The Gujarat High Court (HC) issued a notice to the Gujarat HC Advocates’ Association (GHAA) president Yatin Oza for criminal contempt upon suo motu cognisance taken by a division bench of the allegations of favouritsm he levelled on its registry. Oza challenged the notice before the Supreme Court. Both the matters are due to be heard Tuesday at the HC and the Supreme Court.
Why did the HC take this extraordinary step and what lies in store for the senior advocate?
What is GHAA president’s allegation?
In a letter addressed to Gujarat HC Chief Justice Vikram Nath on June 5, Oza alleged that “at least 100 advocates” had approached either him or the general secretary of GHAA, advocate Hardik Brahmbhatt, with the grievance that their matters had not been listed despite being filed a fortnight ago. Oza went ahead to allege the registry of “nepotism and favouritism”.
In the 12-page letter, he also requested the court to start physical proceedings instead of the limited virtual hearings of urgent matters on account of the lockdown. Oza’s letter also stated that if video-conferenced hearings continue, in light of the allegations of favouritism, “juniors (advocates) will breakdown, will have no place to go and like to commit suicide if situation continues as present.”
In another letter on March 21, addressed to Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, Oza made allegations against a sitting judge of “no effective order passed in a single matter,” while also accusing advocates of “forum shopping”, including advocate general Kamal Trivedi.
These allegations were further reiterated in a press conference held by Oza live-streamed over Facebook.
Oza’s reinvigorated efforts to open up courts for physical proceedings had come after a flip-flop over a span of less than 12 hours on June 2 when he resigned as the president of GHAA claiming that he felt “helpless” in resolving the issues of junior advocates who, according to him faced an economic setback during the lockdown and wanted a physical reopening of courts. By late night of June 2, he had withdrawn his resignation, purportedly after an extraordinary general meeting was held by the managing committee of GHAA who rejected his resignation.
Why did Gujarat HC issue notice of criminal contempt against Oza?
On June 9, a division bench of Justices Sonia Gokani and N V Anjaria initiated suo motu criminal contempt proceedings against Oza for raising “accusing fingers… against the high court, HC administration and the registry…” This action came largely in the backdrop of the press conference of Oza and the order of the division bench took note of five broad allegations that Oza levelled, namely of “corrupt practices being adopted by the registry of the High Court of Gujarat,” “undue favour” shown to “high-profile industrialist and smugglers and traitors,” that the HC functions “for the influential and rich people and their advocates,” and that “billionaires walk away with order from the HC in two days whereas the poor and non-VIPs suffer.” The HC also noted Oza calling the institution as “a gambling den”, in this regard.
With such allegations, the HC adjudged that Oza as the Bar president, “…has attempted to cause serious damage to the prestige and majesty of the high court…,” and to that effect the court exercised its special powers and found Oza “prima facie… responsible for committing the criminal contempt of this court…”
On June 11, Oza moved the Supreme Court, challenging the order of the suo motu contempt against him.
“…the petitioner has not raised a single figure against the judiciary or the High Court of Gujarat,” the petition stated.
This is not the first time that Oza has moved the SC in relation to a contempt notice against him. In 2016, the HC had taken note of a contempt petition moved by a GHAA member advocate against Oza and the court had taken note of “assertions that were made in the contempt petition basically pertain to unwarranted speeches rendered, letters written or the statements given” by Oza. This was appealed before the Supreme Court where Oza had tendered an unconditional apology.
What has the Gujarat HC done with the allegations?
Subsequent to Oza’s letter of June 5, Gujarat HC Chief Justice Vikram Nath constituted a three-judge committee on June 6 to independently look into the specific allegations. The committee chaired by Justice J B Pardiwala with Justices A J Desai and N V Anjaria concluded that none of the allegations made, stood any ground, giving the registry a clean chit. In a letter annexing the committee’s findings, the Chief Justice communicated the same to Oza on June 10.
The committee concluded that “all the grievances” made by Oza in his letter were “without any foundation” and “factually baseless.”
What happens next?
On Tuesday, Oza is expected to submit his reply before the HC in response to the suo motu contempt proceedings initiated. The same day, the matter is also listed before the Supreme Court, before a three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India along with Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy. As an interim relief, Oza has prayed for an ex-large stay on the June 9 order of the HC. The HC’s order had also deemed it appropriate for the consideration of the Chief Justice Vikram Nath subject to full court whether to divest Oza of his stature as a ‘senior counsel’.
The advocate-on-record for the SC petition Purvish Malkan said that while he is not aware if Oza still has to file his reply as it is not a simple “mathematical equation”, if the SC does grant the interim relief, Oza will find some temporary respite.
Why have the allegations divided advocates?
Oza had circulated a questionnaire among the GHAA members to poll if the court should resume operations post unlock, with physical proceedings or virtual. The GHAA questionnaire was circulated hours after Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justices R M Chhaya and J B Pardiwala indicated to the office bearers of GHAA that a questionnaire will be brought out from the court’s side so that members of the Bar can indicate whether the HC could function normally or through virtual hearings, on May 26. A window of one week was to be given to advocates to file their response.
This move of Oza’s to conduct his own polling did not find favour with many advocates in the HC. Several GHAA members accused Oza of taking unilateral decisions. Some others have questioned that even if five percent vote for a virtual hearing owing to health concerns subject to their age and existing ailments, who is to take responsibility in case they’re infected with Covid-19.
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