10 Aug 2023 12:26 PM GMT
In an extraordinary and unprecedented move, the Madras High Court on Thursday passed an order raising doubts at the manner in which District Judge Vellore passed the judgment acquitting Tamil Nadu Minister Ponmudy and his wife in a disproportionate assets case.Justice Anand Venkatesh exercised suo motu revision powers to hold that the transfer of the case against the Higher Education...
In an extraordinary and unprecedented move, the Madras High Court on Thursday passed an order raising doubts at the manner in which District Judge Vellore passed the judgment acquitting Tamil Nadu Minister Ponmudy and his wife in a disproportionate assets case.
Justice Anand Venkatesh exercised suo motu revision powers to hold that the transfer of the case against the Higher Education Minister from District Judge at Villupuram to District Judge at Vellore was "ex-facie illegal and non-est in the eye of law". Notably, the transfer of the case was ordered by the Madras High Court itself in its administrative side.
In a strongly worded order, Justice Venkatesh said that there is "something seriously amiss about the procedure adopted in transferring the case to a different Court and that too at the fag end of the trial". Not only that, the judge also raised doubts at the acquittal itself, noting that within a span of 4 days after the arguments were over on June 23, the trial judge "managed to write a 226-page judgment acquitting the accused" on June 28. "Two days thereafter, on 30.06.2023, the Principal District Judge, Vellore retired and cheerfully rode off into the sunset", Justice Venkatesh said.
In this backdrop, the Judge said that he thought it fit to exercise suo motu powers, being the judge handling the portfolio of cases relating to MPs/MLAs.
Transfer of trial illegal
Earlier today, Justice Venkatesh, in an unprecedented move, decided to have a suo moto revision of the order of the Vellore Court.
When the suo moto revision was taken up today, the Judge said that the order of the two judges of the High Court, on administrative side, transferring the case was "ex-facie illegal and non-est in law" as no law gave authorities to the high court administration, either under the Constitution or the Letter Patent to transfer a pending criminal case from one district to another.
"It is, therefore, clear that there is no authority either under the Constitution, the Letters Patent or any provision of law authorizing two judges to exercise powers, on the administrative side, to transfer a pending criminal case from one District to another and that too by way of a note. It follows that the note of the Administrative Judges dated 06.07.2022 and 07.07.2022 directing the transfer of the case from Principal District Court, Villupuram to Principal District Court, Vellore is ex-facie illegal and non-est in law," Justice Venkatesh said in the order.
Justice Venkatesh noted that the case against Ponmudi, was registered by the Anti-corruption Department in 2002 for acquiring and possessing properties and other pecuniary resources in his name and the names of his wife and sons, which were disproportionate to his known sources of income.
Dubious and curious transfer, shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert
The Judge also noted that while the trial was nearing completion, the District Judge, Villupuram requested permission of the High Court to hold special sitting during court vacations for expeditious disposal of the case. However, he High Court administration, while rejecting the request of Villupuram District Judge, also injuncted her from exercising her judicial powers over the case by directing that the case should not be taken up until further orders. The case was then transferred to the Vellore court.
The Judge also noted that the Vellore District Judge had completed trial of the case within a very short period of time and after closing arguments, within a period of 4 days, pronounced the 227-page long verdict after examining evidence of 172 witnesses and 381 documents.
"The narrative reveals a shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert the criminal justice system. Having examined the record, I find that there is not even a speck of legality on anything that has been done on and from 07.06.2023 when the High Court administration injuncted the Principal District Judge, Villupuram from proceeding with the case. The dubious and curious process of transfer followed by the trial and judgment of the Principal District Judge, Vellore are wholly illegal and are nullities in the eyes of law,"
Thus, the judge, exercising powers under Article 227 of the Constitution and Section 397 & 401 Cr.P.C decided to suo moto revise the case.
"These illegalities having come to my notice, I have decided to exercise my powers under under Section 397 & 401 Cr.P.C and Article 227 of the Constitution suo motu as I find that there is a calculated attempt to undermine and thwart the administration of criminal justice," he said.
The judge has thus directed the registry to place the matter before the Chief Justice for information and directed the Additional Public Prosecutor to take notice. The court also directed the Registry to issue notice to Ponmudi and the other accused and posted the matter to September 9 2023 for hearing.
Questions loom large
Justice Venkatesh said that "several questions are looming large".
"The first amongst these is: where did the High Court get the power to issue an Official Memorandum on 07.06.2022 injuncting the Principal District Judge, Villupuram from proceeding with the case?
What was the tearing hurry to restrain the Principal Judge, Villupuram from hearing a corruption case which had been pending for years? In any event, the use of an official memorandum to restrain a Principal District Court from exercising judicial functions is something unheard of"
"The second question is where did the Administrative Committee, comprising of two Hon’ble Judges, get the power on the administrative side to transfer a pending criminal case from one District to another and that too by way of a note?"
Chief Justice cannot transfer criminal case to another district using Master of Roster powers
The Judge further held that the approval of the Chief Justice on July 8, 2022 will not clothe the note of the Administrative Judges with any legality.
"The Chief Justice is the Master of the Roster vis-à-vis the Benches in the High Court. It does not follow that the Chief Justice enjoys administrative power to transfer acriminal case pending in a District Court to another District. No such power exists or has been shown to exist either by law or by convention. Consequently, the approval of the Hon’ble Chief Justice on 08.07.2022 does not clothe the note order of the Administrative judges with any legality. Consequently, the Official Communication dated 12.07.2022 directing the transfer of the case from PDJ, Villupuram to PDJ, Vellore, the transfer to the PDJ, Vellore under the orders of the PDJ, Villupuram followed by the trial and the 226-page judgment delivered thereafter on 28.06.2023 are all coram-non-judice"
To justify the invocation of revision powers, the Judge said that "where a manifest illegality by a criminal court resulting in gross failure of justice comes to the notice of the High Court, it is the bounden duty of the High Court as a constitutional court to set right the illegality and to ensure that public confidence in the criminal justice system is maintained".
"The public must never get the impression that the Umpire is taking sides lest the whole game is reduced to a farce", the order stated in conclusion.
The following directions were issued:
(a) The Additional Public Prosecutor shall take notice on behalf of the State.
(b) The Registry is directed to issue notice to the accused in Special Case No.3 of 2002, on the file of the Principal District Court, Vellore, who are the 2 nd and 3 rd respondents in this criminal revision, for the hearing on 07.09.2023.
(c) The Registry is directed to place a copy of this order before the Hon’ble Chief Justice for information.
Case Title: Suo Moto RC v. Vigilance and Anti Corruption wing
Case No: CRL RC 1419 of 2023
Click here to read the order