The strong-arms of the law

When a large number of lawyers were arrested for attacking Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy in a Madras High Court courtroom with rotten eggs for his anti-LTTE statements....

Written by Maneesh Chhibber | New Delhi | Published: February 23, 2009 12:18:09 am

When a large number of lawyers were arrested for attacking Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy in a Madras High Court courtroom with rotten eggs for his anti-LTTE statements,their colleagues were gravely offended. And they articulated their outrage two days later by going on a rampage on February 19 at the same High Court. Casting aside their allegiance to the law,they battled the police throughout the day,causing injuries to a sitting High Court judge,over 50 lawyers,about 20 policemen,dozens of bystanders and two journalists. They also burnt down the building of the police station inside the court complex.

The most recent incident at Chennai,telecast live on national TV,has again brought to the fore the disregard some lawyers have for the very institution they are supposed to uphold,but instances of lawyers turning the courtroom into a battleground — of the physical kind — occur far too frequently. This,coupled with the practice of lawyers resorting to strike over trivial issues,has become a cause of concern with senior lawyers and jurists in the country.

In fact,a few days ago,a Bench of the Supreme Court wanted to know why lawyers in Tamil Nadu went on strike at the drop of a hat.

Former Chief Justice of India J S Verma rues this state of affairs. “Strikes and violence are unbecoming to lawyers. If lawyers go on strike,the main sufferer is the hapless litigant. Even a day’s strike pushes back cases by months. The legal profession is meant for enforcement of rights of the litigants. But strikes deny them their rights and are thus an assault on the rule of law. I am sure lawyers can find better ways to register their protest.” Similarly,senior Supreme Court lawyer Fali S Nariman is also of the view that attempts by lawyers to prevent courts from functioning is a disservice to both the legal profession and to the persons by whom they are engaged.

But various organisations representing lawyers refuse to accept this logic. For them,lawyers’ right to strike work is a tool that has to be put into use whenever it is needed. “Why can’t lawyers go on strike? What other peaceful route can we adopt? As for the violence at the Madras High Court,it was the fault of the police,which attack unarmed lawyers as if they were hardened criminals,” said a member of the Bar Council of India,who did not wish to be identified.

Yet,lawyers sometimes drop their work commitments for bizarre ‘causes’. For example,when the Delhi High Court held lawyers R K Anand and I U Khan guilty of contempt of court in August 2008,barring them from practising for months — for trying to bribe a witness in the BMW hit-and-run case — lawyers went on strike to protest the order.

Even the Supreme Court can’t stop them. In a December 2002 order,a five-judge Constitution Bench held that lawyers had no right to go on strike and must not boycott court. But lawyers refused to accept the order and went on strike the next day.

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