Restoring the law in courts

Both Bar and Bench should act now to restore the lustre of the Madras High Court

Updated - June 07, 2016 05:28 am IST

Published - September 25, 2015 01:34 am IST

“Strikes, boycotts and processions have become a regular feature in courts.” Picture shows lawyers and their families staging a dharna in the Madras High Court. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

“Strikes, boycotts and processions have become a regular feature in courts.” Picture shows lawyers and their families staging a dharna in the Madras High Court. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

This week, the lawyers of Tamil Nadu received a public chastisement from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Appraised of recent incidents of unseemly behaviour by a section of the Bar, the head of the judiciary remarked on how low the Madras High Court has fallen.

Last Monday (Sept. 14), some lawyers, with wives and children in tow, spent the day bringing down the image of the judiciary in general, and the Madras High Court in particular. They held placards inside the Court of the Chief Justice, and remained there for the whole day. To refresh themselves for such arduous work, they consumed snacks and beverages inside the court. When they refused to vacate at the end of the day, they were arrested and remanded.

They were demanding that Tamil be declared the official language of the Court; they should have known that the Chief Justice of the High Court is not the deciding authority for this. If their true purpose was to grab headlines and get themselves photographed, they succeeded. If another motive was to embarrass the Court, they failed since the court carried on its business, ignoring their presence.

Another recent issue illustrates the slide further. Some time back the High Court at its Madurai Bench passed an order mandating the wearing of helmets by riders of two-wheelers. The order was passed in the interest of public safety, taking into account the deaths and serious injuries from road accidents when these protective devices are not worn. For some reason difficult to fathom, a section of lawyers at the District Bar in Madurai were incensed by the order. They did not ask the Court to review and recall it, nor file any appeal; this would be the normal course of action for any one affected. Instead, the lawyers took out processions, put up posters and held meetings where the judiciary was denounced. Stung by the inflammatory nature of the speeches, the High Court invoked its power of contempt for scandalous behaviour against the President and Secretary of the Madurai District Court Advocates Association. The response was not surprising — court proceedings were disrupted, boycotts were called, and unruly behaviour witnessed in the court premises, and in the courts.The hearing of the contempt application in the High Court at Chennai last Wednesday (Sept. 16), drew a few busloads from that area, whose abusive behaviour towards the judges hearing the case became the news of the day. A small section once again became the face of all the lawyers in the State.

Endemic boycotts Strikes, boycotts and processions have become a regular feature in our courts. They have been held for a variety of reasons. Very few were related to issues of the independence of the judiciary or the right of practice of the legal profession; some were for political issues such as the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, and many arose out of disputes and clashes between the lawyers and the police. So endemic has the boycott become that it is the first reaction to any issue. This is usually demanded by a minority, small but vociferous, and leaders of the Bar Association are usually unable to resist. The majority watches helpless and stays away from attending the courts, not wanting to antagonise the striking lawyers and fearing verbal abuse and even physical reprisals; indeed, some lawyers have been assaulted for not heeding the strike call.

A once proud High Court has lost its pride of place. Litigants wonder how guardians of the law can be so lawless, and rue the day when they cannot get urgent orders because there is a boycott. Lawyers in general are aware that their stock has fallen in public esteem. Many in the profession are hardworking, anxious to do the best for their clients, and mindful that their conduct goes a long way to keep intact the dignity and power of the Court, the bedrock of the legal profession. Senior lawyers lament that standards have fallen, but more than that are the feelings of young lawyers who watch with dismay as the noble profession they thought they were joining is portrayed in a bad light. A few thousand lawyers have lost out by the actions of a couple of hundred.

The lawyers in these incidents can, however, rest assured that their transgressions have drawn an instant response from the Court to firmly deal with their disruptions of the proceedings. The Court’s patience has run out, and we are now witnessing firm and resolute action. The Chief Justice of the High Court is displaying strength, other judges are not backing down, contempt notices are being issued, and security arrangements are strong. If such action had been taken earlier, we would not have come to the present pass, but now is better than later or never.

What is heartening is that these protestors are out of line with the mass of the legal community. They have alienated a wide section of lawyers who feel that things have gone too far, and if not corrected now, the downhill slide will be irreversible.

Remedial action A few remedial steps will suffice. Processions and demonstrations should not be allowed in court premises, and action should be taken, especially against those responsible for organising them. Associations of advocates should conduct a secret ballot of all members before deciding on a boycott (the decision will rarely be in the affirmative).

Their leaders, and those of the Bar Council of the State, should resist strike calls, refrain from active support, and speak up against such transgressions. Holders of such offices have a special responsibility, more important than any privilege or influence. Senior lawyers, too, should speak up against this practice; as should others; our profession, pride and livelihood are at stake.

If a boycott takes place, the court should ensure that no lawyer who appears before it is put to any danger or any harm. This is crucial; if not done, judges cannot expect lawyers to place themselves at peril. And other remedial actions are necessary to protect lawyers’ interests. Often the police are at fault for aggressive action against lawyers; a standing committee of judges and lawyers should intervene quickly to protect the Bar.

A systemic method of urgently addressing genuine grievances of the legal community should be established. And last, but certainly not the least, aberrational judicial behaviour, which breaks all codes of decorum and dignity, an atrocity in itself which should be prevented, should also be met with strong corrective action. While the Chief Justice of India is absolutely right in bemoaning fallen standards in the Bar of the Madras High Court, it should also be realised that the shoe can also fit some feet on the Bench.

This Court now has a crop of excellent judges. It has bright young lawyers and many competent and experienced ones. They all know that their professional standing, esteem and influence depends on the majesty, power and dignity of the Court; if the latter is eroded, the former sinks. The couple of hundred protestors should realise that their best interests too lie in upholding these values, that they are letting down their numerous colleagues by their actions, and that there exist legitimate forms of protest which do not disfigure court and community of lawyers. Both Bar and Bench should now act to restore the lustre of this Chartered High Court before it is extinguished.

(Sriram Panchu is a Senior Advocate at the Madras High Court.

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