Writ large: The balance shifts

Writ large: The balance shifts

The great legal tangle The most crucial attribute of democracy, rule of law, is at stake

Justice, like charity, begins at home. But, the number of legal figures, who have appeared for the wrong reasons in the national and regional press in recent months, makes for sad reading. If the very institutions responsible for adjudicating disputes - the body of advocates and the judiciary - themselves become parties to a dispute, who delivers justice?

The latest in the line of unsavoury incidents involving lawyers, the judiciary and the police bucking the legal system, is the members of the Advocates Association, Bangalore disrupting judicial proceedings at the Karnataka High Court and “locking up” two judges on November 9, to force their demand that Chief Justice P D Dinakaran must abstain from hearing cases until he is cleared of the land grabbing charges against him. This incident was closely followed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice K G Balakrishnan, being booed for introducing a new security system for the Supreme Court that restricts entry to those having digital identity cards, called proximity cards. The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Bar Council of Delhi are demanding relaxation of the strict rule and permitting advocates to enter the court complex with their I-cards issued by these statutory bodies after due verification. The CJI has refused to relent but agreed to discuss and sort out the problems.

In February this year, the burning down of a police station on the Madras High Court premises by a group of lawyers marked the beginning of a dangerous trend. The High Court witnessed pitched battles between the police and the lawyers, who were protesting the arrest of advocates alleged to be involved in the attack on Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy inside a court hall of the Madras HC in full view of two judges.

Lawyers taking the law into their own hands is not a new phenomenon. With the judiciary often taking a sympathetic view of violations and excesses by members of the Bar, and the police tending to look the other way because of lawyers’ proximity to the judiciary, organised groups of lawyers have at times crossed the limits of law without fear of punitive action.

At the same time, lawyers and their associations have boycotted courts and lead protest demonstrations on many an occasion for just causes such as their struggle for establishing high court benches in north Karnataka, and the protest in the wake of the multi-crore fake stamp paper scam. But the means of protest must always be as just as the cause. The disregard for the rule of law by the larger lawyer community is getting more blatant by the day. The sanctity of court halls and court proceedings have been violated both at Madras and Bangalore, judges obstructed from discharging their constitutional duties, hapless litigant public held to ransom, and even the police and the media - two essential arms of any democracy - attacked.

Crisis writ large

The crisis was writ large for long. The growing criticism of the judiciary for its alleged lack of accountability is taking its toll. The alarm bells sounded over the choice of Justice P D Dinakaran of the Karnataka High Court to the Supreme Court, holding up all appointments, has become the triggering point for a debate on a better system of selection and appointment of judges of the higher judiciary. Last year, a courier delivered a cash bag at the front door of a judge of the Punjab and Haryana high court, mistaking one judge for the other because of their common first name. Some months later, a judge of the Calcutta high court was involved in another financial scam. There were several other ignominies, spread over various courts, including the Provident Fund scam in which 34 judges from all three tiers of courts, including the SC, have been named. The Supreme Court has referred the case to the CBI.

“Nobody can say there is no corruption among the judiciary,” admitted a former Supreme Court judge.

Often judges also tend to be hypersensitive about their prestige and privileges. SC Judges are reportedly exhibiting frayed nerves and marked irritation in their utterances in court as well. Senior jurist A G Noorani wrote recently: “In no other apex court would one find such a persistent tendency of intemperate, sweeping and undignified comments by judges.”

At a time when even the other arms of the state need correction, the justice system requires the most urgent attention as it is the last resort of the citizens. However, at present no one knows how to clean up the Augean stables. Though there has been demand for the constitution of a national judicial commission, it is again mired in controversy and a Bill was allowed to lapse some years ago as both the government and the judiciary are ambivalent on the proposal.  

“It is a case of the cat and the monkey. Somebody will take advantage of the situation,” quipped a senior judge.

Karnataka stalemate

Aug 28, 2009: A media report speaks of the recommendation of five names for elevation as Supreme Court judges, by the Supreme Court Collegium. The names: Chief Justices A K Patnaik, T S Thakur, K S Radhakrishnan, S S Nijjar and P D Dinakaran.

Sept 9: Eminent jurists Fali Nariman and Shanthi Bhushan meet Chief Justice of India and submit a representation from The Forum for Judicial Accountability, comprising of several senior lawyers of Chennai, which questions the integrity of Karnataka Chief Justice  Dinakaran.

Sept 18 and Oct 1: The Forum makes two more representations to Collegium and Chief Justice of India with material to support allegations of land grabbing and corruption against Karnataka CJ.

Sept 17: Advocates Association of Bangalore (AAB) passes a resolution to appeal to the SC Collegium to take a decision regarding elevation of CJ and request Justice Dinakaran not to conduct judicial proceedings when the High Court resumes on October 5, after a winter break.

Oct 5: Chief Justice Dinakaran conducts Court proceedings

Nov 4: AAB passes resolution to abstain from Court proceedings on November 9. The Association sends a letter to all the judges asking them not to discharge judicial work on that day  so as not to harm the interest of litigants

Nov 6: A writ petition filed questioning the legality of advocates’ proposed boycott of court proceedings on November 9. Case referred to a division bench.

Nov 7: HC convenes special bench to hear the case. The bench stays AAB resolution after a day-long hearing on a Saturday.

Nov 9: Lawyers defy stay order and abstain from work. Two judges are locked in a court hall for more than an hour for refusing to suspend hearings. CJ arrives to get the judges released and sustains a minor injury in the ensuing melee.

Nov 10: Division bench slaps show cause notice on AAB for letter to judges asking them not to damage any case during the boycott on November 9.

Nov 13: AAB responds to the show cause notice. Court posts the matter to January 5, 2010.

Nandini Chandrashekar