Under the rule of law, no citizen can be denied the right to consult and to be defended by a legal practitioner of her choice. Therefore, by labelling those accused of sedition as “anti-national” and denying them the right to legal representation, bar associations in Karnataka’s Hubli and Mysuru stand accused of disregarding due process. First, the state slaps cases of sedition for flimsy reasons that would not stand the scrutiny of law and arrests individuals. Then, lawyers deal a body blow to possibilities of justice by preventing any lawyer from representing them in court. Apart from disallowing local lawyers to take up cases, bar associations have physically assaulted lawyers who have travelled to smaller cities to file applications seeking bail.
The cab-rank rule or the common practice of law that forbids a lawyer from refusing any brief based on personal opinions or biases is codified in the rules framed by the Bar Council of India. The Standards of Professional Conduct and Etiquette bind a lawyer to accept “any brief in the Courts or Tribunals or before any other authorities in or before which he proposes to practise at a fee consistent with his standing at the Bar and the nature of the case.” An advocate has to justify the special circumstances for refusing a particular brief. “Every person, however wicked, depraved, vile, degenerate, perverted, loathsome, execrable, vicious or repulsive he may be regarded by society has a right to be defended in a court of law and correspondingly it is the duty of the lawyer to defend him,” Justice Markandey Katju wrote in a 2010 judgement of the Supreme Court. In A S Mohammed Rafi vs State Of Tamil Nadu, the court called the resolution passed by the Coimbatore Bar Council to not represent certain accused “wholly illegal and against all traditions of the Bar.”
This week, Supreme Court judge Deepak Gupta reiterated that resolutions that forbid legal representation amount to obstruction of justice. A strong message from the legal community — both courts and eminent practitioners — is needed to ensure that such actions are not normalised. In 2016, lawyers who assaulted Kanhaiya Kumar and journalists in the Patiala House Court complex, barely a kilometer away from the Supreme Court, went scot-free despite the top court’s intervention. Fortunately, this time, the Karnataka High Court has intervened to ensure that the rights of accused are protected. It has rightly summoned office-bearers of the Hubli Bar Association for passing resolutions defying their professional codes and flouting Supreme Court judgements.
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