When Lawyers Become Lawless: Why The Attacks At Patiala House Are Nothing But ‘Shameful’

Posted on February 17, 2016

By Gayatri Raghunandan:

Lawyers shout slogans during a protest outside the Patiala House court in New Delhi, India. February 17, 2016. Fighting broke out on Wednesday around Delhi's Patiala House court hearing a case against a Jawaharlal Nehru University student union leader accused of sedition, a charge that has sparked protests across university campuses and criticism the government was curtailing free speech. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - RTX27CD0
Image Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee.

On the 15th of February, journalists, senior faculty members and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students, along with many others were threatened, attacked and brutally beaten up inside the Patiala House Court, where JNUSU (JNU Students’ Union) President Kanhaiya Kumar was being produced. Dozens of people were injured in this abominable attack, which was led by lawyers in the court premises. As the situation turned violent, videos show these lawyers slapping Kumar’s supporters, mostly faculty members and students. After that, they decided to march around the court premises looking for those who resembled the ‘anti-national’ elements they were fighting against, beating anyone they suspected of belonging to JNU.

On the 17th, the Supreme Court of India agreed to hear a petition filed by a social worker and alumnus of JNU seeking immediate intervention of the court in this incident. Acting on the petition filed, the court ordered that only lawyers representing the accused and prosecution shall be allowed inside the courtroom. Justice Chelemeshwar further observed that “moderation seemed to be a forgotten word in today’s society which has become a dangerous trend…the atmostphere in and around a courtroom cannot be vitiated like this.” The petitioner, N.D. Jayaprakash attributes the immediate cause to the physical violence and threat faced by him, many students and teachers who were attacked while attending the judicial proceedings before the court of Shri Loveleen, Metropolitan Magistrate Court complex.

Despite police presence, nobody intervened to abate the violence. Journalists, men and women, were precluded from performing their duties and were thus unable to report the events witnessed by them. The petition, therefore, prays that the court take appropriate measures to ensure that proper action is taken against those found to have obstructed the proceedings and engaged in acts of violence.

It goes without saying that this group of lawyers has shown gross misconduct, having exploited the privilege that gives them the exclusive right to practise law. It is a pathetic example of a misplaced sense of self-importance that arises from being conferred with the status of a privileged class that made them flout the standard of conduct which is befitting of this responsibility.

While the Advocates Act of 1961 remains silent on a substantial definition of ‘misconduct’, Chapter V of the Act provides for punishment for professional and “other misconduct.” This means that even misconduct which is divorced from their profession can be punished. The Supreme Court has opined that the word ‘misconduct’ has no precise meaning and its scope and meaning may be construed as contextual and with reference to the subject matter in hand.

In this situation these advocates have adorned the garb of self-proclaimed vanquishers of evil ‘anti-nationalistic’ elements over their black gowns and have acted in a manner that has embarrassed the administration of justice. This may be considered to amount to misconduct, for which disciplinary action must be initiated.

In light of recent judgments, in State of Punjab v. Ram Singh, the Supreme Court held that the term misconduct “may involve moral turpitude, improper or wrong or unlawful behaviour, willful in character, a forbidden act, a transgression of established and definite rule of action or code of conduct. But not mere error of judgement, carelessness or negligence in performance of duty.”

In Indian Council of Legal Aid and Advice v. Bar Council of India, the SC observed that maintaining the duty of assisting the court in the administration of justice, never must an advocate “indulge in any activity which may tend to lower the image of the profession in society.” It was further observed that “the society has the right to expect of him or her, such ideal behaviour.”

In another case, Noratanman Courasia v. M. R. Murali, where the main issue was whether an advocate, when not acting in that capacity, can be served action by the Bar Council. The court held that that a “lawyer is obliged to observe the norms of behaviour expected of him, which make him worthy of the confidence of the community in him as an officer of the Court. Therefore, in spite of the fact that he was not acting in his capacity as an advocate, his behaviour was unfit for an advocate, and the Bar Council was justified in proceeding with the disciplinary proceedings against him. The term may also include wrongful intention, which is not a mere error of judgement. Therefore, “misconduct”, though incapable of a precise definition, acquires its connotation from the context, the delinquency in its performance and its effect on the discipline and the nature of duty.”

Be it the violent protests of advocates of the Madras court against the helmet rule or the gross misconduct shown by this saffron brigade of lawyers led by BJP MLA O.P. Sharma, one can only wonder whether such shocking misbehaviour arises from a sense of entitlement at being the bearers of law. Such acts only show the executive’s control over the courts by using lawyers to further its own partisan interests. This utter disregard for the commandments delineating the duties of an advocate towards the courts, the public, her/his colleagues and most importantly to the self, are now being seen as subservient to their questionable duties towards their sole client – the Executive.

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