Thursday, February 24, 2011

Judicious review - M J Akbar - Business-standard.com


At a time when the judiciary and the legal profession are facing a crisis of confidence, it would be interesting to know how things were some 60 years ago when the Constitution came into being and courts were being established. We have here a first-hand account from the author who has practised at the bar for three score and more years, no mean feat. V R Venkatakrishnan has seen the transformation of the profession from the days when English judges presided over the courts and seniors laid down strict norms for the entrants, and did not pay. No one doubted the integrity of the judges. The law of criminal contempt of court was thought necessary only in 1971.
It is difficult to imagine now an English judge riding a bicycle to the Madras High Court. When judges get high security privileges these days, it is incredible that the author, as a junior standing at a bus stand, was offered a lift by a high court judge. Since the juniors at the bar were poorly paid, the profession belonged to those from rich and influential families. Many lawyers plunged into the freedom struggle and the legal background was a bridge to politics. The English language in which the laws were written helped in the process. The author, therefore, is a staunch proponent of the language. He opposes the enactment of laws in regional languages and insists on conducting proceedings in English. “English language is the only language which keeps today’s India together. No other language in India can be an adequate substitute for the English language,” he swears.

The author regrets the steep fall in the quality of judgments delivered these days. They are often inordinately long and sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint the ultimate order. The Privy Council judgments written by English judges were brief and precise. The Allahabad High Court recently delivered a judgment running to 8,189 pages in the Ayodhya case. He says that in the context of a heavy backlog of cases, this long and winding style of writing judgments should be avoided. A litigant is not interested in appreciating the intellectual brilliance of the judges who write the judgments. What he wants to know is what he has got and what he has not. Therefore, judges should be wary of “grandstanding and self-indulgence”.
The method of choosing judges has changed for the worse. “Across the nation, the standards began to fall when the criteria for selection shifted from ability to other considerations.” A former judge of the Kerala high court was heard remarking long ago that a stage would come when a judge would not be able to differentiate between a cabbage and a mortgage. He was referring to the growing “ills of a liberal process of elevation from the bar to the bench”.
One reason for the decline in the quality is attributed to the reluctance of young law graduates to aspire for judgeship. They join large legal firms or corporate entities where they are paid handsomely. If they become successful lawyers, they can earn much more than the judges before whom they argue. This results in paucity of talent on the bench. Data on the judiciary show that thousands of judicial posts are not filled. Moreover, the ratio of judges to population is abysmal.
The author has very unkind words for the new generation of lawyers. Standards have fallen. “The social climate has changed; I do not see too many men in cloak moving about in the courts believing in the virtue of being sincere. When a rich client comes they shut their eyes and proceed with litigation with no thoughts of its merits... I have reason to believe that our lawyers now belong to a set of cowards. Advocates general become a sort of stooge of the government and stick to their office.”
Venkatakrishnan assails the Bhopal judgment in which the court sentenced a few key figures to a two-year imprisonment after a quarter of a century. The plight of the common person is unrelieved agony if he approaches a court. “If you approach the court with a petition that you have lost your bicycle, it is possible that it would take years to get justice. But if it is the government that comes up with litigation, in most instances, the case is taken up quickly. Even if it is some silly political issue.”
Corruption in the judiciary is an issue that is attracting considerable attention these days. Even some Chief Justices of India have admitted that all is not well with the judiciary. Two high court judges are facing impeachment and many others are in the shadow of suspicion. However, Venkatakrishnan asserts that there is no corruption in the judiciary. “I belong to the vanishing tradition, which possibly wrongly believes that there is no corruption in Indian judiciary. It will take a long time and convincing for me to digest that there are corrupt judges in this country.”
In another astonishing passage, he appreciates the conduct of Manu Needhi Cholan, who chose to kill his son to offer justice to a cow whose calf was crushed by his son’s chariot. The king’s statue stands in the premises of the Madras High Court. (The Rajasthan High Court has the statue of Manu himself.) Venkatakrishnan extols the Chola king’s devotion to Manu’s Dharmasastras. The king’s conduct is akin to the axiom of Roman Emperor Ferdinand I whose famous axiom was “May justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”
In this fascinating autobiography, Venkatakrishnan offers his views on a variety of current talking points, like post-retirement sops for judges in the form of commissions of enquiry, public interest litigation, the role of the media in the investigation of high-profile cases, the right to information, suicide and mercy killing (which he favours).
Though lawyers are easy with words, unlike other professions, only a small percentage of them contribute to history and literature by recording their experiences. Even Venkatakrishnan confesses that he was a reluctant writer and would not have written this book but for the persistence of his chartered accountant son. The thin row of legal literature would be richer because of this handy volume.

LIVING WITH LAWS
V R Venkatakrishnan
Lone Tree Books
Pages 203

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