A case for decorum

The confrontation between the Bench and a section of advocates in the Madras High Court is adversely affecting the image of the legal fraternity in Tamil Nadu. It is not the first time that unsavoury events are eroding the dignity and prestige associated with the black robe. There is a growing public perception that a belligerent section of the lawyer community is responsible for this. Another view is that lawyers want to raise accountability issues against judges through such protests. More than the occasional issues involved — not all of them related to the legal profession — these perceptions have created the current atmosphere of mistrust between the Bench and the Bar. Disruption of work, protests and slogan-shouting within High Court compounds constitute one form of indecorous behaviour. Other forms that have been on display include organising advocates on caste lines and forming support groups for individual judges, making grave allegations of misconduct and corruption against the judiciary, and creating an atmosphere of fear. The latest standoff arose from an unusual cause that advocates in Madurai took up: against an order directing the Tamil Nadu government to strictly enforce the rule that makes the wearing of helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders. Other matters of discord too arose: allegations against some judges, followed by initiation of suo motu contempt proceedings against two office-bearers of the Madurai Bar Association.

Some lawyers took up a new cause: the use of Tamil as the language of the Madras High Court. There was a day-long sit-in inside a court hall, something that drew a vehement rebuke from the Chief Justice of India. The police also found themselves at the receiving end of adverse comments by judges for inadequate action to prevent such protests. The court now wants the Central Industrial Security Force to be in charge of security on the premises. The State government has declared the High Court premises in Chennai and Madurai as high-security zones but does not favour any Central agency handling the security tasks. The situation bodes ill for the litigants’ interests: they may not only lose court time because of various protests, but their access to the premises may also be curtailed. It is time for the State government to work out a foolproof security arrangement that does not affect public access to the courts, but at the same time ensures smooth judicial functioning. The Bar should close ranks and seek to address the judges’ concerns. Contempt proceedings and suspension of some protagonists from their Bar Council membership do constitute a legitimate response, but what is more important is the restoration of an atmosphere of amity. The dignity and reputation of the legal profession are at stake.

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