outlined that the expert group constituted by the Centre to deal with vaccinations should consider the concerns of the lawyers, as they come into contact with people every day to earn their bread and butter. The Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, taking cognizance of the concerns, assured the bench that it would place the opinion in front of the committee on behalf of the legal fraternity.
On the suo moto order passed by the Delhi High Court to disclose the manufacturing capacity of the companies, Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Bharath Biotech, took exception and said, "We don't want to disclose our capacity."
Senior Advocate Harish Salve who was appearing for SII, questioning the intrusion of the court in the Government criteria, asserted, "For the court to say that it will decide if lawyers are frontline workers, is embarrassing, with due respect."
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta then outlined that the Centre was supporting the companies' plea to withdraw the petitions to the Supreme Court. "This is an all India issue, and cannot be decided at a state level," he argued.
Further elaborating on the topic, he said that the vaccination criteria have been formulated by the expert committee, keeping in mind the global standards. As per global norms, priority is given to health workers, then to frontline workers such as police, municipal workers and then to persons above 60 years, and persons in the age bracket of 45-60 with co-morbidities.
"It will be difficult to consider competing claims raised by different professional groups seeking vaccination priority," the Solicitor General added.
Elaborating on his point, he said, "How do I distinguish between a 35-year old colleague of mine and a 35-year old vegetable vendor who is doing business in a market with equal bustle and hustle? There are several such professions, how do we distinguish?"
He also outlined that bank workers & journalists can also come up with similar demands, on which the CJI replied, "We do not think a journalist has to come into contact with people while the Advocates find it very difficult not to meet people."
After a brief exchange, the SG agreed to place the representations concerning the legal fraternity before the expert committee, which will take a decision in three days, he said.
It is pertinent to mention here that last week a Bombay High Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta had taken a contrasting approach to a similar plea and asked why should the legal fraternity be considered as frontline workers.