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In an unprecedented move, the High Court here has suspended a judicial magistrate for corruption. Will this send a message to the subordinate judiciary in Tamil Nadu embroiled in various controversies?

By R Ramasubramanian


These are tough days for the subordinate judiciary in Tamil Nadu as the whip has been cracked against erring judicial officers. On April 1, in a decisive move, the Madras High Court suspended KV Mahendra Bhoopathy, judicial magistrate, Melur (in Madurai district). This was after Bhoopathy passed orders in favor of granite baron PR Palanichamy or PRP as he is popularly known. In fact, the High Court had earlier appointed an enquiry committee headed by IAS officer U Sagayam, which had passed scathing comments against PRP for destroying natural wealth and illegally looting granite. The committee pegged the loss to the state exchequer at over `1 lakh crore due to this illegal quarrying. 

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The issue created a huge furor in the state and the local media went to town over it. “The huge pressure generated by the media coverage and protests by a few environmental groups resulted in the Madras High Court appointing the Sagayam committee. It is against this background that the suspension of the magistrate has to be looked at. Though the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had framed guidelines for the concerned magistrate to deal with this matter, he threw caution to the winds,” said J Sekar, an advocate practicing in Madurai.

The immediate provocation for the suspension was not only the magistrate giving a clean chit to PRP but also his direction to the government to take action against then Madurai collector for initiating actions against the granite baron. “This challenged the very authority of the High Court because it was under its directions that prosecution was initiated against PRP,” added Sekar.

TAKE ACTION

Immediately after PRP got a clean chit, a group of lawyers met Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the High Court and made a representation. He directed that an enquiry be conducted and two district judges of Madurai did so and submitted their report to the CJ. On April 1, the High Court suspended Bhoopathy.

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  In fact, the Madras High Court had started tightening the screws on erring subordinate judges a year ago. A few months back, a lady special judge of a Fast Track Mahila Court was suspended on the day of her retirement and was not allowed to retire. The High Court directed the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department or CBCID of the Tamil Nadu police to look into the allegations against her. Accordingly, the CBCID registered an FIR and started an enquiry. Legal circles say that this is the first time a serving district judge was facing a CBCID enquiry in Tamil Nadu.

District judges are supposed to retire at 58. Usually, the practice is that they will be given a two-year extension. But in the past one year, the Madras High Court has refused to extend the services of at least half-a-dozen district judges. The reason: corruption charges against them.

STRICT ACTION

In one case, though the administrative committee of the Madras High Court favored an extension for one male judge, it was overruled by a Full Court. In February this year, another district judge—TS Nandakumar—was suspended following several corruption charges. The suspension would not have received huge publicity if not for his suicide attempt in Trichy district. In March, another judge was forced to take compulsory retirement because he granted interim bail to a doctor who was arraigned as one of the main accused in a kidney racket.  Another lady sub-judge is facing the heat of the vigilance wing of the Madras High Court for simply under-reporting the actual value of her total assets. 

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So, how did the subordinate judiciary in this state become so corrupt? “The role of advocates is very crucial in this matter,” revealed a retired district judge from southern Tamil Nadu. “If there is a corrupt judge in a subordinate court or in a district court, it means that there are many corrupt advocates in that court. It is these practicing advocates, to a large extent, who not only function as conduits but also nudge and perhaps instigate judges to accept bribes. During my work in over six districts, the offers mainly came through lawyers practicing either in my court or from the same district.”

Further, he said that cell phones, laptops, television sets, other consumer durables, hard cash and land would be offered as inducements. The lawyer “touts” are smart and know the personal likes and dislikes of concerned judges and can gauge their psychology, he said. “They are totally focused in this endeavor. With regard to corruption in the lower judiciary, 99 percent responsibility lies with the lawyers and 1 percent with the concerned judges,” he added.

SHETTY PANEL

Corruption in the lower judiciary is an age-old problem in the Indian judicial system and the Supreme Court had taken steps to rectify this.  One such step was appointing the Shetty Commission to look into the working condition of subordinate judicial officers. It was instituted while hearing a case filed by the All India Judges Association and a few others who prayed to the SC to fix decent salaries and establish proper working conditions for subordinate judicial officers right up to the level of district judges. Accepting the plea, the Supreme Court then appointed the K Jagannath Shetty Commission and a formal notification was issued in this regard on March 21, 1996.

“The Shetty Commission filed its report long ago, and most of the state governments, including Tamil Nadu, implemented its findings. Decent salaries were paid to subordinate judicial officers. Laptops were given. Skill-up gradation courses were conducted at periodical intervals, three office assistants, a vehicle and housing and medical requirements too were given. In spite of this, there are cases of corruption,” said N Ramesh, a former magistrate and now a practicing advocate in the Madras High Court. “There are several checks and balances to curb the rot. To a large extent, subordinate judicial officers are not allowed to serve in one place for more than three years.”

   Interestingly, there is a vigilance cell in the Madras High Court campus headed by an additional deputy superintendent of the state police. It has a skeletal staff and looks into corruption complaints against the subordinate judiciary. “But in over 99 percent of the cases, FIRs are not filed because there are no first-party complainants. They usually get anonymous letters and the matter ends there,” said B Ramanathan, a lawyer in the High Court. Even in the suspension of Bhoopathy, no official reason was cited. It’s not clear how long he will be under suspension and whether an enquiry will be conducted against him.

 To top it, there is the Judges Protection Act which is like a shield for judges and protects them against all sorts of complaints. The framers of the Act felt that subjecting judges to allegations would not only demoralize them but also destabilize the justice system of the country. But in the process, all-pervasive corruption has crept into the judiciary. In fact, Justice Markandey Katju wrote in his blog that 50 percent of the judiciary was corrupt.  

The action of the Madras HC has sent out a strong message to the over 2,000 subordinate judicial officers in Tamil Nadu. It is hoped that they will reform their corrupt ways.

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