When lawyers take their own course

US constitutional law talks of Miranda rights. Now, the origins of this Miranda seems as mysterious as, say, our St Valentine, but the law itself is unambiguous. According to it, the police has to warn a person who has been arrested or placed in a custodial situation in the following words: ‘You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?’. Though ignorance of law is no excuse for breaking it and to escape punishment, jurisprudence does recognise that most people are legal laymen. Therefore, not just in the US but universally, access to an advocate or legal aid in good time is accepted as a very elementary requisite to ensure that justice is neither delayed nor denied.

The litigants of TN probably belong to a different world or era where such fundamental norms are taboo. For almost 45 days now the lawyers of this profoundly rational land have, suo motu, remained out of bounds to their clients whom they have been ‘retained’ to serve. Sure they do come to the courts; but that’s not in fulfilment of their professional calling. Rather, their honoured presence in the precincts of justice is more for sloganeering, hurling stones …and rotten eggs too, and to stop the errant ones of their fraternity from answering the call of duty. This despite repeated ‘advice’ from the Supreme Court to call off the boycott. Clearly the motives go way beyond the touted alibis for their abnegation, but more on that later.

Justice Sri Krishna who was drafted by the Supreme Court to go into the violent incidents of 19 Feb at Madras High Court gives a graphic account of the tendencies of the men in black, with the highlight being his description of the agitating advocates as hooligans and miscreants. A few more samples from the report: ‘…some advocates went to the Bank of Ceylon premises and pelted stones at the premises and cars there and damaged them’

‘…about 40 advocates forcibly boarded an MTC bus and forced the driver to take the bus to…’

‘…the agitating advocates entered the court of Acting Chief Justice and shouted at the advocates sitting there to come out and join them. A senior advocate and his wife were pulled out and humiliated…’

‘… about 20 advocates entered the court room shouting slogans and pushed out the police personnel who were posted at the entrance…’

‘…they shouted many filthy slogans and such unruly behaviour continued despite warnings given by the learned judges presiding over the Court’.

Really, one wonders when practice of crime was included in the curriculum for practice of law!

Justice SK had not exonerated the police either. He has castigated the lathi-happy cops for ‘using force disproportionate to the occasion, unleashing mayhem and indulging in wanton destruction … and even assaulting on the head an Hon’ble Judge of the High Court…’ But he holds that the original sin lay with the agitating lawyers. He cites video footages of senior police officials and even the Commissioner of police restraining the cops and even asking them to retreat in the face of heavy stone pelting by the advocates. Only when the ‘mob of lawyers’ broke open the police station, brought out a steel cupboard and several other things and set the station as well as those items on fire did the police act, in his view. And the justice goes on to place the blame for the present piquant situation at the doors of Madras HC judges. ‘It is most unfortunate that the soft policy adopted by the Acting Chief Justice sent out clearly a wrong message that encouraged and emboldened the lawyers into becoming law breakers’.

Such severe and damning indictment coming from one of their ilk should actually be the final nail on the boycott charade. But instead the intransigence is growing. Can anyone fathom what these lawyers want? The CoP’s head? Or Justice Sri Krishna’s? What if the SC concurs? Will it then be at the receiving end of stones and rotten eggs? But we thought the whole fracas was engineered to show sympathy and solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils? Where are they in the present scheme of things? But Justice SK lays bare this claim too, though his comments have skipped public attention. Says he: ‘ …some of the lawyers owe allegiance to and sympathise with the cause of the LTTE … they resorted to organising meetings and demonstrations in support of LTTE … they also organised a meeting to celebrate the birthday of Prabhakaran who has been declared an absconding accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Surprisingly, such meetings were allowed to be held inside the premises of the court …’. ‘… Undoubtedly, the political cross currents, from the SL Tamil issues and caste based issues, contributed to and aggravated the situation. It should have been made clear to the lawyers from the beginning, in no uncertain terms, that whatever their political ideologies, the court premises could not be utilised for airing them’. Indeed, the striking lawyers seem to have no case at all!

And that could be true quite literally too if current court trends are any proof. More and more litigants are finding less and less need for an advocate, Miranda’s mandate notwithstanding. A farmer has on his own got a stay of the sale of his land by the Debt Recovery Tribunal. A student has successfully secured his right to sit for an exam by himself getting an order overturning the decision of a noted varsity. A group of residents have themselves appeared in court and got a land acquisition stalled. There’s even a case of bail being secured by the relatives of an accused. Indeed, laymen are fast turning lawmen as necessity breaks convention. But here’s the ultimate boomerang: Director Seeman who is in jail for provocative pro-LTTE speeches could not get a lawyer because of the boycott, which is, well, pro-LTTE!

But here’s a paradox: Who would argue for the arrested lawyers? Miranda would suggest another advocate, but all are on strike. And the ‘accused’ himself cant appear either, because he is on strike as a lawyer! Again, an accused-lawyer cant possibly have a non-lawyer arguing his case for that would be akin to forfeiting his very professional pride and pedigree.

What a mess! Well, no doubt law is an ass but it can make one of a lawyer too!

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Jawahar T R