A Tribute To Justice UL Bhat

Update: 2024-06-08 09:03 GMT
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Mr. Ullal Lakshminarayana Bhat began his legal career practicing in the local courts of Kasaragod, Kerala. While practicing law, Bhat was connected with the unified communist party and held leadership positions in multiple trade unions. He also ran for local body elections under the party banner. When the political affiliations of judges have become a significant area of concern in contemporary discourse, Justice Bhat was an embodiment of impartiality, impeccable integrity and fearlessness. Political affiliations other prejudices never stained his judgments.

Notwithstanding Justice Bhat's prior experience primarily in civil law, when he was appointed as a district judge presiding over criminal cases, through his logical judgments and decisions, he gained prominence in his role. As a judge of the High Court Justice Bhat once again proved his mettle dealing with intricate questions of constitutional law with elan.

His career saw further elevation as he was promoted to serve as the Chief Justice of both the Gauhati and Madhya Pradesh High Courts. Following his retirement from the judiciary, he was appointed as the President of the Central Excise and Gold (Control) Appellate Tribunal for a tenure of three years and later he practiced as a senior advocate in the Karnataka High Court at Bangalore.

According to James Fitz James Stephen, experiential learning gradually imparts practitioners with a thorough understanding of the legal principles relevant to their practice. Justice Bhat's wealth of experience extends beyond his role as a judge; his background as a lawyer and his broader engagement as a humanist and leader of a political party in his hometown Kasargod further enriched his insights and expertise in various domains.

Justice Bhat's exceptional analytical acumen is evident in his precise judgments, which serve as prime examples of systematic reasoning. With his extensive experience as a judge across different levels of the judicial system, he gained remarkable insights into various aspects of legal proceedings and the functioning of Courts. Starting his career as a trial judge and subsequently transitioning to an appellate judge, he developed a profound understanding of intricate legal nuances, particularly concerning the law of evidence. His knowledge extended to the significance of rules pertaining to relevancy, admissibility, and their role in influencing the beliefs of fact finders.

His profound expertise lay in the 'Law of Evidence,' a legal domain primarily governed by rules grounded in practicality and a deep comprehension of actual legal proceedings. This branch of law, intricately connected to human behaviour and societal norms, reflects the insights of its early architects on human psychology. The foundational principles and procedural frameworks central to numerous evidence rules are significantly influenced by the perspectives of the law's originators on human psyche and behaviour.

Justice Bhat, in his memoirs, recounted a sessions case he tried in Palakkad. In this case, a man named Madhavan was alleged to have been killed, and the accused was on trial. There was no direct evidence against the accused. However, Madhavan's wife identified his clothes, and his relatives identified the charred body as his. Additionally, there was testimony that Madhavan was last seen with the accused. Despite this, Justice Bhat felt that the evidence did not conclusively point to the guilt of the accused; instead, there was reasonable doubt about the prosecution's case. The circumstances leading to the conclusion of guilt should first be thoroughly established, and all established facts should align exclusively with the presumption of the accused's guilt. It did not in Madhavan's case. The accused were acquitted. Many years later, he recalled reading a news item in the newspaper. He mentioned that as part of his daily routine, he would read the morning newspaper while sipping a cup of coffee. The headline read, "Madhavan Returns." He suddenly realized that this was the same Madhavan who was alleged to have been killed in the criminal case he had tried in Palakkad. During training sessions, he would share the story of Madhavan's return to emphasize the dangers of convictions when guilt is not established beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, he used to stress in training sessions that the circumstances must be conclusive and should exclude all other hypotheses except the one being proven. In other words, the evidence must form a complete chain that leaves no reasonable doubt about the innocence of the accused, showing that, in all likelihood, the act was committed by the accused.

In the case of Aliyar vs Pathu (1988(2) KLT 446), a divorced wife and her minor children obtained an order under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (the Code), directing the revision petitioner to pay maintenance to the children at the rates of Rs. 25/- and Rs. 20/- per month, respectively. The divorced wife's claim for maintenance was initially rejected. However, upon revision, the Sessions Court ordered the former husband to pay maintenance to the divorced wife at the rate of Rs. 55/- per month, a decision confirmed by the High Court in 1984. Subsequently, the wife and her minor children sought an increase in the maintenance amount due to rising living costs. The learned Magistrate then increased the maintenance payments to Rs. 100/-, Rs. 50/-, and Rs. 40/- per month, respectively. This order was challenged. A Division Bench, headed by Justice Bhat, held that the husband's liability does not cease after paying maintenance for the iddat period; he is still required to make reasonable and fair provisions for his wife's life under the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.

Justice U. L. Bhat, who held the position of Chief Justice in both the Gauhati High Court and the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, was widely regarded as one of the most distinguished High Court judges across the nation. Alongside Justice G. P. Singh, Justice U. L. Bhat was acknowledged as one of the leading legal minds in the country, and they were seen as the two judges whom the Supreme Court keenly missed.

Justice K T Thomas, said “Justice U L Bhat is an outstanding judge. Even his critics would admit that fact. Non-elevation of judges like him to Supreme Court resulted in a great loss to the Supreme Court itself." In the words of Justice Krishna Iyer, "Bhat is bold, brilliant and original. He is known for his integrity. His views on public issues and institutions are not conditioned by pressures from above or cravings from below. He is independent of expediencies, opportunism and authoritarianism. This I thought was a superlative qualification for a judge to function without fear or favour. But where lesser judges without vision are in authority over judges, this rare virtue proves to be a drawback. Bhat, a good, senior and great judge acted unafraid of authoritarian whims and wayward destinies. Bhat became a martyr. He lost his appointment to the Supreme Court because he was "irreverent" and not obsequious to seniors.”

The judiciary stands as one of the fundamental pillars in any democratic system. Its complete autonomy is essential for safeguarding individual freedom and the liberty of citizens. It is Judges like Justice Bhat who were always in the forefront safeguarding individual freedom and liberty. His demise is certainly a loss to the legal fraternity.

The author is a Senior Counsel practicing in the High Court of Kerala and Former Professor at  National Judicial Academy


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