A 'state' of Constitutional breakdown and lawlessness - III
by B R Haran on 09 Mar 2009 3 Comments

As an expression of ‘solidarity’ with the agitating lawyers of Chennai, the legal fraternity in the rest of Tamil Nadu resorted to violence and arson on 19 and 20 February, forcing the Director General of Police to issue ‘shoot at sight’ orders.

The district lawyers joined the boycott move and in some courts even hoisted black flags! Litigants were the worst affected as they could not file their cases, appeals, or proceed with hearings. This has naturally cost them time and money, but the legal fraternity is oblivious to the plight of the common citizen. Politicians who have been instigating the lawyers to strike work didn’t care about the general public and continued with their political dramas. The Madras High Court had so far functioned only 9 days in the current year! 

The lawyers rejected the advice of the Madras Judiciary and Supreme Court to call off their strike. They said they would wait to depose before Justice Srikrishna, who came to Chennai and promptly began hearing the petitioners personally on 28 February. Around 400 lawyers came to the ‘Judicial Academy’ to depose before him. A few members of the general public, who were injured in the melee, also came to depose before the judge. We (four of us) also went there with written submissions. 

Mr. Justice Srikrishna began hearing the lawyers who deposed in groups, and the hearings lasted almost the whole day. We sent our petitions through the Registrar, who assured us that we would be called after the lawyers completed their deposition.

While we were waiting, a group of lawyers menacingly approached us and tried to intimidate us and force us to leave the venue. They demanded we tell them why we were there, on whose invitation, and what we intended to tell the judicial commission. They even asked the Registrar to evict us! The Registrar, instead of controlling them, tried to convince us to leave the venue. We put our foot down and made it clear that we would not leave without deposing before the commission. 

Meanwhile, the DGP, CoP, other Deputy & Joint Commissioners, the Chief Secretary and the Home Secretary came to depose. As the DGP and other officers entered, the lawyers booed and passed insulting comments. The officers deposed and left.

It was nearly 5 p.m. and as the judge had not been informed of our presence, he prepared to leave, but we approached him personally and requested audience, to which he immediately acquiesced. So we were able to make our depositions, and as we came out, the lawyers hurled invectives at us.

By this time the venue was totally without police security, probably due to the lawyers’ demands or by government’s order, so we thought it prudent to leave silently. In the course of his two-day visit, Justice Srikrishna also met the Judges of the Madras High Court and made a complete inspection of the High Court and other places of conflict. 

Justice Srikrishna submitted his report on 5 March to the Chief Justice of India; it was taken up for hearing the next day. In his interim report Justice Srikrishna condemned the behaviour of the advocates and said they started the violence by provoking the police. He recorded the events, right from the celebration of 54th birthday of LTTE Chief Prabhakaran by pro-LTTE lawyers in November 2008 to the severe violence unleashed on 19 February. Chronicling event by event, he concluded that the lawyers acted like “hooligans.” 

Justice Srikrishna observed that the police force went overboard in charging against the advocates, though there was no doubt about the provocation by the lawyers and their unruly behaviour; still the lathi was wielded indiscriminately, beyond permissible limits. Yet he concluded that the police tried to act with restraint and acted only when the situation went out of control.

Justice Srikrishna also recorded his displeasure with the Madras High Court and the influence of politics, “My view, albeit prima-facie, is that the soft-pedalling policy followed by the Madras High Court Judges has led to the present piquant situation. The lawyers appear to have been encouraged by the wrong signals sent out and seemed to think that they could do anything and get away within the court premises.

“Regretfully, far from being the upholders of rule of law, the lawyers seem to have behaved like hooligans and miscreants. The incidents that have transpired over the last month or so make it clear that the lawyers seemed to be under the impression that because they are officers of the court, they are immune from the process of law and that they could get away with any unlawful act without being answerable to the law enforcing agency.

“It is most unfortunate that the soft policy adopted by the Acting Chief Justice of Madras High Court and its administration  sent out clearly a wrong message that encouraged and emboldened the lawyers into becoming law breakers. Undoubtedly, the political cross-currents from the Sri Lankan Tamil issues and caste based issues contributed to and aggravated the situation. It should have been made clear to the lawyers from the beginning, in no uncertain terms, that whatever their political ideologies, the court premises could not be utilized for airing them.” 

Finally, submitting to the Supreme Court to exercise its extraordinary Constitutional powers and lay down sufficient guidelines for the behaviour of lawyers within and without the court premises, as the Bar Council has not been acting as an effective regulatory body of their professional conduct, Justice Srikrishna concluded, “it would be ideal if the Advocate Act is amended to ensure a better disciplinary mechanism of the profession of law, since it affects not only lawyers but also litigants, the administration of justice in the country and finally the rule of law itself. Until such time that appropriate Legislation is made, it is desirable that this Honourable Court should formulate appropriate guidelines to be followed by lawyers and enforced by all courts of law.” 

On 6 March, the Supreme Court referred the report to the Madras High Court and said it could decide whether to hold a judicial inquiry into the incident as it was already seized of the matter. As rightly concluded by Justice Srikrishna, this is a great opportunity for the Court of Law to formulate appropriate guidelines to be followed by lawyers, leading eventually to necessary amendments in the Advocate Act. The unruly section of lawyers, who have hundreds of cases registered against them, as established by police records and media reports, must be brought to book and punished as per the law of the land. 

The formulation of guidelines is not unknown to the Madras High Court. When former Chief Justice Subhashan Reddy formulated a 25-point ‘Code of Conduct’ based on the Supreme Court’s judgment that the High Court is empowered to frame rules and lay down conditions for the practice of advocates, he was transferred following Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj’s visit to Chennai. The Union Law Minister made the startling statement in Chennai that only the Bar Council is empowered to evolve a Code of Conduct, thereby showing scant regard for the Supreme Court’s judgment. Thus the code of conduct made its way to the legal dustbin. It remains to be seen whether the referral of the report to the High Court by the Apex Court serves any meaningful purpose!

Actually, in Tamil Nadu, the rot has set in at the foundation itself, that is, the Law Colleges. The recent episode of caste conflict and near-murderous attacks involving students inside the Government Law College is the horrendous legacy of over three decades of decay, which has been allowed to set in unchecked. The sad truth is that politicians are to blame for this unhappy state of affairs. 

The Madras High Court has produced great stalwarts and legal luminaries since its inception; some lawyers used to teach and guide even British Lawyers and Judges before independence. Centuries of Tamil Nadu’s glorious legal history has lost its glitter in just two decades, thanks to castes, quotas, and Dravidian politics.  


The author is a senior journalist; he lives in Chennai 

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