Many of us go through life without having to deal with the law or courts, and get our knowledge from tele-serials and documentaries. Until recently, even I had minimal interactions with law and legal system in India, UK and even the US for minor issues like reporting an accident or for police verification.
You might have walked by derelict buildings or properties around any Indian metropolis and noticed painted signs that state “Stay Order in XYZ court. Case/order # ABC123” and wondered about it. Or you may occasionally come across articles about the Indian judiciary swamped with cases, quoting litigants who talk about ‘years’ or ‘decades’ it took for a verdict. Such news of law or litigation however has little interest to most of us, unless we are at the receiving end; in which case an endless wait for our day in court can be excruciating.
On the face of it, the Indian legal system seems extraordinarily sluggish, with phrases like “justice delayed is justice denied” holding true. My recent brush with the judiciary, however, gave me a ringside view of the machinery at work. After a recent opportunity to sit on proceedings at Karnataka High Court, I came away with an admiration of a system that works, even when it is swamped by the sheer volume of cases.
|Image from published source|
I migrated back from America a couple of years ago to be around for my parents. While reviewing the family’s records, found that my dad had bought a parcel of land over two decades ago and had been trying to register in his name unsuccessfully. He had spent substantial sums - to the tune of lakhs of rupees - pursuing the title registration. It turned out that most of the money spent was in bribes to sundry agents and officials, hoping for positive action.
I decided to pursue the matter further, and I consulted with an attorney who practices in Karnataka’s High Court. After reviewing the land records, he was confident that we could file a writ petition against the State Government asking the local Thasildar (land records department) asking them to register the title to the land in my father’s name. His fee sounded reasonable and he was confident that the matter would be heard and processed expeditiously. That was nearly 1 ½ years ago.
My attorney filed the writ petition in October 2017 and after an initial adjournment, the case came up for hearing. At the hearing, the Government’s Attorney argued that the validity of the original grant was in question, and it needed to be reviewed by the government authority. The judge passed an order stating that the revenue department was to be given 6 months to investigate the records.
The attorney said he was disappointed with the judgement response, especially since we had all the relevant documents on hand. He felt it was just a delaying tactic adopted by the Government’s attorney, and suggested that we file a writ Appeal at the same High Court.
I was dreading further prolonging of litigation. However, I felt that having come this far there was little point in just dropping the issue and walking away, especially since my attorney indicated that the fee for preparing the writ appeal would be ‘negligible’. There had been too much time and effort that my dad had invested in pursuing the land.
The paperwork for writ appeal was filed in Oct 2017 and the case wasn’t picked up for a few months. In March 2018 my lawyer’s assistant called and said the court had asked for translation of documents, which were originally in Kannada. He recommended an official translator for the job and I paid the fee for translations.
After that, we waited several months when the case was picked up for an initial hearing. The judges found the documents in order and said the matter could be admitted for final hearing. That was in June of 2018.
The High Court website – Transparency at work
In the months and weeks after the original filing, I familiarized myself with the High Court’s website and began visiting it periodically. As a technocrat, I was impressed by the usability and ease with which citizen could review the records, judgments and updated case status. I was able to download a copy of the judgment passed in original writ petition and read it in entirety. Likewise, the case status were updated daily and were used by lawyers and the public alike.
The website also publishes a real-time tracker of cases being heard in court halls across the High Court on a specific day. This allows the public and lawyers to look up the “Bulletin Board” on their smartphone and plan their attendance at schedule times.
My day in the court ?
In early march, I got a call from my attorney that the case had been scheduled for final hearing on 6th March. I asked him the appointment time for the hearing, and he said based on the roaster, the case was listed as Number 58, so it could come up for hearing sometime in the afternoon.
I decided to go to the court to observe the proceedings and I reached the majestic Karnataka High Court complex around 1 pm. I found my way to that hall, which was on the second floor or the main building. The courtroom resembled what one sees in Indian movies and TV serials – the bench where judges are seated is at one end of the hall. Facing the judges were a couple of lecterns with small mikes where the lawyers for plaintiff and defendants stood.
The first case that afternoon was a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) about a construction of a government building on a ‘tank-bund’ next to an area of 610 acres marked as a lake by the state government. The government side was represented by a couple of lawyers from different departments. The lawyer filing PIL said that the building was an ‘illegal encroachment’ on the 720 acres marked as a lake on original survey and was done on behalf of a local MLS. They went back and forth and seemed to claim that it was legal as per law of that time. That case took the entire half hour before the court broke up for lunch at 1.30 pm.
After lunch break, the lawyers and the audience assembled for the proceedings to continue. Before the next matter could be heard, a lady approached the bench and began ranting that she wanted ‘some’ help from the court. As she continued to rant that she wanted some ‘justice,’ the Chief Justice (CJ) asked if she was being represented by a lawyer. She said that her lawyer had fallen ill himself and was unable to help her and she did no have any case filed in the court. The judges wanted her out of the room and called the bailiffs. Before that could happen, the lady decided to walk out herself.
After this unscheduled interlude, a few other cases came up for hearing. Two factories in Bomannahalli, represented by their attorneys began dueling it out. One was claiming that the other factory was creating a lot of sound and noise that had affected its foundation and windows. Both lawyers made their argument for about 45 minutes, after which the CJ orally dictated his verdict to his clerk in verbose legal language.
Hearing in the matter of a few other cases continued till about 4.45 pm, when the court adjourned for the day. I was a bit disappointed that my case had not been picked up for hearing. I, nevertheless came away impressed with the professionalism and decorum of the court.
The judicial officers, lawyers and judges diligently wade through innumerable cases every day: Cases where litigants like me have a lot of emotions, time and resources invested, hoping and praying for a positive verdict. However, as I could see that day in court, dozens of cases are listed for hearing every day. But given the time constraint, only a small fraction of them can be heard by judges, and orders passed. The rest of them, like my case get adjourned and continue to pile up with the scores more that are filed by litigants every day.
So, how does the story end?
Later that evening, I logged back into the High Court website saw an updated status : my case was adjourned for another “2 weeks.” That was on the 6th of March 2019; and it has now been nearly 6 weeks after that and I continue to login to the HC website with a hope and prayer, to see if my case is being scheduled for a hearing.
[alternate title: Justice delayed … but hope lingers]