Saturday, November 26, 2022

Undermining the Law

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A Madras High Court judge initiating contempt proceedings against his own chief justice and members of the bar indulging in acts of hooliganism does not augur well for the judiciary

By Venkatasubramanian

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Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, chief justice of the Madras High Court

When the practice of and non-compliance with the law conflict with each other, the result is a deadly mix, threatening the credibility of the profession itself in the eyes of the public at large. The happenings in the Madras High Court, which are now before the Supreme Court, are illustrative of the larger malaise plaguing the legal profession across the country. First is the case of Justice CS Karnan, who belongs to the scheduled caste. He alleges discrimination at the hands of the high court chief justice, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, and has used the process of the court to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings against the chief justice on the selection of judicial officers.

Justice Karnan’s allegation that Justice Kaul’s constitution of the selection committee to select judicial officers was irregular, unfair and biased may have some basis, but his initiation of the contempt proceedings against his own chief justice, smacked of gross abuse of the process of law, to settle personal scores.

On May 17, the Supreme Court stayed the contempt proceedings against Justice Kaul and restrained Justice Karnan from any interference in the selection process. On September 21, when the matter came up before the Chief Justice of India, HL Dattu, he considered the report submitted by the counsel for the registrar general of the Madras High Court, KK Venugopal, and expressed serious misgivings about current happenings in the high court. Despite Venugopal’s suggestion that the Supreme Court could send a team of three judges to visit the high court to report on the happenings, Justice Dattu held that Justice Kaul must be given more time to handle the issue administratively.

Meanwhile, Justice Karnan has written to the president, the prime minister and the union law minister, with copies to two Dalit politicians—Ramvilas Paswan and Maya-wati. Copies have also been sent to the Tamil Nadu governor, the state chief minister and the chairpersons of the national commissions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

In his letter, Justice Karnan has further alleged that Justice Kaul is not assigning him “appropriate” category of cases for adjudication, and is excluding him from the membership of important judges’ committees in the high court. He has further alleged that Justice Kaul is guilty of violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 by committing an atrocity, in terms of the provisions of the Act. He accused Justice Kaul of denying him the financial assistance of `5 lakh which he sought from the high court to fight the case in the Supreme Court.

Even as the Supreme Court adjourned Justice Karnan’s case to October 26, Justice Dattu could not avoid references to the re-cent happenings in the high court, which seemed to have far more potential to damage the credibility of the judiciary than Justice Karnan’s ego clashes with his chief justice.

“The Madras High Court judges preside in courts with fear psychosis expecting mobs to come in and attack them at anytime. It was once a traditional court that we all looked up to. Never before has it fallen to such low levels,” Justice Dattu observed, expressing his disappointment with the silence of the Tamil Nadu Bar Council and the Bar associations on the matter.

What provoked Justice Dattu were the series of unconnected events, which brought down the image of the Madras High Court. First, advocates from both Chennai and Madurai, along with their spouses and children, held placards in court halls when the courts were in session, demanding that Tamil be made the official court language in the high court. According to a report, they barged into the chambers of the judges, disrupting the suo motu contempt proceedings being heard against two advocates of the Madurai Bench. Chief Justice Kaul had to call the Central Industrial Security Force to protect himself and his brother judges from possible violence from the agitating lawyers.

The two advocates from the Madurai District Court Advocates Association invited contempt proceedings of the high court for making inflammatory speeches in protest against the court’s order directing the state government to strictly enforce the wearing of helmets by two-wheeler riders.

Instead of subjecting themselves to the contempt proceedings and answer the allegations against them, the supporters of the two lawyers indulged in hooliganism, and issued boycott threats.
Justice Dattu’s expression of anguish had its echo on September 22, with the Bar Council of India (BCI) suspending 15 lawyers in Tamil Nadu, after the BCI received their names from the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and the registrar general of the Madras High Court. The BCI has directed the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu to hold disciplinary proceedings against the 15 errant lawyers and has warned that if proceedings were not concluded within a month, the matter would automatically stand transferred to the BCI.

In his letter to the Tamil Nadu Bar Council, the BCI chairman, Manan Kumar Mishra has lamented the fall in standards of the profession. In his order suspending the unruly advocates, Mishra has revealed that the chairman of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu has expressed his inability to take any action against the errant lawyers, particularly the leaders of the unruly advocates because of their muscle power, bad antecedents and criminal history. “Not only the chairman but even the majority of the members of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu are fearful and in panic because of
the stronghold of these lawyers, claiming themselves to be the leader of the Bar,” Mishra wrote.

Mishra added that the number of non-practicing advocates and the number of persons with fake and forged certificates (posing themselves to be lawyers) is increasing by the day. Such advocates in various courts of the country have ample and sufficient time to encourage strikes and disturbance, as they neither have any work nor any responsibility, he noted. According to the information which he had, the police had to form a human chain in two rows to safely escort the Judges after the adjournment of the contempt case against one of the lawyers. Mishra also justified the decision not to hear the 15 advocates before suspending them, in view of the serious nature of the professional misconduct indulged by them. He has also urged the holding of disciplinary proceedings against these advocates in some neighbouring state by the disciplinary committee of that Sate Bar Council.

The BCI’s action—especially its decision not to follow the principle of natural justice by hearing the advocates, before suspending themappears debatable. But the decision seems to be desperate, with even the State Bar Council throwing up its hands, in view of the threats from the unruly lawyers.

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