Justice may be blind, but what about the judges?

ALOK PRASANNA writes from Bangalore: Courtroom No.15 of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi is no bigger than the ones that are shown in most T.N. Seetharam serials.

It was packed with lawyers, their assistants and interns, litigants, court officers, apart from the two Justices themselves, and the two law students on their Supreme Court internships.

To tell the truth, as the Judges’ interns, we occupied the “best seats in the House”.

I could see all the players clearly, and had no stake in anything that was going on. It was only natural that my attention was taken up by the one guy who seemed most out of place there. More so because he was clearly one of the litigants but was sitting, somewhat uneasily, in the section reserved for advocates.

He carried with him a large bundle of paper bound in a cardboard file, like any other litigant, and a couple of law books. It was then that I figured that he was one of those people who had come to argue their own cases before the Supreme Court.

Such persons were rare enough, but one who seemed to be in his late twenties, still rarer. A short, wiry man, with an anxious look, he barely filled out the ample chairs in the advocates’ section as he waited for his case to be called up.

That day was admissions day, when litigants approach the Supreme Court asking it to grant special leave to hear their cases in appeal. This is one area where the Supreme Court is granted virtually untrammelled discretion. How it chooses to exercise it is usually dependent on the skill of the counsel in pointing out how gross injustice had been caused to their client because of that one egregious finding of law, or that one totally ignored piece of evidence that was not taken into account by the lower courts. This of course has to be done in less than a minute because each Bench of two judges has to decide which of the about 70-80 matters placed before them, they have to admit for proper hearing later.

When his number was called up, the litigant walked up to the front, and placed his file on the table in front of the Bar (or behind it depending on which side of the Bar you are seated on). I got a better look at him, and he looked even smaller than he seemed. With nervous hands, he opened his file and picked up one of the books he was carrying, gathered himself up, and began in a faltering tone that gained confidence as he spoke. He spoke in halting but grammatically correct English.

His claim was fairly straightforward. He had been dismissed from his employment with the Delhi office of a major international organisation, and challenged the dismissal before Labour Court. The Labour Court had dismissed his claim on the ground that it could not entertain cases filed by employees of such international organisations.

He had done his research thoroughly, though. He cited cases where the Supreme Court had held contrary to the Labour Court’s finding, and was in the midst of mentioning yet another when the Judge stopped him.

“Your case is barred by limitation….”

A wave of incomprehension washed over the litigant.

“It has been over a year after the time for filing the appeal has expired. What is your explanation for that, and where is the petition for condoning the delay?”

Confusion. Perhaps they had misunderstood what he was saying. He tried to cite the next case in a faltering voice.

“No, no, we don’t want to hear the precedents. Tell us why you have filed this appeal with such delay?”

He had been running around try to get a lawyer, he said, more and more unsure of where this was going. He had been researching to argue his case before the Supreme Court.

“Why didn’t you get a lawyer to argue your case?”

He didn’t have the money, not after he lost his job and spent it all in fighting the case in the Labour Court.

“Look here, your petition is already a year late. We will dismiss it as barred by limitation if you proceed. However, we will give you an option to withdraw the petition, and approach the Delhi High Court which has jurisdiction over the matter. Is that acceptable to you?”

Silence. More confusion. And growing panic.

The junior Judge on the Bench intervened, trying to help matters.

“All we are saying is, why don’t you say that you take back this petition, and file the case before the Delhi High Court? They will probably be able to hear this matter, and help you.”

But he couldn’t. He had spent all his money on filing this petition, and he couldn’t afford going back to the Delhi High Court to pursue his case. He wanted to be allowed to argue this matter.

“Now see here.” The Judge was running out of patience—and time. Five minutes had already been spent on this matter.
“I am telling you for the last time, withdraw your petition now, or I will have to dismiss it as barred by limitation, and I cannot give you any more time for this.”

“All I want is my job back.” He piped up, in a clear voice, hoping that this plea for help would be heard. A half-second of silence. Followed by muffled laughter from the lawyers at the back. It died down quickly enough.

“I am sorry; there is nothing I can do to help you. Petition dismissed as barred by limitation. Next case.”

He stood there stunned as if someone had shot him. He didn’t move. The lawyer appearing in the next case nudged him away from the front bench to take his place. He walked to the back of the courtroom slowly, clutching his file and books. No one took notice of him as he walked out.

[Based on a true life incident to which I was a witness]