Friday, July 9, 2010

A judge of the Madras High Court sets an example by disposing of 53,000 cases in four years.

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Making a difference



Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court.

To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.

Magna Carta, June 15, A.D. 1215

THE June 7 verdict in the Bhopal gas leak case, which came 26 years after the world's worst industrial disaster, only intensified the agony of the victims rather than providing them succour. It also reinforced the saying “justice delayed is justice denied”.

The verdict threw up many questions relating to the administration of justice, not least among them the nagging issue of the huge backlog of cases.

The vision statement launched by Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily last year pointed out that a whopping 31 million cases were pending in the three-tier judicial system of the country. This has meant an inordinate delay in the dispensation of justice. Going by the current pace of disposal of cases, experts in the field are of the view that it may take around 400 years to clear the backlog alone.

In Tamil Nadu, the total number of pending cases as on December 31, 2009, was 15,26,287 – in the principal seat of the High Court of Madras, its Bench in Madurai and in the subordinate courts in the districts. Official data show that the lower courts carry the bulk of the litigation load, with 10,94,897 cases pending in them as of the end of last year. The High Court's share is 4,31,390 cases.

Experts say that unless the disposal rate improves significantly, the backlog cannot be cleared, particularly when new cases are being filed every day. In 2008, Tamil Nadu occupied the top position in the number of new cases instituted for 10,000 population, with 123 cases against the all-India average of 35.

The backlog can be removed only by taking steps to enhance competency, increase the number of judges and improve infrastructure, they opine. Avoidance of frivolous litigation, full utilisation of court working hours, applying judiciously the practice of adjournments, ending court boycotts and the adoption of alternative dispute redress mechanisms can, they say, ensure speedy delivery of justice.

While a viable strategy to end the vicious cycle has eluded the authorities, a judge of the Madras High Court, K. Chandru, has provided a ray of hope by quietly but convincingly showing that speedy disposal of cases can be achieved. Indeed, he has contributed immensely to the scaling down of the number of pending cases in the High Court.

The Tamil Nadu government's policy note on Administration of Justice (for 2010-2011) claims that for the first time in several years, the number of cases pending in the principal seat of the Madras High Court showed a decrease on December 31, 2009 – by 26,962 on the civil side and 4,293 on the criminal side, compared with the numbers on the corresponding date of the previous year.

The number of cases disposed of by Justice Chandru, who was elevated to the Bench in July 2006, stood at 52,688 in April this year and crossed the 53,000 mark in June. On June 8 alone, he disposed of 75 cases. He delivered judgments either as the judge of a single Bench or as part of a division Bench or a full Bench, say informed court sources.

“Taking into account the number of working days of the court, the judge has disposed of around 1,300 cases every month on an average,” the sources said. In April alone, he delivered 1,747 verdicts. The cases covered a range of issues involving services, cooperative societies, labour, education, land acquisition, Hindu religious endowments and so on. A good number of them were writ petitions and some were public interest petitions. During his tenure in the Madurai Bench, he had cleared around 7,500 cases.

Justice Chandru has to his credit some landmark judgments, including the order on the removal of hoardings in the city and on National Highway 45 where it runs along the boundary of Chennai airport; the demolition of 69 unauthorised high-rises, including business complexes, nullifying the government's amnesty scheme; and the containment of pollution caused by hosiery units in Tirupur.

There is a strong undercurrent of humanism, secularism and sympathy for the poor and the weaker sections in his verdicts, say experts. A close reading of his orders bears this out.

Take the case of A. Pinniyakkal, the woman priest who became de facto trustee of the Durgai Amman temple at Nalluthevanpatti in Madurai district. When some residents of the village attempted to prevent her from performing pooja at the temple, she moved the High Court on November 12, 2007 (“Priest & prejudice”, Frontline, November 21, 2008).

Passing orders on September 5, 2008, Justice Chandru made it clear that neither any provision of law nor any scheme prohibited women from performing poojas in the temple. “As said by a great philosopher, women hold half the sky, and for human progress we must walk with two legs…. The altar of God must be free from gender bias. Only then the constitutional mandate under Articles 15 [prohibiting discrimination against a citizen on the grounds of sex] and 51A [stressing the fundamental duty of every citizen to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women] will become a reality,” he opined.

His judgment in the case involving a protest outside the office of Dow Chemical Company on February 10, 2009, was welcomed by human rights outfits. More than two months after the protest, the company filed a suit against representatives of the organisations that held the demonstration as part of their campaign for justice for the Bhopal gas victims.

The company pleaded for various reliefs from the respondents, including the payment of Rs.10 lakh along with interest on account of loss of business and an equal amount “for defamation and loss of reputation” suffered by them.

The company also prayed for a permanent injunction restraining them from holding any demonstration outside its office.

Constitutional right

In his order dated July 9, 2009, the judge said, “It must be noted that the people of India empowered with a constitutional right provided in the Constitution of India, are entitled to make grievance on any issue. Their mouths cannot be gagged either by the government using its police force or the courts by the grant of preventive injunctions.

“Before the issuance of a prior restraint on a citizen's right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) or their right to hold peaceful assembly under Article 19 (1) (b), there must be established a clear case of infringement of the right of an aggrieved person. Otherwise the courts are bound to protect the rights of parties to express their protest on public issue.”

Employees' unions, particularly those in public sector undertakings, hailed his verdict dismissing a plea from Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd that a strike notice issued by some unions be declared illegal and violative of Section 23 (general prohibition of strikes and lockouts) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Justice Chandru, in his order on April 13, 2007, asked the management to approach fora created under the Industrial Disputes Act, as its attempt to come before the court seeking “declaratory relief” under Article 226 [power of High Courts to issue certain writs] was an “exercise in futility”.

An interesting order that won widespread appreciation related to a petition filed by S. Kasthuri, an employee of the National Airports Authority of India (NAAI), seeking a direction to the management to permit her to report for duty in dresses made of khadi/handloom/cotton, of the same shape/colour as prescribed by the department, instead of dresses made of silk/synthetic material.

The petitioner sent a requisition letter on August 8, 1996, to exempt her from wearing synthetic or silk or polyester sarees on the grounds that from her childhood she was inspired by the life and principles of Gandhiji, and had taken an oath to wear only khadi or handloom dresses throughout her life.

The authorities not only rejected her request but directed her, by an order dated August 12, 1999, to wear the uniform prescribed by the NAAI or face action under the provisions of the NAA (ECDA) Regulations, 1988.

Setting aside the fiat, Justice Chandru said, “It is one thing to state that the respondent has power to prescribe a uniform, even dictating colour and shade for the cloth that one should wear, but cannot dictate the type of linen which is neither suited to our country nor it reflects the ethos of our Independence movement.”

Landmark verdicts

Flaying the police for indulging in moral policing, directing local bodies to ensure the setting up of common burial grounds for all communities, stressing the need for adherence to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act in adoption, and vacating a stay on the publication of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy's works by the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam are among his other landmark verdicts.

The legal fraternity in the State points out that Justice Chandru also made the headlines by doing away with the system of the macebearer escorting him to the court, by becoming the first judge to declare his assets, by asking advocates not to address him as ‘lord' and by discouraging visitors from going to his residence to greet him on festivals.

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