Recent judgement by Madras HC empowers judges to debar advocates for misconduct
For nearly two months, it has been lawyers versus the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu. Other than the High Court (which has been working normally) lawyers in most other courts have been on boycott. Things reached a new low in the 154 year history of the institution when more than 3,000 advocates from across the state came to the HC and laid siege to the institution. They are demanding the immediate withdrawal of the recent amendments to the statutory rules under the Advocates Act that empower judges to debar erring lawyers from continuing practice. The genesis of these rules is a Supreme Court judgement in the RK Anand case. “The primary cause, however, is the failure of the bar council to act as the effective regulator of the legal profession,” says Sriram Panchu, senior advocate, Madras HC.
Trouble has been brewing ever since amendments were made to the 46-year-old statutory Rules. Earlier, a court could debar advocates only on the grounds of contempt of court. The new provisions empower judges to debar advocates who browbeat or abuse judges, lay siege to court halls, tamper with court records, appear in court under the influence of liquor, spread unsubstantiated allegations against judges or accept money either in the name of a judge or on the pretext of influencing him.
The recent amendment empowers not only the HC but also the principal district judges (PDJ) in every district to debar lawyers indulging in misconduct. The young lawyers and the practitioners in the lower courts are worried that for the first time the district judges have been allowed to take action. They are not happy with this situation. Justice K Chandru, retired judge, Madras HC says “They feel that their voices will not be heard by the autocratic district judges who are not suitable for such empowerment.” Representations have been made by bar associations and senior lawyers for basic changes. Lawyers however must do some soul searching on their brinkmanship which has led to this sorry state of affairs. Senior members of the profession point out that there has been no real leadership spearheading the agitation. It has been ad hoc and demands multiply as the days go by.
Saner voices have not prevailed for many years. The Madras HC was a chaotic dysfunctional place with strikes, boycotts, gheraos and even violence a couple of years ago, when the current chief justice SK Kaul took over. He has with the cooperation of the judges cleaned up the place, provided security and has made the it functional again. In spite of the ongoing agitations, the HC continues to work. Work has come to a standstill in district courts. Litigants are suffering. People are unable to get bail, urgent interim orders on issues like contracts are not being given and it is not possible to get judgement on long pending cases.
The chief justice has reached out and assured the lawyers that no precipitate action would be taken against them under the new rules and the rules will be kept in abeyance. The High Court has constituted a five-judge committee to look into the issue and has called upon the protesting lawyers to withdraw court boycotts and attend deliberations with the committee. The agitating lawyers want the rules to be withdrawn before any discussion can be considered. Things have reached a total impasse. “It is like India Pakistan talks,” highlights a senior lawyer. Panchu has some ideas for a breakthrough to start a meaningful dialogue. “The court should announce a new set of draft amendments to the Rules taking into consideration the many of the suggestions which have been made. If the main concerns of the lawyers are seen to be addressed, a favourable climate can be created.”
In Tamil Nadu (like many other states) the legal profession is highly politicised and fragmented. There are more than 60 bar associations in the state representing every two bit party and various castes. There are 65,000 registered lawyers. “Many of them are fake lawyers, almost 7,000 of them,” adds Justice Chandru. Most of the lawyers do not have cases. Work is in the hands of very few, with 5% of the lawyers controlling 80% of the cases. The jobless lawyers, apparently, survive by ambulance chasing, handling cheque bouncing cases, evicting tenants from rent controlled spaces, real estate deals and so on. Lawyers are known to have fabricated evidence. They preside over kangaroo courts. There are simply too many lawyers chasing too few cases.
There are such a large number of lawyers because many malpractices surround legal education. There are only seven government law colleges in Tamil Nadu offering 2,000 seats. Government run Dr Ambedkar Law College in Chennai, established in 1891 (with noted alumni like P Chidambaram) has only 11% full time professors. Private law colleges have proliferated all over the state. Many have been founded by politicians. Degrees can be bought. One can pay for everything. Some degrees are not even recognised. Tamil Nadu government has tabled a bill in the assembly announcing its policy decision to prohibit establishment of private law colleges in the state. Matter is pending in the court.
In the Madras High Court Complex, apart from the High Court, there are 65 other courts. “Decongestion of the courts as has been in done in Delhi can be a solution”, says Justice Chandru. What is happening in Tamil Nadu is not unique to the state. It is symptomatic of the deterioration in the legal profession over the years. There is an urgent need for revamping the entire system.