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Litigation continues over Madurai writ

By V. Jayanth

CHENNAI, JULY 27. If the litigant public and lawyers in the southern districts thought that the inauguration of the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai would bring the curtains down on an unseemly controversy, they are sadly mistaken. Though the High Court and the Supreme Court have dismissed the petitions seeking to stay the July 6 Presidential notification and the inauguration of the Bench on July 24, Chennai advocates continue to stay away from the courts and have even demanded the transfer of the Chief Justice, B. Subhashan Reddy.

Key issues

Two issues dominate the debate on the need for the Madurai Bench and its jurisdiction. When the Chennai advocates met the Chief Justice of India, a sort of compromise was worked out. Under this, Mr. Justice Reddy appointed a committee of judges to finalise the territorial jurisdiction of the Bench. As an interim measure, two districts — Nagapattinam (along with Tiruvarur) and Perambalur, which were to fall under the Madurai Bench's jurisdiction — were allowed to remain with the principal seat in Chennai. This was also in response to the demand of the Bar. The others opted to go with Madurai, with Coimbatore even seeking a separate Bench for the western region.

The boycott of the High Court will continue until the committee of judges submits its report. But the more important demand from the advocates here is that the Madurai Bench must not have `writ jurisdiction'. Even as it was made in Chennai, the Chief Justice announced in Madurai that the Bench would have all these powers. More than the issue of districts covered by the Bench and the principal seat, senior lawyers are concerned about the "actual status" and legal jurisdiction of the Bench.

They say Madurai can have only a "Circuit Bench" sitting from time to time — as an extension of the High Court. They argue that under the existing legal framework and the Constitution, one State cannot have two High Courts — a Permanent Bench outside the principal seat.

Overriding factor

For some advocates, the overriding factor is economic. If half the State is taken out of the High Court's jurisdiction, there is bound to be a fall in practice for many advocates. Some of them are thinking of relocating, while some law firms have already set up or are planning to start a branch office in Madurai. But given the large army of advocates here and the expected fall in the number of cases, there will be a yawning gap.

The senior lawyers are focussing on the constitutionality or otherwise of the setting up of the Bench in Madurai. Citing the Supreme Court ruling in the case for a Bench of the Karnataka High Court in Hubli or Dharwar, N.G.R. Prasad says, "More than the agitation for a Bench by lawyers, other than in the principal seat, the Supreme Court itself has not viewed it favourably."

The Supreme Court ruled: "Apart from the heavy burden such a Bench would inflict on the State exchequer, the functional efficiency of the High Court would be much impaired by keeping High Courts in different regions. When the Chief Justice of the High Court is a singlular office and when the Advocate-General is also a singular office, vivisection of the High Court into different Benches at different regions would undoubtedly affect the efficacy of the functioning the High Court."

No going back

Now that infrastructure has been created and the Madurai Bench has been opened to litigants, there can be no going back. The lawyers in Chennai would want it limited to a `Circuit Bench' but their colleagues in the south as well as the litigant public would like to have a full-fledged Bench that can cater for all their needs, instead of their having to come to Chennai. Whichever way the decision goes, one section will be unhappy. But it is the `big picture' and the larger interests that must be borne in mind.

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