Thursday, 1 September 2016

Interesting Experiences of a Lawyer and a Judge

Caution I’ve used quotes in places for narrative style. These are my phrasing of what I remember the speaker saying, not verbatim reports.There was a video recording of the  program, for those who want more accuracy.


The Hindustan Chamber of Commerce hosted a program titled Interesting Experiences of a Lawyer and a Judge yesterday, August 31, 2016 at Greams Dugar building on Greams Road, Chennai.

The speakers were retired Justice AR Lakshmanan, who served on the Supreme Court of India (also former Chairman, Law Commission of India) and Mr R Gandhi, Senior Advocate, Madras High Court (also former President, Bar Federation of Tamilnadu and Pondicheri).

They were welcomed by Mr V Murali, President of HCC.
Justice Lakshmanan spoke about allowing a student to write an exam, whom his university said had insufficient attendance. But the student asked that additional classes be counted, which the judge accepted, and ordered the university to allow him to write the exams, to avoid suffering a year's loss. Since a normal judicial order would take ten days to be delivered, the judge ordered the Registrar to read out the order to the Vice Chancellor and Controller of Examinations of the University (by telephone, I presume). This was in the Madras High Court.

He was then transferred to Kerala High Court. Inone case there, he ordered compulsory helmets for two wheelers in Kerala. Similarly, he ordered a ban on the sale of gutka in Andhra Pradesh, as a matter of public health. No court can order that manufacture of gutka be stopped, he said.  When the Mullaiperiyar case came up, I ruled that the dam is structurally, hydrologically and seismologically safe. The Supreme Court in a later hearing used this very phrase.

He was asked to move to Delhi High Court, but he refused as it was a smaller court than Kerala, though it had visibility as the national capital, as it would effectively imply a de-promotion (sic). But later he was appointed Chief Justice of the Rajasthan high court. There, several charges of corrupt subordinate judges were brought to his attendtion. There was a judicial investigation team, but it was headed by a subordinate judge, so he had private investigators look into the matter and ordered disimissal of several judges. The Chief Minister and Governor, accepted his actions, he said and did not raise political issue with them. No such thing happens in the southern states, he quips. And the helmet bans are merrily ignored too, he laments. We only pass these laws for public benefit, should not the public follow them?

He also said a case came up where the Income Tax department owed someone Rs 44 lakhs which had not been paid for about 17 years. There was a provision to order the IT department to refund not just the amount but also pay interest at a rate of 15%. “Being from the Nagarathar community,  I know how quickly interest can accumulate he said. The interest amount in this case exceeded due refund, it was around Rs.72 lakh. Now if I order that, I knew that accusations would fly that perhaps the judge also got a cut. So I chose a more appropriate interest rate, around 9%, and ordered payment. I asked the department to deposit the money right away, with a court pending an appeal. Concerned that interest payments could skyrocket on refunds that the department had been sitting on for years, they moved quickly and refund several tax payers in the next few months. At that time, the Finance Minister was P Chidambaram, who is also from the Nagarathar community, and he made an announcement that such refunds would be expedited, and it was prominently reported in the press. But after a few months, I think the situation went back to what it used to be,”  he said. There was both amused and resigned laughter from the businessmen in the audience.

Even I had trouble getting a tax refund and wanted to file a writ petition, Justice Lakshmanan continues, but several people felt it would cause a media sensation. The Commissioner of Tax ordered an immediate settlement, he says. {This reminded me of early 1900s and Madras Governor Lawley losing his money in the Arbuthnotbank failure...}

He regrets that there is no Supreme Court bench in South India. What expense, what difficulty and what high lawyer fees, citizens suffer, because of the distance of Delhi, he laments.

Referring to the Collegium appointing judges, he said, that there is no such word as Collegium in the dictionary. Justice Bhagawati coined the word.

(Gopu’s Note: Collegium is a Latin word, not English in origin. One got the feeling that Justice Lakshmanan was against the Judiciary appointing its own members. Markandeya Kadju, another retired judge of the Supreme Court, has written more critically about this judicial power grab. But, I think even the gutka sale ban, helmet rule judgment are judicial power grabs. Legislatures and executives are happy to let the judiciary make such laws and regulations, because they are protected from popular resentment.)

Rajasthan is extremely beautiful and I urge all of you to visit, he says. I enjoyed my stay in all the places I stayed. I've passed judgment of 1,37,000 cases.

Then advocate Gandhi spoke: “I have terrible handwriting but I answered exams voluminously in college. I can barely read my own handwriting, it is a miracle anyone else can read it. Others wrote five or six pages for their law exams but I wrote eighty pages, most of it illegible. But when I had a good point I would write it in bold letters and quote some Professor Iyer or Iyengar because the north Indian examiners had never heard of Gounders...

“I came second in the University. My brother said it can't be a very good University if you came second.

“Justice Lakshmanan has very beautiful handwriting, unlike me. He is very funny, if we travel together he'd joke and then at the end of the trip he'd say we laughed for 12km today or 18km today.

“I was member of the Syndicate. The syndicate wanted to punish students who copied or cheated in exams. One student who was caught came to me. I used to copy in exams and I knew some judges also copied. Copying is hard, only those who have copied know how hard it is. Syndicate wanted to pass a law barring students for three years for copying, I demanded that it should be reduced to one year. I copied and I'm now a Syndicate member, have I become a bad person? This was my argument. In the spirit of youth, copying is a form of adventure and rebellion, like smoking.” 

The crowd roared with appreciation at this candor and earthiness.

He narrated a case where an innocent man was framed by police for murdering four people. The investigating officer begged me to get the accused off the hook, because he framed the person because he couldn't find the murderer and there was pressure from superiors. The man was hanged. He wrote a book in Tamil, where he decried “The Law is an ass’. This of course, is a famous expression, from the legal community in England. “If I called a judge an ass, it would be contempt of court, but calling the Law is an ass is acceptable form of condemnation,” he quipped.

Gandhi narrated the incident when the DMK government renamed Thilakar Thidal, a segment of the Madras Marina beach, as Seerani Arangam. This was just a ploy to remove Balagangadhar Tilak's name, he averred. Tilak was the first patriotic voice that roared, “Independence is my birthright.” Outraged, that a place where Gandhi and Nehru and Subramanya Bharathi and such great freedom fighters delivered public speeches for India’s indpendence movement should be so contemptuously renamed, he fought in court for the name to be restored. A few years back, when the statue of actor Sivaji Ganeshan was installed on the beach, near Queen Mary’s college, “even though Sivaji was a good friend of mine, and distantly related, I couldn't stand that his statue would show its back to Mahathma Gandhi statue, and I filed a case to change that. How could they try to humiliate the memory of Gandhiji like that?”

He recollected when advocate VL Ethiraj, who founded Ethiraj college in Egmore, asked for a murder case to be dismissed five minutes before a guilty sentence was to about be passed on a person, because he realized that the FIR of the murder had been filed an hour before the actual murder was committed. Ethiraj was the Public Prosector at that time, and even the Defence Counsel had missed this detail, for which he apologized in Court and thanked Ethiraj for his uprightness.

Someone asked about entrance with veshti / dhoti at the Tamilnadu cricket club, which Gandhi fought for. The Club rules only say that members and guest must be decently dressed, Gandhi retorted. Do the clubs argue that dhothis are indecent dress? Tamilnadu legislative assembly passed a law that dhotis must be allowed in club and any club refusing will be fined and its license revoked. This was the only law passed by the TN Assembly, where all political parties were united, he said

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