MP: HC and Lawyers at Loggerheads Over Pending Cases, Thousands on Strike
Image credit: Live Law
Bhopal: A notification of the Madhya Pradesh High Court to trim down the pendency of cases in the district courts has prompted a state-wide protest.
Advocates and the High Court are at loggerheads after Madhya Pradesh Chief Justice R V Malimath, in an administrative order, asked the lower court judges to dispose of at least 25 oldest pending cases in a span of three months. The notification was issued in a bid to cut down over 20 lakh cases pending in the lower courts. But it met with stiff opposition.
It has been a month since around 8,000 advocates of the Bhopal district court are on strike. Similarly, session courts in Jabalpur, Indore, and Gwalior are also dysfunctional.
Demanding withdrawal of the notification, lawyers across the state have been boycotting the lower courts as well as all three benches of the High Court. On March 22, the State Bar Council announced a three-day-long strike hours after asking the Court to withdraw the notification. They went on strike even though the Bar Council of India (BCI) intervened and urged them to cancel the call for the strike.
The advocates think that the move would put undue pressure on lawyers and judges, and that disposing of 25 cases in such a short span of time would not only undermine the process of law but justice would also not be served. "The scheme may reduce the number of pending cases. But justice can't be served as the court is only focusing on clearing the pending cases, not on the justice," said an advocate of Madhya Pradesh High Court.
PC Kothari of the Bhopal Bar Association pointed out, "Cross-questioning of vital witnesses and investigating officers are important. But they often would not appear in court even after three or four notices. Besides, many of the cases are pending owing to the test reports of government agencies. In such circumstances, how can we match the target of disposing of 25 cases in three months? In many courts, the judges are arbitrarily issuing dates of the older cases without admitting the new ones."
Enraged with the strike, a division bench of Chief Justice Ravi Malimath and Justice Vishal Mishra of Jabalpur High Court took suo moto cognisance on March 24, keeping in mind the sufferings of litigants owing to the strike.
A bench declared the strike 'illegal', directing lawyers across the state to resume duty forthwith or else contempt of court proceedings may be initiated, or they may be debarred from practice.
Expressing worry over the state of affairs, the Court observed, "Whatever may be the issues being faced by the lawyers, they cannot exercise their rights without first performing their duty. Their duty is to protect the legal rights of the litigants… Today is the second day, the lawyers are abstaining from attending the court. The entire judicial system is intended only for the benefit of the litigants… If advocates themselves abstain from work due to the call given by the respondent No.1, it is indeed a very sad day for the State of Madhya Pradesh."
The court asked the lawyers to report to work and cited the Supreme Court judgement in ex-captain Harish Uppal’s case, claiming that the head of the State Bar Council, who called for the strike, had disobeyed the ruling. Further, he has exhibited little respect and defied the orders given by the Bar Council of India, which had asked them to hold off from going on strike. In Harish Uppal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court said that lawyers have no right to go on strike without the permission of the Chief Justice.
"The Bar Council has been a party to all the earlier proceedings before this court. Undertakings have been given. The directions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Ex-Capt. Harish Uppal’s case (supra) has been flouted. There is no permission from the Hon'ble Chief Justice for the purpose of abstaining from court work," the order reads.
Justifying the need for the scheme to dispose of old cases, the Court said, "We are of the considered view that the duty of a lawyer is to uphold the rule of law. It is he, who fights for the legal rights of a litigant. There are almost 20 Lakh cases pending in the district court judiciary and more than 4 Lakh cases pending in the High Court. Every effort is being made by the Hon'ble High Court to reduce the pendency. The action of the respondent No.1 seeking to abstain from court work is opposed to the well established principles of the legal profession. The respondent No.1 cannot call for an illegal act to be done."
The Court added that it could not be a mute spectator to the blatant disobedience of Supreme Court orders by the State Bar Council and its Chairman. It also expressed its displeasure at the tone and content of the Chairman's letter, which appeared to the Court as more of a threat than a request.
In its order, the Court said that it was "extremely shocked, worried and pained about the manner in which things have unfolded."
Reacting over the Court's suo moto order, President of the State Bar Council, Prem Singh Bhadoriya, in an official communique to fellow lawyers, said, "I congratulate advocates for the success of the unified strike. I urge you not to fall prey to the warning of the Court. We are strong as we stand united."
"On March 25, we are going to meet the Supreme Court Justice Jitendra Kumar Maheshwari, who is senior to the chief justice (of Madhya Pradesh HC), to resolve the issue," he added.
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