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Corona & The Courts: The Tragedy And The Tributes

Ajay Bhanot
10 May 2021 12:05 PM GMT
Corona & The Courts: The Tragedy And The Tributes

The anarchic hand of fate has seized from our midst, most valuable colleagues at the Bar. Silent orders of Providence grant us only the solace of cherished memories. The Allahabad High Court lost a large number of most esteemed members of the Bar to Covid 19 pandemic and related health complications in recent months. Many young lawyers have passed away in this pandemic wave. The void in...

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The anarchic hand of fate has seized from our midst, most valuable colleagues at the Bar. Silent orders of Providence grant us only the solace of cherished memories. The Allahabad High Court lost a large number of most esteemed members of the Bar to Covid 19 pandemic and related health complications in recent months. Many young lawyers have passed away in this pandemic wave. The void in the lives of grieving families and friends cannot be filled. The blow to the institution is no less impactful. The loss of elders denies the Allahabad High Court the steadying influence of their wisdom and experience. The departure of the younger souls extinguishes the promise of their energy and talent. They were our best. The happy strenuous and loving memories will forever linger with us.

A tragedy of this scale has never been experienced in the serving memory of the Allahabad High Court. The extent of the disaster has been brought to the public domain by messages circulated on various digital platforms like whatsapp. There was also a newspaper report in the daily Dainik Jagran in April, 2021. One cannot be stone-blind to these facts. The legal fraternity can feel the pain, but cannot fail to act.

The nature of duties performed by lawyers puts them to constant risk of Covid 19. The mounting death toll has exposed the vulnerabilities of lawyers to health hazards in the absence of organized health care support. The crisis has highlighted the need for an organized and dedicated health care system for the community of lawyers.

The Allahabad High Court Bar has been hit hard by the Covid 19 Pandemic. The ability of the Bar to deliver as the veritable arm of the Court has been impaired. The functionality of the Bar is being regularly diminished as access to health care remains uncertain. The curse has not abated as yet.

II. Lawyers and Administration of Justice:

The process of law cannot standstill even in the face of mortal danger. Courts may evolve procedures and regulate functioning, but the judicial process cannot be halted even in times of peril. The wheels of justice have to move constantly. Legal process moves when lawyers put their shoulders to the wheel.

Lawyers stand at the vanguard of the judicial process as it strives to realize the constitutional goals of securing justice to all citizens and to uphold the rule of law. Lawyers are vigilant defenders of liberty and tireless sentinels of the constitutional order. Lawyers are the first to engage with all sections of society and interface with various wings of governance. Intellectual capital which powers the growth of law and drives social change is created at the Bar.

Lawyers assist the Courts through deep scholarship and reasoned arguments. Advocates are adept at separating the essentials from the superfluous and reducing voluminous materials into concise and manageable briefs. With such assistance, the Courts can examine issues objectively and arrive at just decisions in expeditious time frames. Wit and repartee at the Bar add lustre to the life of law.

The role of the great lawyer Daniel Webster in William Marbury V. James Madison, Secretary of State of the[1]United States1, 1A is recorded in gold letters in US history. Brandeis doctrine was created by the great judge while at the Bar. M.K. Nambiar's scholarly arguments in A.K.Gopalan V State of Madras[2], were vindicated in the landmark judgment in Maneka Gandhi V Union of India and others[3]. The erudite submissions of N.A. Palkhivala in Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru and others Vs. State of Kerala and another[4] case, created a milestone in our constitutional history. These are few examples of the influence of the Bar on the process of court. Judges have a distant vision by standing on the shoulders of giants at the Bar.

The calling of law is called noble not only for the sublime purpose served by the profession, but also for the sterling character shown by lawyers.

Long traditions supported by consistent court rulings which emphasize ethical conduct and discourage sharp practices, have become inviolable conventions of the legal profession. Probity in conduct, honesty of convictions and civil behaviour despite canvassing adversarial causes bind the lawyer fraternity together by common values and create a conducive environment for pursuit of justice. Counsels always reconcile and corelate the imperatives of higher principles of truth and justice to which they owe constant allegiance with the demands of immediate private interests and causes which from time to time they represent in Court.

Even when advocates prosecute private causes in court they perform public functions. Advocates are offices of the Court and not private consiglieres. In a society regulated by law, lawyers ensure an equal dialogue between power and reason. Lawyers hold authority accountable to law. While judges have an oath enshrined in the Constitution to judge without "fear or favour, affection or ill will", lawyers have an oath registered in their conscience to speak truth to power. Lawyers make an indispensable contribution to the cause of justice and are integral to the process of Courts.

The narrative shall be fortified by cases in point. The role of the Bar in the administration of justice, and the complementary relationship between the Bar and Bench was reiterated in R Muthukrishnan Vs The Registrar General of the High Court of Judicature of Madras[5].

Lawyers and Judges were called equal partners in the administration of justice in Re: Rameshwar Prasad Goyal, Advocate[6][7].

The Bar was held to be an integral constituent of administration of justice and exclusive privilege of lawyers to address the courts on behalf of litigants was acknowledged in Amol Srivastava and another Vs. Bar Council of India7 & Bar Council of Maharashtra Vs.

M.V. Dabholkar[8]. D.P. Chadha Vs. Triyangi Narain Misra[9] and Sudha V Chennai Advocates Association[10]reiterated the insistence on high standards of professional and moral traits from lawyers. The contribution of lawyers in the history of independent India and the role of advocates as officers of the Court were recounted in O.P. Sharma Vs. High Court of Punjab and Haryana[11]. R.D. Saxena Vs. Balaram Prasad Sharma[12] underscored the support rendered by lawyers to the downtrodden class of citizens.

III. Bar and the Bench:

The Courts have viewed their relationship with the Bar as symbiotic and not episodic. The Bar and the Courts are held together by enduring values and not transitory interests. There exists a social contract between the Bar and the legal system. Causes which degrade the

capability of the Bar will disable the functioning of the Courts. Courts have been conscious of the resource constraints of the Bar which limit its capacity to discharge its duties. In such situations the Bar has not been left to its devices. There is both legal and administrative precedent in point.

On being alerted to lack of infrastructure for members of the Bar like bar rooms, lawyers chambers, library the Karnataka High Court in Advocates' Association, Bangalore V. Chief Minister, Government of Karnataka, Bangalore and others[13] and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in Vinod Kumar Bhardwaj Vs. State of M.P.[14], held the Government accountable to its obligations in light of the duties performed by lawyers, and mandamused the authorities accordingly.

A Division Bench of this Court in Mamta Singh Vs. State of U.P. and another[15], set its face against inadequate facilities at the High Court dispensary which also services the medical needs of Allahabad High Court lawyers. Speaking for Division Bench Hon'ble B. Somadder, J (as the Hon'ble Chief Justice then was) made most prescient observations which bear full relevance to the crisis at hand.

"The above - quoted paragraphs clearly reveal that the High Court Medical Unit / Dispensary has not been established to be a substitute of a full-fledged hospital. However, we are unable to accept the reasoning provided by the High Court Administration as contained in paragraph 6. Let us suppose that the only available ambulance is already commissioned for the purpose of taking someone who has suddenly fallen ill in the High Court to the hospital. Will that mean that no stretcher will be available till such time the ambulance returns? In other words, can it possibly mean that no other person can fall ill / sick within the High Court precinct till such time the ambulance returns? That will simply be a patently absurd proposition. We are, therefore, not at all satisfied with the above statement made in paragraph 6 of the parawise comments, especially in the backdrop of the statement made in paragraph 29 of the writ petition which reads as follows:-

"29. That when Advocate Amulya Ratana Srivastava fell unconscious due to heart attack, there was no stretcher available to take him comfortably and advocates had to carry him on their own hand."

The medical facility within the High Court (by whichever name it is called) is required to have adequate infrastructure and logistics should also clearly be in place in order to provide standard first line of medical care to those who may fall sick / ill in the High Court. Such standard first line of medical care shall include not only availability of adequate wheel chairs / stretchers, but should also include a fully stocked medical dispensary equipped, inter alia, with essential life saving medication and oxygen. Basic diagnostic tools such as blood-sugar, blood pressure, E.C.G. monitors, etc., should be readily available. At least one of the ambulances should be equipped with intensive care facility so that a critically ill patient can be transported safely to the nearest hospital with minimum risk to the patient. An emergency contact number shall be provided - either by the Registry of this Court or by the Health Department of the State of Uttar Pradesh - by means of which any person can access the Medical Unit situated in the High Court premises. This contact number shall be made known to all by means of public display, especially at conspicuous places within the High Court premises. The Learned Registrar General shall ensure that a regular monitoring system in place so that the existing medical facility does not fall short of the basic requirements necessary for providing standard first line of medical care as detailed above. In the event any inadequacy is noticed, the Learned Registrar General or anyone connected with the High Court Administration shall bring the same immediately to the notice of the respondent no. 3 / Chief Medical Superintendent, Prayagraj, so that remedial action and corrective measures are taken."

Similarly this Court refused to leave lawyers battling the pandemic bereft of support. Directions were issued for providing meals to lawyers and registered clerks in In Re – Assistance to the Needy Advocates and Registered Advocate Clerks [16]. I have respectful reservations on predicating "Advocate" with the word "Needy".

The proposals for treatment of Covid positive Advocates are under consideration before the High Court of Delhi in Manoj Kumar Singh Vs. Government of NCT of Delhi and others[17]. High Court of Gujarat has passed an administrative order No.C2605/2021 dated 23.04.2021 permitting use of High Court Auditorium for setting up Covid Care Centres for Advocates and their families.

IV. Role of Bar Associations and Bar Council of U.P.:

The Bar Associations and the Bar Councils have a part to play in this time of grief and challenge.

The need of the Bar Associations and Bar Councils to define their obligations to members of the Bar is perhaps the next horizon in the evolution of law. Bar would be the best judge of this.

An issue of critical importance needs to be appreciated. It is the role of Bar Associations, Bar Councils and indeed various voluntary organizations whether incorporated or not, in the wake of such disasters. Some of the challenges of the 21st century like pandemics and environmental pollution pose an existential threat to the human race. Obligations of the government to successfully meet these challenges are too obvious to be stated. Duties of various organizations like Bar Councils & Bar Associations are at times neglected and need to be articulated.

The Bar Associations and the Bar Councils have a fiduciary duty to their members. The philosophy of every man to himself cannot guide the response of the respective Bar Associations and Bar Councils in this crisis. The Bar is not a sinking ship and its members cannot be abandoned. The credo of "none shall push aside another, none shall let another fall" should govern the actions of the Bar Associations and Bar Councils. The Bar Associations and Bar Councils cannot be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, but have to focus on the adequacy of their response. Analysis of the problem should not lead to a paralysis in action.

The disaster of this scale can be tackled only by efforts made by all of government and all of society. The government agencies have to discharge their obligations to all citizens, but the Bar Associations cannot abdicate their responsibilities to the advocates. The Bar Associations and Bar Councils shall have to muster human, financial and organizational resources to this end. The Bar Associations and Bar Councils need to craft a comprehensive and well coordinated strategy to meet the challenge and also act in concert with the Government.

Noble sentiments run deep in the Bar. They need organization and leadership. Recently a young lawyer at Allahabad High Court and his wife tested positive for corona. They isolated themselves in one room of their house, while both their little children stayed in an adjacent room. A colleague who lives in the neighbourhood provided the meals and gave support all the while. Together they defeated corona. A stronger family and a fortified bond of friendship emerged from the crisis. There are many such stories of corona victors, of courage and camaraderie. These mingle with those of pain and isolation.

Institutional action will have a wider reach and higher efficacy. United and organized they shall triumph. Many measures may not require government aid. 24 X 7 Helpline, ambulance services, medical advice through video conferencing, prioritizing vaccination drives, arrangements with private hospitals and even supply of medicines, meals and rations. A separate scheme for payment of school fee of young children of deceased lawyers may be explored. Bar leadership may create a plan and Bar volunteers may work the plan. Meticulous conceptualization and resolute execution of Corona Defeat plans is the best tribute to the colleagues who were claimed by the tragedy.

The lawyer community in India has traditionally been alert to its social responsibilities. The contribution of lawyers to the freedom movement attests this fact. Sri Keshari Nath Tripathi, Senior Advocate, former Speaker U.P. Legislative Assembly, former Governor West Bengal often told us how Dr. Kailash Nath Katju constantly reminded the Bar that lawyers should never neglect their social responsibilities while pursuing professional goals.

The Bar Associations, Bar Councils and other organizations (including housing societies) need to create a model of disaster management by efficient voluntary action. With this the organizations will attain their full stature. The Fifth Estate will be created. Their success could usher in a new concept of rule of law and governance. A society not only defined by rights, but also actuated by duties.

In these trying times many did not curse the darkness, but chose to light a candle. The pioneering and selfless work of Gujarat High Court Bar Association, Delhi Bar Council, Delhi High Court Bar Association, Gurudwara Sahib Committees and many others is most commendable.

Judicial orders of the Delhi High Court and administrative orders of the High Court of Gujarat are helping the lawyers help themselves. They have taken the first step in the journey of many miles. All this gives hope in the present and holds a torch to a future of good health and happiness no end.

Author is a Puisne Judge in the Allahabad High Court  

[1] US 137 (1803) 1A, (1978) 2 SCC 28 J

[2] AIR 1950 SCR 88

[3] AIR 1978 597

[4] AIR 1973 SC 1641

[5] (2019) 16 SCC 407

[6] AIR 2014 SC 850

[7] SCC Online MP 112

[8] AIR (1976) SC 242

[9] (2001) 2 SCC 221

[10] (2010) 14 SCC 114

[11] (2011) 6 SCC 86

[12] (2000) 7 SCC 264

[13] AIR 1997 Karnataka 18

[14] AIR 2013 Madhya Pradesh 145

[15] PIL No.2075 of 2019

[16] PIL No.569 of 2020

[17] W.P.(C) No.5052 of 2021

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