"For the Judiciary to perform its duties and functions effectively and true to the spirit with which it is sacredly entrusted, the dignity and authority of the courts have to be respected and protected at all costs. The only weapon of protecting itself from the onslaught to the institution is the long hand of contempt of court left in the armoury of judicial repository which, when needed, can reach any neck howsoever high or far away it may be," the Gujarat High Court remarked while holding Advocate Yatin Oza liable for criminal contempt.
The Bench of Justices Sonia Gokani and NV Anjaria pronounced its verdict on Tuesday in the backdrop of "scurrilous remarks" made by him against High Court and its Registry, during a live press conference on Facebook.
The Bench punished him till rising of the Court on Wednesday, apart from imposing a fine of Rs. 2,000.
The verdict is a reminder that "no one has become so big than the institution itself that in the name of taking up the cause of advocates, he or she can go to any extent of tarnishing the image of the institution by his expression and utterances."
In the case at hand, Oza had alleged the Registry of observing "favouritism and nepotism" in matter of circulation and listing of cases. The tenor of such allegations lead to registration of a suo moto case against Oza, President of the Gujarat High court Advocates' Association.
On a complete evaluation of the facts and circumstances of the case, the Court has come to a finding that Oza' "broad wild allegations" were a scurrilous attack on the court and they were scandalous. They lowered the authority of the court and could be said to be meant to interfere with the administration of justice, or indeed tending to interfere with the course of justice.
Significantly, Oza had said that "The High Court is functioning for rich and influential people." Taking exception to this, the Court noted that Oza's remarks were,
"a clear and loud message being sent to the public at large from the Chair of the President, Gujarat High court Advocates' Association that the common man, who otherwise reposes its faith in this system has misplaced its faith as a system is not conducive and does not entertain a man with less resources or with no means for their matters to be adjudicated."
The Court said that what was alleged is against the High Court that it is functioning for the rich and the influential.
While Oza had tried to take a defence that his remarks were aimed the Registry and not the Court itself, the Bench clarified,
"Any matter filed before the High Court does not get stopped at the Registry, which is only a facilitating arm of the judiciary. Matters are being permitted to be filed, examined, considered, scrutinized, processed and placed before the Court. However, the issuance of notices inviting pleadings and evidence and adjudication of the matter after availing apt opportunities to the parties is the essential and predominant function of the judges and, therefore, if it is being attacked and alleged that only Khambhata (Kasturi construction) or the builders has access to the justice, which forms not even 1% to 5% of the total population of the country."
Registry an integral part of Court
As Oza tried to emphasize that his grievance was against the functioning of the Registry and not the Judges, the Court reimposed that "Registry is an integral part of the Court and held unfailingly and indubitably that any attack on the Registry would mean an attack on the Court."
The Court said that the Registry and the officers working in the Registry are to be "indispensably" viewed as the part of the Court within the meaning of the word "court" used in Section 2(c)(i).
"The administration of justice has the twin component, the Court on the judicial side and the Court on the administrative side.
The Parliament has used the word scandalising the court and the definition does not refer to either the administrative wing or the judicial wing. It does not refer to the judges, not does it refer to the Registry, however, to say that the court does not include the Registry as rightly urged by learned amicus curiae would amount to strain reading of the provision. The Legislature has not used the words "Judges" or the "Judiciary", while framing the law," the Bench said while emphasizing on the legislative intent of the Contempt of Courts Act.
"The system shall have to be looked at as a whole and there could not be any interpretation of such a nature, which would say that the Registry is not a part of the Court. Any such parochial meaning would render the very powers otiose by allowing anyone and everyone to permit an integral part of judiciary to be criticized and attacked to achieve even their personal scores against the individuals."
Nevertheless, it held that the entirety of the Oza's statements suggest that his remarks were also aimed at the judicial side of the Court.
"If all the statements are looked at in their entirety even without analyzing them and without even any context, then also it is quite apparent and clear to someone, who is not even an analyzer or an expert that these utterances cannot and simply did not mean only for the Registry.
When it comes to attacking the very dispensation of justice, it is always meant for judiciary and the judges only and exclusively and surely not the Registry. When one wants to shield oneself with a design that in future, scurrilous attack on the judges would amount to contempt, and therefore, attempts to put up the Registry in front, otherwise, it is as clear as a broad day light that every statement, which has been made referred to hereinabove, is meant to be an attack against the judges," the Court said.
Defence of Truth
The Court has held that for treating justification of truth as a valid defence, "there has to be a foundation".
In the case at hand, Oza had contended that his utterances were solely to voice the grievances being faced by the Junior lawyers and he had no personal stake therein.
Rejecting this justification however the Court noted that the five matters for which much uproar was created by Oza, it is not borne out from the record that anything alleged in that respect was true.
"Even the status report of these five matters goes to falsify the same…The respondent does not succeed in showing any semblance of truth in support of the allegations," the Court remarked.
It observed that even if there were grievances and complaints of advocates and assuming those were felt by the President to be actually genuine, "no one has whispered of corrupt practice much less serious malpractices or blaming the system to be meant for rich and resourceful only."
The Court was of the opinion that such "serious and unpalatable utterances" made during the live conference were the product of Oza's own "brainchild".
"Had this been the result of genuine concern for the junior advocates, the same could never have been in complete disregard to the ground realities that existed in those initial months of lockdown or for that matter, as on the date," the Bench emphasized.
Reiterating the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, the Court added that Oza, being a lawyer, "has to know all the laws better."
"Freedom of speech is enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of India as considering in the interest of sovereignty, integrity of India, security of the Sate, public order, decency and morality and also the Contempt of Courts act and defamation. The power must be carefully exercised. This also say that dignity of the Courts, people's faith in administration of justice, must not be terminated on the basis of unverified reporting. One must be careful to verify the facts and do some research on the subject being reported before publication is brought about," the Court said while relying on the Apex Court's decision in Sanjoy Narayan, Editorin-Chief, Hindustan Times & Ors. v. High Court of Allahabad, (2011) 13 SCC 155.
Good deeds not a license to attack Court
In an additional rejoinder affidavit filed on behalf of Oza, he had highlighted his "stellar record" in terms of standing up for the cause of Bar and the interest of the institutions, sometimes even at the cost of personal gain.
However, the Court was of the opinion that "No brazen act can be permitted nor can his good deeds can prove to be a licence to attack the Court. What needs to be seen by the Court is that even if someone attempts to attack the Court, the gravity shall have to be examined."
The Court has reminded once again that the advocates are also a part of the legal system and there can never be such actions on their part which either diminish the confidence or have a tendency to shake the faith of the people.
"In the present time, when the world is moving ahead and all possible attempts are made to introduce and imbibe Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as an integral part of the judicial dispensation system, what better chance than the present one for the legal fraternity also to come forth and strengthen the system which is the way forward. Even healthy criticism in any such endeavours also is welcome but, instead of that, what is being found here is that without having the slightest regard for hundreds of employees of the Court working tirelessly day and night to ensure that the dispensation of justice does not stop, without bothering for their personal lives and the lives of their beloved at home in the Pandemic, what all they get in return is the acidic criticism of serious nature of corruption, biased and partition attitude and that too, without any valid and justifiable base," the Bench observed.
"Even if the system was yet not ready fully to cope up with this sudden transition of hearing through video conferencing and acceptance of filing through E mode, the same would need unflinching support of both bar and bench, however, in complete disregard to this essential duty, more so, as the leader of the State bar association, every attempt is made to shake the foundation by creating doubt, disturbance, disaffection and disrespect in the very working of the Court, by fissiparous tendencies as detailed above which warrant dealing with the firm hands."
On July 18, the HC had revoked the senior designation given to Oza recalling the Full Court decision of 1999 designating him as a Senior Advocate.
The cause of action was a Facebook live conference held by Oza in June, where he alleged that the HC regsitry was following corrupt practises and that undue favours were being shown to high profile industrialists and smugglers.
The HC took suo moto cognizance of Oza's statements, and initiated contempt proceedings, observing:
As the Bar President has by his scandalous expressions and indiscriminate as well as baseless utterances has attempted to cause serious damage to the prestige and majesty of the High Court and thereby of independent judiciary as also attempted to lower the image of entire Administration and also created demoralising effect amongst the Administrative wing, this court in exercise of powers conferred under Article 215 of the Constitution of India, prima facie finds him responsible for committing the criminal contempt of this Court within the meaning of Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act and takes cognizance of such criminal contempt against him under Section 15 of the said Act."
The bench observed that Oza had, with frivolous grounds and unverified facts, targeted the HC Registry and had questioned the very credibility of High Court Administration.
Though Oza had approached the Supreme Court against the contempt notice, the SC refused to entertain the plea, and asked him to agitate the matter in the High Court itself.
He told the SC that he was offering "unconditional apology" for his remarks against the HC.
The SC observed that as a leader of the bar, Oza had greater responsibility and that he ought to be restrained in conveying the grievances of the lawyers. The apex court did not express anything on the merits of the matter, and said that it was appropriate that the High Court dealt with the issue first, taking note of his apology.
Later, Oza tendered an unconditional apology before the High Court which came to be rejected by the Full Court on August 26. however, rejected his apology for lacking in bonafides. The Full Court was of the opinion that Oza's apology was forthcoming in the backdrop of initiation of contempt proceedings against him and after stripping of his senior designation.
'Remorse Expressed Is A Tool To Escape The Consequences Of His Misconduct': Gujarat HC Full Court Rejects Yatin Oza's Unconditional Apology
Subsequently, the Division Bench in this case also rejected his apology stating that the same "lacks sincerity"
Notably, Oza had challenged the High Court's decision to strip him off his designation as senior. The same was listed for directions on September 29 but was deferred in the backdrop of the present proceedings.
'Yatin Oza Due To Argue Before HC Tomorrow On Point Of Truth', SC Told; Matter Listed On October 13 For Directions
Oza, as the GHCAA President, had earlier voiced strong protest against the transfer of Justice Akil Kureshi from Gujarat HC to Bombay HC by terming it "unwarranted, uncalled for and unjust"
The Association under his leadership had also approached the Supreme Court against the Centre's delay to act on the SC Collegium's recommendation to elevate Justice Kureshi as the Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court.
In June, he had tendered his resignation as the GHCAA President following differences among the Office bearers of the Association regarding re-opening of the courts for physical hearing. Oza had addressed a letter to Chief Justice Vikram Nath, urging him to let the High Court function "full fledgedly" via video conferencing and allow all matters to be heard.
Later, he withdrew his resignation, following request by several members.
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