It has been a rather turbulent 2016 in High Courts across the country, with instances of the Bar clashing with Bench, and even the media. In addition to this, there have been revelations pointing to the fact that all may not be well within the higher judiciary.
However, there have been positives to take from this year, with the courts making some important decisions that have been lauded by civil society. Here are the top twelve high court stories of 2016.
1. A Court Divided
Over the past few years, voices have been crying hoarse for the bifurcation of the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad, and this year was no different. In June, lawyers of the Telangana Advocates Association staged a rally with this objective, and also to protest the allocation of judges to the subordinate judiciary.
Protests would reach fever pitch towards the end of the month, with Telangana lawyers resolving to boycott then acting Chief Justice DB Bhosale’s court after the suspension of two judges for taking part in the protests.
Even as subordinate judges went on leave en masse, the lawyers met with Chief Justice TS Thakur to work around the deadlock, but to little avail. Whether 2017 will the year when the High Court finally gets bifurcated remains to be seen.
2. Laying Down the Law
Perhaps as a reaction to the trend of indiscipline over the past few years, the Madras High Court, in May, framed new disciplinary rules under section 34(1) of the Advocates Act. The move was met with considerable opposition, and quite ironically, was the cause of widespread protests among the legal fraternity in the state.
This eventually culminated in the Bar Council of India suspending as many as 125 lawyers for refusing to call off the protests, despite reassurances from Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul that no action would be taken under the new rules pending deliberation. The protesting lawyers went as far as to burn an effigy of Justice Kaul.
Things would later simmer down, with the BCI revoking the suspensions once the lawyers called off the protests.
3. A Pressing Issue
Relations between the Bar and the media in the Kerala High Court were strained on account of an ugly spat that occurred in July.
The issue stemmed from the arrest of advocate Dhanesh Manjooran, after he allegedly molested a woman. The Kerala High Court Advocates Association denounced the arrest, and the news coverage surrounding it, as an act that “tarnished the image of [the] lawyer fraternity at large”.
Things took a turn for the worse after it was reported that lawyers took matters into their own hands and beat up media persons inside the High Court premises.
However, the lawyers had a different side of the story to tell. The media room in the High Court has since been closed.
The journalists’ attempt to resume work at the High Court have thus far been fruitless, despite their appeals to Chief Justice Thakur to intervene. The High Court, on its part, framed guidelines for reporting proceedings in November.
4. In the Name of the Mother
Although this doesn’t strictly qualify as a high court story, it is another instance of lawyers taking the law into their own hands. In February, JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested by the Delhi Police for allegedly raising anti-national slogans.
On the day of the hearing in Patiala House court, mayhem ensued, as a group of vigilante lawyers were filmed and photographed roughhousing the accused, journalists, and the students of JNU who turned up. A PIL filed by a JNU alumnus brought the attention of the Supreme Court to the situation. Kanhaiya would also apply for bail in the Supreme Court, though he was directed to approach the Delhi High Court first.
To keep tabs on tidings at the district court, the apex court sent a team of senior lawyers including Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhavan, Harin Raval, Dushyant Dave, Ajit Sinha and advocate ADN Rao. The team later reported that they were abused by the Patiala House lawyers.
5. Gender no Bar
In one of the most significant events of the year, the Bombay High Court struck down the ban on entry of women inside the inner sanctorum of the Haji Ali dargah.
After a battle of almost two years in the court, the petitioner, represented by Raju Moray, was successful in affecting one of the more progressive judgments in recent times.
6. Saving Democracy
In April, the Uttarakhand High Court set aside the Centre’s decision to impose President’s rule in the state. In a rather strongly worded judgment, Chief Justice KM Joseph and Justice VK Bist accused the Centre of “playing games with the court”, before ordering a floor test to be conducted.
7. Skeletons in the Closet
Senior Advocate Yatin Oza stirred the hornet’s nest in April, when he wrote to the Chief Justice of India alleging that certain judges of the Gujarat High Court swore allegiance to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Though his allegations proved to have some merit, the manner in which he voiced his grievances was not appreciated, and a contempt case was filed against him.
He would eventually apologise to the Supreme Court, and exonerate himself of all the charges. But more importantly, he was instrumental in highlighting flaws in the collegium system of judicial appointments, as well as corruption in the higher judiciary.
8. Approaching the Bench
Speaking about corruption, last year, there were two reported of instances of sitting high court judges being offered bribes. First, Justice KT Sankaran of the Kerala High Court disclosed in open court that he was offered Rs. 25 lakh as a bribe by the accused in a gold smuggling case.
A month later, Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court SK Mukherjee would also reveal that he was approached similarly.
Mukherjee CJ. said in open court that a person had come to his residence and offered him a bribe in return for disposing of a case listed to be heard before him.
The Advocates Association of Bangalore would then demand his transfer on account of his refusal to take action against the person offering the bribe.
9. Enabling Justice
Two high courts made significant decisions regarding implementation of disability laws in India. First, the Delhi High Court in August helped a Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas lawyer realise her dream of joining the civil services.
Shweta Bansal, who has a locomotor disability, was denied entry to the Indian Foreign Services on account of an arbitrary policy in allotting seats. She approached the High Court.
Then, in November, the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad made amends for a discrepancy in its own reservation policy which prevented visually impaired lawyer and IDIA scholar Arepalli Naga Babu from being allowed to write the state judiciary exam.
10. Fifteen Years of Contempt
Pendency of cases has long plagued India’s courts, but in this instance, the issue had affected a German scholar. Hans Dembowski, who wrote Taking the State to Court – Public Interest Litigation in Metropolitan India, was charged with contempt back in 2001 by the Calcutta High Court.
The case has not once come up for hearing, and as a result, the book remains off the shelves.
We interviewed Dembowski to give us his side of the story.
11. False Alarm (plug alert)
Towards the end of this year, the media was rife with reports of the Allahabad High Court “striking down” the Islamic practice of triple talaq. However, it turned out to be a false alarm, as the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the practice, but merely expressed its opinion.
Bar & Bench was the first to clarify the news, pointing to the fact that the High Court could not rule on the matter, since the Supreme Court was seized of it.
12. Two Wheels of the Chariot
On the topic of media coverage, the Bar and Bench put aside their differences to defend Justice Gita Mittal of the Delhi High Court against some rather unflattering media attention.
An article published by Times of India reported that a disgruntled litigant had written a letter to Chief Justice of India TS Thakur complaining about the alleged “tardy disposal of cases” by Justice Mittal.
In response, the Delhi High Court Bar Association, as well as senior members of the Bar, sprung to her defence, demanding an unconditional apology from the publication.
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