Column: Lawyers Can’t Be A Law Unto Themselves

By Sandeep Sahu

It’s an extraordinary situation for sure and I seriously doubt if the judicial system in India has seen anything like this before. Just imagine a High Court, no less, as one of the ‘parties’ in a case! It had to the unenviable task of appointing a counsel to ‘represent’ it in the case being heard in the Supreme Court like an ordinary ‘litigant’. In another unprecedented development, the counsel appointed by it, Sibo Shakar Misra, was suspended by the Orissa High Court Bar Association. Earlier, we saw the full 14-judge bench of the High Court take up a contempt case suo motu, something that old-timers say never happened before.

For close to a fortnight now, business at the Odisha High Court has come to a standstill with litigants from across the state unable to have their cases heard and justice delivered because striking lawyers would not allow courts to function. And pray what are they on strike for? Shorn of hyperbole, it is nothing but a mere turf battle. The lawyers are on strike because the Supreme Court collegium did not select one of their own but someone who practiced in the apex court and has ‘never seen the inside of the High Court’ as a judge of the High Court.

The High Court Bar Association president Gopal Krushna Mohanty would have us believe that the lawyers are on strike in ‘public interest’! It is beyond me – and I would like to believe anyone who is not a member of the HC Bar Association – how ‘public interest’ is served by lawyers abstaining from work and adding to the already high number of pending cases, numbering over 1.5 lakh cases at last count. First the Supreme Court and now the Bar Council of India (BCI) has severely castigated the lawyers for their intransigence with the latter even threatening to suspend the office bearers of the Association – and bar them from contesting elections in future, if necessary – if they did not call off their agitation and rejoin work immediately.

If the past conduct of the Association is anything to go by, it is unlikely to relent in a hurry. When the apex court served a rap on its knuckle on October 24, the Association responded by suspending Misra, the lawyer who appeared for the High Court, for his crime of presenting what it called a ‘misleading’ picture of the state of affairs in the court. Even after yesterday’s indictment by the BCI yesterday, the Association president showed no indication that it was prepared to relent. All he said by way of a response was that the ‘future course of action’ would be decided at the general body of the meeting of the Association on November 1. The attempt to camouflage what is in essence an ego battle as a public issue of great importance by demanding the abolition of the collegium system and restoration of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) has failed to fool anyone.

Going back further in time, readers would recall that the same set of lawyers had paralysed all work in the High Court for no less than 73 days for nothing more important than routine police action against a drunken and unruly member of the fraternity. Even the fig leaf of ‘public interest’ was not available in that case. But when the then Chief Justice of India (CJI), Odisha’s very own Justice Dipak Misra, reprimanded the lawyers and asked them to call off their strike, they responded by burning his effigy!

For reasons that are all too obvious, the Association would not admit it. But the truth is that lawyers are up in arms because the Supreme Court collegium selected not one of their own, but someone who belongs to western Odisha and practices at the Supreme Court. The same fierce desire to protect their turf has seen the issue of setting up benches of the High Court in western and southern Odisha hanging fire since the days of Biju Patnaik as Chief Minister in the 1990s.

Lawyers are a vital cog in the wheel of justice and their prolonged mass abstention from court work puts the judicial system, already creaking under the impact of lakhs of pending cases, under even greater strain. If the lawyers of the High Court bar think they can hold the judicial system to ransom, they may have to revise their opinion. The Supreme Court has already indicated that it is considering shifting out important cases to other High Courts, besides urging High Court judges to dispense justice by hearing the litigants. The public at large, which has shown extraordinary patience in putting up with their unreasonable defiance for long, may rise in revolt if they don’t mend their ways. If the defiant lawyers refuse to see the writing on the wall, they may have to rue their decision soon.

For far too long, the lawyers have been a law unto themselves. It’s about time they smelt the coffee and allowed the wheels of justice to start rolling again.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)