Monday, March 9, 2009

Justice Srikrishna Report on Madras High Court Violence

Former Supreme Court Judge, Justice BN Srikrishna, who had been asked by the apex court to go into the incidents and submit his interim report, has castigated Tamil Nadu lawyers and police for the February 19, 2009 bloody clashes in the Madras High Court premises and blamed the Acting Chief Justice and the court administration for their "soft policy" that "encouraged and emboldened the lawyers into becoming law breakers."
The report stated that police began lathicharge only after an unruly mob of lawyers torched a motorbike and the police station within the court premises. The report stated that there is no doubt that the violence was started by the unruly mob of lawyers, some of whom were even dressed in robes and bands, but once the police got into action, there was no stopping them. It was as if the police force, as a body, went berserk. The lathicharge continued irrespective of whether a lawyer was a miscreant or otherwise.
Amendment to Advocates’ Act
The report suggested that it would be ideal if the Advocates' 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 the justice in the country, and finally the rule of law itself.
The report stated that until such time that appropriate legislation is made, it is desirable that the apex court should formulate appropriate guidelines to be followed by the lawyers and enforced by all courts of law. According to the report, once the order for lathicharge was given, it appeared that the police "interpreted it as a license to unleash mayhem at will. They chased the lawyers on the ground floor, along the corridors on the first floor and beat them up mercilessly.
The policemen went around the courts destroying property and "did not spare the children's creche also from the hail of stones. Fortunately, no child was injured though it did traumatize some of the children in the creche and the ayahs attending to them, the report stated.
Undoubtedly, the political cross-currents arising from the Sri Lankan Tamils issue and caste-based problems, "contributed and aggravated the sitution. 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 utilised for airing them," it further stated.
The incidents that transpired over February 2009 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 the Madras High Court and its administration sent out clearly a wrong message that encouraged and emboldened the lawyers into becoming lawbreakers.

Reforms Recommended
The Srikrishna Commission’s interim report on the violence in the Madras High Court strongly criticised lawyers and recommended reforms in lawyer regulation. At the heart of the problem: the Bar Council of India, tasked with punishing errant advocates, has turned into a lawyer’s lobby instead. This regulatory paradox has plagued other countries too.
After decades of putting up with a Lawyer’s Society in charge of both regulating and protecting solicitors, the UK passed the Legal Services Act, 2007; its express purpose was to set up an independent board to examine allegations of lawyer misconduct. The US has a slightly different system. State supreme courts can hear allegations against lawyers and take suitable action, in addition to the state bar. And unlike in India, lawyers can be — and are — sued in court for faulty services.

After studying the mass of evidence before him in the form of written submissions, video recordings, and oral statements, Justice Srikrishna concluded that the police initially exercised restraint as the lawyers took to taunting, jeering, gesticulating, and hurling stones. Only after they were given the order to charge at the unruly mob of lawyers did the police use disproportionate force and indulge in wanton destruction of property and vehicles parked on the High Court premises.
Serious Concern
True, law-enforcers breaking the law is cause for serious concern. But then lawyers attempting to pressure the judiciary to act in their sectional interests and protect fringe groups acting against the law fall in the same category. With lawyers’ associations in political hands, court boycotts were enforced over issues that had no direct relation to the legal fraternity.
The Tamil Nadu lawyers have been on the warpath for the last three months on one pretext or another. With the Bar Council of India woefully lax in ensuring accountability and compliance with professional and ethical standards across the country, it is small wonder that lawyers have too often been resorting to agitations and unseemly behaviour on the court premises. The result of all this is that justice is inordinately delayed and the sufferer is the common litigant needing quick justice.
It is indeed time that some lessons be learnt from the Chennai incident. In line with Justice Srikrishna’s well-thought-out recommendation, the Supreme Court should lay down guidelines for the behaviour of lawyers within the court premises as well as outside. A deterrent must be built into the law to ensure orderly behaviour. This reflects a shocking state of affairs in what used to be a pride for the country for decades.

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