Litigants who already face problems such as frequent adjournments and other delays suffer the most each time advocates strike work
Once more, on June 10, 2013, lawyers in Tamil Nadu went on a boycott of the courts. This time the lawyers allege that the Director General of Police was willing to meet only a few, and not all the members of the delegation of lawyers who wished to protest about the arrest of some members of the profession following a complaint lodged by a hotel, and that the DGP used “unparliamentary” language. The advocates’ associations have brought the courts in the State to a grinding halt. In the past few years, the courts have seen any number of boycotts by lawyers on various grounds. While most of these stoppages of work last a day or two, some have gone further, in a couple of instances into weeks.
The issue of whether lawyers can go on strike was dealt with by the Supreme Court in Common Cause vs Union of India (AIR 2005 SC 4442). The Court held that: a ) it is unprofessional for a lawyer to strike or boycott the court, b) bar associations should not permit meetings calling for such strikes or boycotts, and such requisitions should be ignored, c) it is the duty of the State and National Bar Councils to take action against striking bar associations and sponsors of boycotts, d) the Courts must hear matters posted before them undeterred by boycotts, and e) it is only in the rarest of rare cases that abstention from court is justified, such as dignity, integrity and independence of the Bar and Bench, and that must be decided by the judge heading the Court, and even this must be only for one day. Sadly, this judgment is observed more in the breach.
Who benefits from boycotts? Certainly not litigants; it’s difficult enough to get your case to be heard what with frequent adjournments on various grounds, and it must be deeply frustrating to find the courts shut on the day of the promised hearing. Every day there are a large number of petitions that require immediate hearing. Bail applications are the foremost example; if the court does not work, the citizen is deprived of his chance to resume his freedom. Urgent interim orders are sought to protect person and property, cause lists show hundreds of cases where parties seek such interim orders. Even a day’s delay causes harm and loss.
Most lawyers are opposed to boycotts, and do not support stoppage of work in courts save in the extreme case of threat to the legal profession or the independence of the judiciary. However, they prefer to keep silent in the face of a vociferous minority who commandeer proceedings at bar association meetings, and thus acquiescence becomes the order of the day. Judges are forced to adjourn cases when lawyers do not appear; lawyers who wish to appear fear obstructive and even violent behaviour from those on boycott, and can’t be expected to place themselves to risk. The judiciary hasn’t been able to crack down on those who are responsible for these stoppages. The situation has exacerbated over the years. If stern measures had been taken earlier, the message would have gone out that the practice will not be tolerated. Instead, inaction sent out the opposite signal. With each succeeding episode it becomes more difficult to apply corrective measures.
Those who benefit are the ones who call for the boycott. It demonstrates their power; after all, if you can bring the entire system to a halt, you must be a force to reckon with. This makes for the phenomenon of competitive boycotting. This also means that no group wants to be seen as being against the boycott. Some boycotts have nothing to do with issues of lawyers, but are aligned to political causes. It is deeply ironical that lawyers should close down courts when they have a vexed issue to deal with. Courts are after all the institutions where complaints and grievances are taken for resolution, and lawyers are the experts to provide dispute resolution services. It says little for the confidence of the lawyers in their system, and themselves, when they hold courts to ransom till their demands are met.
Most causes for boycotts emanate from conflict between lawyers and the police. The latter is no exemplar of angelic behaviour, and the highhandedness of the police provides enough ammunition for Newtonian reaction by lawyers. Lawyers also allege that the police refuse to register cases even when offences are made out.
On their side, policemen complain that lawyers throw their weight around and when charged with breaking the law, escalate the incident to a lawyer-police conflict. It must be conceded that both sides have cause for grievance. However, this is a problem of frequent occurrence, and the reason why lawyers rush to boycott is that they think that the ordinary legal processes will not bring the police to book. They are wrong here; one well directed suit against specific police officers for damages will have far more threat and deterrent value than ten strikes. All the more so since boycotts, having become so common, are not taken seriously by those in power, and peter out without achievement. However, to prevent such flashpoints from escalating to violence and prolonged conflict, we would do well to set up a standing committee to handle these issues of lawyer-police conflict, which can consist of retired judges, bar office-bearers and senior police and government officers.
The legal profession should be aware that with each boycott we bring down further our image in the eyes of the public, and our claims of being a noble profession will ring false if we close down, periodically and without cause, the institution that protects the rule of law and renders the service of dispute resolution to the people. Repeated boycotts by lawyers have become a national phenomenon; perhaps it is time for the Supreme Court to enforce its ruling.
(Sriram Panchu is a senior advocate. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)