On the last day of January, residents of Chennai woke up to a shocking story in the morning newspaper. Stalin, a lawyer practicing at the Egmore Chief Metropolitan Magistrate court in Chennai, was targeted and killed by members of his own professional community.
The Egmore Bar Association elections results had just been announced. As rival groups started arguing over the results, Stalin, a member of the group which lost, was stoned, then beaten black and blue. Beaten up severely, he later succumbed to his injuries.
The Chennai City Police later filed an FIR. Among the several lawyers who were present when the medieval-era style execution took place few, including a lady lawyer, have been interrogated. Others who were allegedly involved in the murder have been absconding since.
To those unaware of the vicious realities of legal practice in these courts, this came as a shock. But to those within the legal community, this was just a day out of the ordinary, nothing astonishing.
Over the last few years, the Egmore magistrate court has become the hotbed of lawlessness. Lawyers turned mobsters run a mafia targeting legal clients. From the poorest of the poor to the rich, no one is spared. The Egmore court has about 800 registered lawyers, but a small bunch of criminals masquerading as lawyers run the mafia, while other watch helplessly and try to survive within the system.
A few months ago, *Velu was arrested on charges of misappropriation at a textile showroom. “He belonged to a poor family. His father was a road-side corn seller. When his family reached the court with a lawyer to file a bail petition, they were told that a bail petition had already been filed in his name. They found the other lawyer, who was nothing less than a goonda and wanted Rs 1 lakh to take the bail petition back,” a senior lawyer narrated on conditions of anonymity.
And that is double bail, a nefarious system devised by some lawyers to threaten and loot those who turn up at the courts.
The modus operandi as explained by *Radhakrishnan, another lawyer- “There are informants in the police department or brokers who are placed at police stations. As soon as someone is arrested, word is passed on. The mafia lawyer then files a bail petition in the arrested person’s name. An amount based on the family’s financial situation is demanded to take the petition back as they have no intention of appearing for the case.”
Arul Raj, a former magistrate at the Egmore court says many lawyers make a living out of ‘double bail’ only. “In many cases, the magistrate is told that there are two bail petitions, and we obviously insist that one has to be withdrawn. Sadly, this is the way in which they extort money.”
Kannadasan, a member of the Bar Council at Egmore court says he too has not been spared. “Once a man was arrested due to some conflict in the family, and when I applied for bail on behalf of the accused, I was told that the complainant’s lawyer had filed a bail plea. He demanded Rs 50,000 to withdraw the application. Imagine, he wanted to make money from complainant and accused.”
Many not lawyers in the real sense of the term
A wide range of lawyers and even magistrates we spoke to believe that the main problem lies in the fact that most lawyers at the Egmore campus are not really lawyers in the strict sense of the term. “There are even people wanted in criminal cases who have later become lawyers. It has become easy for anyone to get a lawyer’s degree,” says Arul Raj.
Many complained that some private law colleges in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were giving law degrees on the basis of payment.
“We quip in court that now everyone can become a lawyer. Criminals, notorious elements are all lawyers. And the court simply becomes an extension for their criminal activities,” says *Mahesh, a lawyer working at the Saidapet magistrate court.
Chennai has twenty three magistrate courts, but it is only Egmore that has a notorious distinction. “It is perhaps because of its profile. The court deals with cases from places like Vyasarpadi, Pulianthope etc that houses many nefarious elements,” says *Radhakrishnan.
He adds that another mode of income for the 'goonda' lawyers is by intimidating tenants who refuse to move out of properties they have rented out. "There is a huge market out there for this kind of activity. There are quite a few lawyers who have made it their daily business to get houses vacated."
"The Egmore court is different world in itself. We can't even get inside the campus. If we try we will be threatened to leave," says *Priya a lady lawyer practicing in the High Court of Madras.
Arul Raj who was a magistrate from 2002 to 2008 says even police is scared to act. “No one wants to act. Look at lawyer Rajinikanth murder, all those accused got acquitted. There is no law that these lawyers respect,” he says.
In February 2008, a five-member gang killed advocate Rajinikanth, son-in-law of former Perambur DMK MLA Sengai Sivam. Rajinikanth himself was an accused in many criminal cases, and though he was murdered with lethal weapons in front of a crowd, all the accused got acquitted.
“In 1996, rowdies came on bikes and hurled country bombs inside the court. But over the last few years, lawyers themselves have become rowdies,” says another lawyer. (In 1996, after throwing bombs, rowdies killed a person inside a courtroom in front of a magistrate)
However, the bar council which has absolute powers over lawyers to punish them for professional misconduct remains mute spectators.
The chairman of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry T. Selvam told The News Minute that he was out of station and had just reached office. "I will look into the matter. We cannot cancel the membership of lawyers over flimsy grounds," he said.
But he was silent when asked about Rajinikanth’s murder inside the court campus in 2008.
Prabhakaran, a member of the bar council, said that criminal lawyers are "vociferous." When asked if being vociferous meant stoning to death a fellow lawyer he had this to say. "The situation is already serious. If we take action against anyone, the situation will worsen."
Others who know the case and the past of this bar say that it is pointless to expect any action from the bar council.
*- Names changed to protect identity.