Not just JNU: With lawyers acting as goons, time for SC to step in

  • Sudhanshu Ranjan
  • Updated: Feb 18, 2016 09:58 IST
Lawyers assaulting a journalist outside Patiala House Court in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, February 17, 2016. (Hindustan Times)

“The first thing that we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Act IV Scene 2) Though it was intended as a comic relief and not something to be taken seriously, it, nonetheless, reflects on the image lawyers have. They have been reviled from the time immemorial. Socrates, in the Theaetetus, derided lawyers in these words, “He is a servant, and is disputing about a fellow servant before his master, who is seated and has the cause in his hands…The consequence has been, that he has become keen and shrewd; he has learned how to flatter his master in word and indulge him in deed; but his soul is small and unrighteous. His slavish condition has deprived him of growth and uprightness and independence…he has been driven into crooked ways; from the first he has practised deception and retaliation, and has become stunted and warped…and is now, as he thinks, a master in wisdom.”

Lawyers, the officers of the court, who are supposed to assist it arrive at justice, are behaving like hoodlums and henchmen of their clients. The way they unleashed violence, and assaulted students, teachers and journalists inside and outside Patiala House courts in New Delhi, is an ominous portent for the legal profession and raises a serious question mark on the role and function of advocates. Barely five days earlier, on February 10 last, lawyers in Lucknow resorted to arson and violence during a protest march against the murder of advocate Shravan Kumar Verma. An advocate was openly flaunting a gun. Is the society heading back to the old ordeal system?

Modern advocate is an evolution of the gladiator of yesteryears. William the Conqueror, after coming to England, introduced a system of trial called “Ordeal by battle” in which the plaintiff and the defendant in a civil suit or the prosecutor and the accused in a criminal case were required to combat each other physically. It was thought that in such wrestling the party in the right would win with the blessings of God. The loser was pronounced guilty and the winner was declared innocent and to have justice on his side. Only women and the Church were allowed to hire champions who fought for them. Thus, the champion was the precursor of the present day advocate. In due course the freedom of employing an “advocate” to appear for the litigant was extended from priests and women to other classes of litigants. William Graham, a gladiator, was the most famous advocate in the thirteenth century. Though this form of trial became antiquated, under the law it remained open to litigants in England until the nineteenth century. The practice was abolished in 1919 after a man convicted of murder in 1918 moved the appellate court in appeal and his counsel pleaded that his client be allowed to challenge the prosecutor in a physical combat. Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough found that the right did exist. It was then that this method of trial was abolished. The ‘trial by ordeal’ was quite brief compared to today’s protracted trials which go on interminably.

Read | JNU row: Caught on tape thrashing people, lawyer leads mob again

The Supreme Court of India has commented copiously on the despicable conduct of lawyers. Condemning the callous and indifferent attitude of some advocates, the Supreme Court in Sanjiv Datta, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (1995), stressed on the need to improve the quality of service. In UP State Tax Service Association v. Taxation Bar Association, Agra, (1995), it criticized advocates attending court with firearms and browbeating or pressurizing judicial officers or authorities calling such conduct unbecoming of the legal profession which undermines the rule of law. It exhorted that an advocate should not show disrespect, overbear and overawe the court. In PD Gupta v. Ram Murti and Another (1997), the Supreme Court found that the advocate purchased property from the client, which was subject matter of dispute between the parties.

Lawyers have been indulging in several unethical practices about which there are hardly any complaints. On the basis of personal experience I can authentically say that lawyers are intimidating customers of private mobile operators and of private banks for payments of arrears, which are often inflated, and settlement of accounts which are generally manipulated, and would often say that they were calling from the warrant section of some court which does not exist. The numbers from which these calls are made are that of lawyers and any thorough investigation will expose the whole racket.

Read | JNU row: Another scuffle at Patiala House, lawyers beat up journalists

Some lawyers commit criminal offences and use their robes to ward off penal action. When the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court directed the CBI to investigate cases in which lawyers were accused but had not been named, it found that around eighty lawyers were guilty of criminal offences and arrested two of them. Lawyers of Lucknow struck work against the police action in Lucknow in May 2010. In 2013, Delhi Police arrested an advocate, Baljeet Singh Sehrawat, who took a contract for Rs 5 crores for the murder of Deepak Bhardwaj, BSP leader and real estate tycoon. In Himmat Ali Khan v. Ishwar Prasad Arya (1997), the Supreme Court directed to remove the name of the advocate, Ishwar Prasad Arya, from the State Roll of Advocates for ever. The advocate had assaulted his opponent with a knife in the court room and he was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a period of three years under Section 307 of the IPC. He also forged a letter signed by deputy secretary, Ministry of Home, UP, which said that the Governor had been pleased to suspend the conviction of the accused advocate under Article 161 of the Constitution. The State Bar Council of UP debarred him from practicing for three years but the BCI set aside the order and acquitted him. The Supreme Court reversed the judgement of the BCI. An advocate in Delhi was found to have links with terror outfit. It came to light in 2013 when his name was recommended by the collegium of the Delhi High Court for appointment as a high court judge and the Supreme Court collegium endorsed it and forwarded it to the government. It was the Intelligence Bureau which rang the alarm bells that the lawyer had links with a terrorist organization.

In Pakistan, in January 2011, young lawyers created mob scenes to express solidarity with Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the self-confessed assassin of Governor Salman Taseer who was awarded death sentence by the court. Lawyers showered rose petals on Qadri, a member of an elite police group assigned to guard the governor, and threatened the life of the judge who sentenced him to death. Taseer was brutally slain because he mustered courage to state publicly that a blasphemy law was being used to discriminate against religious minorities.

No wonder, in the USA, they are called “paid thugs” and this image is reflected in a widely used bumper sticker: ‘MY LAWYER CAN BEAT UP YOUR LAWYER.’ In fact, such an incident did take place in the USA in the 19th century when a lawyer killed another lawyer. Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) was the most influential Missouri politician during his tenure as a senator. He practised law and often argued cases against Charles Lucas, a competing attorney. During a heated argument in court in 1817, Benton felt that Lucas had slighted him. Infuriated, he challenged Lucas to a duel, and the two met on Bloody Island near St. Louis. Luckily the duel ended without any serious injuries to either, but Benton was not satisfied and asked for another duel. In the second duel, Benton killed Lucas with a gunshot that pierced his heart.

In Australia also, they are portrayed in similar colours. Former Labour Queensland Attorney General Wells said that they were developing a “legal-warrior caste”, and added, “The Wall Street sue-litigate-liquidate-terminate mentality is just not forward thinking; these black letter lawyers are the only professional group who are licensed to inflict pain-hip-pocket pain on other people.”

It is high time the Bar Council of India and the apex court step in before the legal profession rots away.

Sudanshu Ranjan is a TV journalist, columnist and author of Justice, Judocracy and democracy in India, published by Routledge.

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