The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed hearings on petitions in various High Courts seeking priority vaccinations for members of the legal fraternity, reported Bar and Bench. The court also issued notices on transfer petitions of vaccine manufacturers Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India.
A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian was hearing petitions filed by the two firms seeking transfer of the pending cases related to Covid-19 vaccination in various High Courts to the Supreme Court.
In its plea, the Serum Institute had stated that directions passed by the Delhi and Bombay High Courts – where the matter was taken up – would lead to similar writ petitions and public interest litigations in other states. The firm submitted that the Supreme Court should settle the matter in order to avoid a multiplicity of proceedings and conflicting rulings. The Supreme Court also transferred to itself the vaccine-related case in the Delhi High Court, according to PTI.
During the hearing, the bench said that the requests raised by lawyers for priority vaccination appeared genuine prima facie. “Advocates can make money only when they come in contact of people,” Bobde said. “This is where these claims come from and that’s why High Court is looking into it.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, argued that it would not be appropriate to give priority to lawyers. “How do I distinguish a lawyer colleague of mine who is 30 to 35 and another one who is a vegetable vendor who is 30 to 35 and also in touch with others in the market,” he asked.
The solicitor general added that journalists can also raise similar demands as they also come into contact with other people.
Bobde admitted that the judges on the bench are not medical experts and cannot explain why someone is not in the priority category. “We have no doubt that government has distinguished itself by supplying vaccines to all around the world,” Bobde said. “No one is attributing mala fide to you. [But] it is a genuine concern on behalf of the advocates.”
Both the Delhi and Bombay High Courts had taken up the matter before them, but deferred the hearing after they were told that vaccine manufacturers have filed transfer petitions before the Supreme Court.
On March 10, the Centre had told the Delhi High Court that the decision to vaccinate people against the coronavirus was based on vulnerability of citizens to the infection and was not profession wise. The government had made the submission in response to a public interest litigation to examine the demand to declare all people associated with the judicial functioning, including judges, court staff and lawyers, as frontline workers so that they can receive the Covid-19 vaccination on a priority basis, without any limitation on their age and health condition.
In the Bombay High Court hearing on the same matter, Justice Dipankar Datta had drawn a comparison with the captain of the ship “Titanic”, as portrayed in the Hollywood movie of the same title. “Have you seen Titanic,” he had asked the petitioners. “Do you remember the captain of the ship? You remember what he did. He was the last one. I am the captain here. First everyone else gets [the vaccine], then the judiciary gets.”
Datta had also said that the plea was a “selfish” one suggesting that survival was more important under the current scenario.
Last month, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear a petition seeking inclusion of lawyers, judges and court staff in the priority list for coronavirus vaccination. Notably, vaccination for Supreme Court judges, including those who have retired, and their families, began earlier this month.
On March 1, India began its second phase of vaccination under which people above 60 years of age and those above 45 with co-morbidities, are eligible to receive the shots. India had begun the vaccination drive on January 16, with a target of inoculating 30 crore people by July.
India has so administered over 3.64 crore vaccine doses. Of these, 14.03 lakh vaccine doses given till Wednesday 7 pm.