Today, the three important pillars of the legal system – judges, lawyers and police - stand divided in mutual distrust and hatred, each pointing fingers at each other.

Crime corruption and chaos Tamil Nadus judicial badlands Part 1 - Lawyers vs Judges
news Judicial Drama Monday, November 02, 2015 - 16:42

This is Part 1 of a three-part series

On Wednesday, September 16, 2015, the Madras High Court resembled a military zone.

The high court campus has had a long-standing relationship with violence, which peaked during the legendary clashes between the police and lawyers in February 2009. But this Wednesday gave one more reason for members of the legal system to hang their heads in shame. The judges, fearing possible violence from lawyers practicing in their own courts, had to bring in police reinforcements to protect themselves.

One can’t blame the judges for being too careful. Anyone would want protection when 150 lawyers from Madurai arrive at the Madras HC campus in three buses, vowing to defend and support two of their fellow lawyers facing contempt charges. Expecting trouble, special CCTV cameras were installed, barricades were put up, additional security personnel were called in and more intelligence agencies were pressed into service. But nothing could stop lawyers assembled there from jeering at the judges, abusing them with the choicest of words, raising slogans against the police and judiciary. A small spark could have set the court on fire yet again. Justices S Tamilvanan and CT Selvam, who were hearing the case, moved in and out of the court in fear and under heavy security. Proceeding were held in-camera, and arrangements made for the hearing to be telecast live outside the court-hall in the campus. Times of India reported that it was 'anarchy'.

September 16 was not an isolated incident – it represents the saga of brutal violence, lawlessness, thuggery, ego-clashes, fear, intimidation, judicial inefficiency and corruption which has come to symbolize the business of dispensing justice in the state of Tamil Nadu. Today, the three important pillars of the legal system – judges, lawyers and police - stand divided in mutual distrust and hatred, each pointing fingers at the other.

The hearing on September 16 was the result of a long-drawn face-off between lawyers and judges under the aegis of the Madras High Court, operating in Chennai and Madurai. And, one might find it hard to believe, that this gladiatorial battle began with a court order enforcing helmets on two-wheeler drivers in the state.

From helmets to raising hell in court-halls

On June 8, 2015, Justice N Kirubakaran of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court made it compulsory for two-wheeler riders to wear helmets in the state. In view of the fact that such orders have been passed before by the government and courts in the past, the court also ordered that licenses of those not wearing helmets be impounded.

Lawyers at the Madurai court campus however were not happy and decided to protest against the order.

 The rule was to be enforced from July 1. On July 2, nearly 100 lawyers took out a bike rally in Madurai in violation of the order. Not only were they riding without helmets within the court campus, but were also allegedly forcing other riders on the road to remove their helmets. The police department submitted a detailed report, with photographs, of the lawyers' behaviour.

When an FIR was filed against two lawyers for taking out the rally, things turned uglier. More protests were held later that month. Helmets were burned, rallies were conducted and the courts were boycotted, much to judges’ annoyance. A lady police officer was also alleged to have been assaulted in the Madurai campus by lawyers.

Following this, an irate Madras HC bench of Justices Tamilvanan and Selvam slapped contempt cases on Madurai Bar Association president A K Ramasamy and secretary A Dharmarajan, asking them to explain as to why action should not be initiated against them for disobeying the court. The hearing against these two lawyers was eventually scheduled for September 16.

This is where, lawyers say, that the judges were wrong. Senior advocate NGR Prasad says that the lawyers should have been called in for negotiations instead.  “You can’t expect the lawyers to have the same attitude as before. New set of people who have been in protest movements for recognition of their social rights before are coming into the legal profession here. And the protests are a manifestation of that,” he says.

As September 16, the date of the hearing approached, and faced with a high probability of conviction - which means they will lose their license to practice – lawyers now turned on the heat even more. On September 10, in an open dare to the judiciary, lawyers in Madurai released a list of five judges who they alleged were ‘corrupt’, and that included the names of the two judges, Tamilvanan and Selvam, who slapped contempt cases on them.

Just two days before the hearing, on September 14, the Madras HC was witness to another sudden protest by a bunch of lawyers – they were demanding that Tamil be made an official language at the Madras High Court.

According to the Registrar of the Madras HC, the agitating advocates ‘entered the court halls, without robes, and threatened the advocates’, ‘also used abusive language’ and indulged in ‘unruly behaviour’. Placards were held and slogans shouted demanding their right to use Tamil. One lawyer had even brought a kid to the protest. For the judges, including the Chief Justice of Madras High Court Sanjay Kishan Kaul, this was a dire warning as to what could happen on September 16.

By then, Justice Kaul had had enough, himself having borne the brunt of advocates’ unruliness in the past year.  In February, after he refused to accept suggestions from them on appointment of judges, a group of lawyers stormed into his court hall and asked him to ‘go back to Kashmir’, where he hails from. Later in April, while he was in Delhi having dinner with senior members of Indian judiciary, lawyers in Chennai laid siege to his official residence seeking immediate bail for two of their colleagues facing police action. The sheer audacity of the act shook the judiciary.

Prasad, however, says that the Chief Justice panicked and need not have reacted the way he did to the siege by lawyers.

So on September 14, after the protests for Tamil erupted, Chief Justice Kaul and Justice TS Sivagnanam ordered that the Central Industrial Security Force, or a similar paramilitary force, provide security to the court premises. Following this, heavy security arrangements were made for September 16, when the hearing was held.

The hearing on September 16 was a damp squib in itself, and the case will go on. But it only brought to the fore the embarrassment which some lawyers have been bringing to the profession over the last few years.

Read part 2 of the series here - Crime, corruption and chaos, Tamil Nadu’s judicial badlands: Part 2 - Criminal Lawyering 

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