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Bench, bar in battle of wits

Mohamed Imranullah S.
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Judges and lawyers miss no cue to trade barbs

They neither use a bench nor a bar, yet judges and lawyers of the Madras High Court Bench here are collectively referred to by the universal terms ‘Bench’ and ‘Bar’ respectively. And the reason for it remains a mystery even for many of those who deal with court proceedings on a regular basis.

The term ‘Bench’ became a talking point in 2010 when a long pending demand for placing a Tamil name board outside the High Court Bench reached a flash point.

A local Tamil organisation erected a board translating ‘Bench’ as ‘Palagai’ (meaning plank).

However, after wide consultations with Tamil scholars, the judges came to a conclusion that the term ‘Bench’ could not be translated into Tamil. They preferred to call it ‘Kilai’ meaning a branch of the Madras High Court and a name board was installed accordingly.

Vicaji J. Taraporevala, a Mumbai-based senior advocate, in his book ‘Tales From the Bench and the Bar’ pointed out that the two terms came into use from the days when British judges sat on wooden benches and lawyers argued cases standing in front of bars inside court halls.

Family members were allowed to sit along with the judges during the hearing of sensational cases.

Bars were used to divide the judges’ dais and the seating arrangement for lawyers.

Over the years, though the terms continued to be in use, the wooden benches were shifted from the judges’ dais to the visitors or litigants’ gallery, as seen in the High Court Bench here at present, and the bars were replaced either with wooden barricades or tables.

Judges of the Madurai Bench are now officially provided with high-backed wooden chairs bearing the High Court emblem on the head rest. Though the chairs are cushioned on the seat as well as at the back, some judges find them uncomfortable.

These judges keep their official chairs aside and instead use fully cushioned roller chairs, sans the High Court emblem, which afford flexibility and comfort during sittings that stretch for about three hours in the forenoon and over two and a half hours in the afternoon session.

An anecdote involving Lord Denning, a much celebrated British judge, goes that he once slouched so low in his chair during the hearing of a protracted case when, suddenly, a litigant threw a book at the judge. But it missed the target.

Lord Denning reportedly quipped: “Thank God, I am not an upright judge.” Clearly, court proceedings are not always dull and tedious as they are generally perceived to be, and judges are not always stern and harsh.

Retired Justice P.K. Misra is remembered as a judge given to hilarity who kept his court lively and in good humour during his stint at the Madurai Bench.

Once, when the judge insisted that a young lawyer wind up his arguments, the lawyer said: “Yes, I’ll finish your Lordship”

“Don’t finish me. Finish your argument,” the judge shot back.

Recently, while hearing a case relating to abetment of suicide, Justice T. Sudanthiram, in a lighter vein, told the victim’s counsel, “Sir, if people start committing suicide for being a subject of criticism, then we judges may have to commit suicide every day on reading the kind of slanderous and anonymous letters that we receive.”

Justice V. Ramasubramanian, a judge known for his wit and play on words, quoted Bombay High Court senior lawyer C.K. Daphtary who, while urging a judge to forgive a junior lawyer, said: “My Lord, what the young man has done is the right thing in a wrong way.

When he reaches your Lordship’s age and mine, he will learn how to do the wrong thing in the right way.”

On another occasion, when a judge complained of seeing a bug inside a law book handed over to him by Mr. Daphtary, the latter responded saying:

“My Lord, this is not the first time that a bug has travelled from the Bar to the Bench.”

It’s safe to say that the Bench and the Bar are locked in an eternal battle of wits.

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