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Protests by lawyers delaying inauguration

By V. Jayanth

CHENNAI, JULY 3. A date has been fixed for the inauguration of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court — July 24. Both the Centre and the State Government are keen on going ahead with the opening of the Bench, which has been on the drawing board for about three decades. When a majestic court complex has been built and is waiting like a bride for the wedding day, a showdown between lawyers from the southern region and Chennai is threatening to delay the event further.

If only the Chief Justice, B. Subhashan Reddy, had had his way, the Bench could have been inaugurated on Tamil New Year — April 13/14. But the Lok Sabha elections intervened and several legal and constitutional questions on the propriety of opening the Bench were raised when there was no Parliament. The State Government took the view that if the Chief Minister could not participate in the function, because of the model code of conduct, it would be unfortunate. After all, the State had provided the land and taken up construction of the Rs. 55-crore complex.

Now that the 14th Parliament is in place and the new Law Minister, H.R. Bharadwaj, has given the go ahead for the launch on July 24, the litigant public in the south was perhaps hoping that the Bench would at least open its doors to them.

When the other issues have been sorted out, the Madras High Court Advocates Association (MHAA) has raised questions over `jurisdiction' — the territorial coverage for the Bench. While the advocates in the southern districts are agitating in support of their demand for their complete inclusion in the Bench, the Chennai advocates have resorted to "suspension of work" insisting that only the southern-most districts - Madurai and beyond - should be brought under the purview of the new Bench.

Bar Associations in the south have argued that the 1985 Jaswant Singh committee report, basis for deciding the jurisdiction of the Bench, identified Thanjavur, Pudukottai, Tiruchi, Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. But five of them — with the exception of Pudukottai and Kanyakumari — have been bifurcated or trifurcated for administrative reasons. As a result, the seven has become 16 districts.

It is the MHAA's argument that the Principal seat of the High Court in Chennai cannot have fewer districts than a Bench carved out of it. There will be fewer judges in Madurai than in Chennai. So the association is demanding a larger share of districts for Chennai. That is where the issue now rests.

Before intervening to resolve this dispute, the Centre appears keen on identifying the source of the problem: agitation. New Delhi perhaps wants to find out if there is a "political involvement or backing" for the protests. But the Law Ministry will have to sort out this problem and go ahead with the inauguration as soon as possible.

Enquiries with the High Court Registry show that though the Centre and the Supreme Court have approved of just seven judges for the Bench, steps are being taken to double that number. The argument seems to be that the Bench must have one-third the strength of the Principal seat, which has 42. That may be another issue to resolve, even if it takes some time.

What is intriguing, even according to the lawyers, is that none of the advocates associations seem to be concerned about the plight or convenience of the litigant public. The very rationale behind opening a Bench is to make it easier and cheaper for the people to seek justice. Instead of travelling all the way to Chennai, they will surely find it more convenient to initiate the case in Madurai.

The question whom the advocates are fighting for arises - their clients or themselves? The litigants are looking to the Centre and the State Government as well as to the Madras High Court to put an end to this drama and open the gates of the Bench soon.

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