A Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court on Wednesday (October 7) sentenced Gujarat High Court Advocates’ Association (GHAA) president Yatin Oza to a penalty of Rs 2,000 and punishment till the rising of the court, after he was found guilty of committing criminal contempt of the court.
Who is Yatin Oza, and why did the Gujarat HC take strong objection to his comments?
A veteran practising advocate, Oza was designated as ‘Senior Advocate’ in 1999. He has been president of the High Court’s bar association for over two decades. In May, Oza pushed for physical reopening of courts. On June 5, he addressed a press conference that was also live-streamed on Facebook, in which he made serious allegations against the administration, and on the dispensing of justice at the court. The HC did not take kindly to this.
Broadly, Oza levelled allegations of “corrupt practices being adopted by the registry of the High Court of Gujarat”, of “undue favour” being 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 that Oza called the institution “a gambling den”.
The court was upset not only by the allegations themselves, but also by the way they were made — with Oza, a senior representative of the Bar, live-streaming them over social media.
Notably, Oza has been politically active — with no long-term loyalties. He was elected twice to the Gujarat Assembly from Sabarmati constituency in Ahmedabad on BJP tickets — in 1995 and 1998. He subsequently left the BJP, joined the Congress, and contested unsuccessfully against (now Prime Minister) Narendra Modi from the Maninagar Assembly constituency in 2002. In 2016, Oza joined the Aam Aadmi Party.
How did the High Court’s action against Oza proceed?
After Oza’s press conference of June 5, a Division Bench of Justices Sonia Gokani and N V Anjaria initiated suo motu criminal contempt proceedings against him for raising “accusing fingers… against the High Court, HC administration and the registry…,” on June 9.
Meanwhile, Oza had also written about his grievances to the High Court Chief Justice Vikram Nath on June 5. A committee comprising the three senior-most judges of the court considered the allegations and gave a clean chit to the court registry. In its report, communicated to Oza on June 10, the committee said that “all the grievances” made by Oza in his letter were “without any foundation”, and were “factually baseless”.
On June 11, Oza moved the Supreme Court, challenging the order of the suo motu contempt against him, but subsequently withdrew the petition after the SC opined that it would be premature for it to intervene.
A meeting of the full court on July 18 accepted the recommendation of the Division Bench that had initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Oza, that the GHAA president should be stripped of his designation as Senior Advocate.
Oza moved the SC challenging the decision of the full court to divest him of his title. The matter has been periodically deferred — with the SC opining that it would be inclined to consider the matter only after a decision had been reached on the contempt proceedings before the Gujarat HC.
In the meantime, Oza tendered an apology to the HC — but a third party advocate intervened in the ongoing contempt proceedings, seeking to be added as a party. This advocate brought to the notice of the court earlier instances of improper conduct by Oza. The court did not allow the advocate to be added as a party, but permitted the additional material to be included as part of the record in the proceedings.
Eventually, Oza’s apologies, presented separately to the full court and the Division Bench, were rejected at the end of August.
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But why did the High Court refuse to accept Oza’s apology despite a nudge from the Supreme Court asking the HC to consider it?
The present case is not the first time that the Gujarat HC has initiated proceedings against Oza for being in criminal contempt of the court. In 2016, Oza had levelled allegations against two sitting judges of the HC. At the time, the HC had initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Oza, which came to be stayed by the SC. A subsequent apology later, the proceedings were put to rest.
In 2006 as well, Oza had invited proceedings for contempt of court on two occasions — one of which was for issuing a press note against a then sitting judge. He was let off on both occasions after he tendered unconditional apologies.
This time, the Division Bench, while refusing to accept his apology, put on record that Oza’s “repeated acts and conduct of contempt” in the past only leaves the court to conclude that his apology “is not bona fide and lacks sincerity…”
The court noted: “Every time scurrilous remarks against the Judges and the institution are made and when he (Oza) realises that there is no escape route, the weapon of unconditional apology comes to his rescue. This was permitted in the past upkeeping a rich tradition of Kshama Virsya Bhushanam (forgiveness is the jewel of heroes)… If still permitted, this institution would be inviting for itself more and many such unsubstantiated, unsustainable and baseless attacks from various quarters. A clear and loud message is a must to be sent that we are open to every healthy criticism respecting the fundamental right of freedom of expression and at the same time, we are obligated not to permit any attempt to tarnish the image of the Institution and to despise and damage the prestige of the same and to demean the respect it enjoys by one and all…”
What has been Oza’s defence?
In his arguments as well as in the apologies he has tendered, Oza has repeatedly stressed that he has been a long-standing distinguished member of the Bar, and that his transgression has been an anomaly.
He has also emphasised that he holds the judges in the highest regard, and it was only the lacuna on the administrative side that he had sought to highlight.
However, the court has been unconvinced by this argument, stating that the administrative side too, forms part of the judiciary — and that the allegations that he had made was unbecoming of the position and stature he holds as a senior member of the Bar, and only maligns the institution.
What happens next?
An appeal against the HC verdict is expected before the SC.
The HC Division Bench has permitted a stay on the operation and execution of its verdict until the end of the statutory appeal period, that is for the next 60 days.
The apex court, while hearing his plea challenging the HC’s decision to revoke his Senior Advocate status, had pointed out that Oza had been found to be “browbeating” the court — but had expressed its willingness to hear him.
The matter is expected to be now taken up for further hearing on October 13.
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