Bench and Bar, tied with a delicate thread of regard, the two complete each other. What is Bar, if Bench loses integrity. What is Bench, if the Bar is contemptuous. Between the two odd extremes is the vast arena of mutual respect. Respect, which cannot be seized but only earned.
Let me sample a very small yet powerful section of the field - the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court carries perhaps the most diverse bar. Advocates belonging to various parts of the country including those settled in Delhi practice before the Court. Similarly, the bench is equally diverse, both in experience and caliber. The Supreme Court as an institution over last 65 odd years has seen exceptional moments. A lot many moments which have flowed through generations showing regard, sarcasm, respect, anger, humour and taunts are cherished. However, unfortunately, lately those cherishable moments have become rare and altercations between bar and bench have increased. Let me share such an incident which happened yesterday.
In Court No. 10, Justices Arun Mishra and Mohan M. Shantanagoudar assembled and started hearing matters on the board. In one of the fresh matters, Mr. Surat Singh appeared for the petitioners and argued his case. Justice Arun Mishra, interrupted Dr. Surat Singh in between his arguments once or twice. Dr. Surat Singh could not persuade the court to grant him any relief and the bench decided to dismiss his case with costs of 50 Thousand. Singh asked the Court not to impose costs as it involved poor farmers and that his was not a case where costs should be imposed. Not pleased, the bench threatened to raise costs further. Infuriated Mr. Singh again pleased against imposition of the cost. Justice Mishra responded, “Mr. Counsel, Not like this Mr. Counsel. This is not the way.” This infuriated Singh further, he mentioned angrily that he is a graduate from Harvard Law School. Justice Arun Mishra, again in his inimitable style asked him not to show his “Harvardness” to him. Singh, already angry started shouting. He told Justice Mishra that he was offered judgeship in 1997 by CJI Punchhi and he refused it. Had he accepted it, he would have been senior to Justice Mishra. No doubt, it is highly improper to bring ‘Harvard’ and offer of ‘judgeship’ to substantiate an argument, such misplaced arguments definitely demand a rebuke.
Thereafter, the court witnessed unpleasant exchanges . Justice Arun Mishra mentioned invocation of contempt jurisdiction against Mr. Singh. The President of the SCBA, Mr. R.S.Suri who was seated next to Mr.Singh tried to calm him down. Singh however told him and Justice Arun Mishra that he has highest regard for the court but that does not mean that “we” will lose our dignity as counsel. After another verbal exchange, as advised by fellow members of the bar, Singh bowed down and left the courtroom. Justice Arun Mishra however told the SCBA President that it was ‘shocking’ for him and he refrained from issuing contempt as he wants to use his power rarely. He mentioned that the bar must know its limits and such incidents must not be repeated in the future. He shared that he was once a member of the bar (I was also there once) but he could never imagined speaking to a judge like how Mr. Singh did.
What happened not only brought disgrace to the court but also to the institution. It is not arcane knowledge that Justice Arun Mishra’s court is not a ‘relief giving court’ as often stated by Senior Lawyers while refering to some of the old judges of the Hon’ble Court. Only if your matter is exceptionally well, an advocate can expect some relief. It is also well known that Justice Arun Mishra uses costs as a tool to dissuade the counsel from persuading further. Once he is done hearing you he indicates that your matter is going to be dismissed. Any further persuasion invites costs. If you argue any further, he will threaten the counsel to shut up or the costs rise.
If there are members of the bar who tend to browbeat judges, which is extremely condemnable, Judges must also let a counsel present his case with some sense of responsibility. It is a matter of mutual regard after all. Members of the bar are conscious of the fact that this is a serious issue. One needs to ponder what can be done to resolve this. I leave it up-to the bar to stand up. A spade needs to be called a spade whether a lawyer or a Judge.