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March 4, 2000
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Speedy justice rides roughshod over rights
By Ranjit Dev Raj

NEW DELHI - Lawyers agitating against new laws for speedy justice, but which limit the fundamental right of appeal, are complaining of inadequate public support for their campaign.

''The public does not understand the seriousness of the amendments which, in effect, limit the fundamental right of appeal existing since British times and constitutionally guaranteed,'' said A S Chandhioke, president of the Delhi High Court Bar Association.

Amendments to the Civil Procedure Code hastily passed in parliament limit appeals on writs to the Supreme Court - to which practical access is already limited to the rich and influential and those who can travel to Delhi where the apex court is situated. Chandhihoke said the amendments were passed in a few minutes on the last day of the winter session of parliament and with no discussion because attendance was thin in both upper and lower houses. Now awaiting official notification before they can become law, the amendments were made on the main plea that Indian courts were overwhelmed by a huge backlog of pending cases.

The legal process in India is notoriously slow and currently an estimated 20 million civil cases and another 10 million criminal cases are pending in courts across the country. Undertrials are routinely incarcerated for periods longer than they would have to serve if convicted.

The Civil Procedure Code itself dates back to 1908 and was introduced by the British colonial government. The amendments are the first serious attempt to rationalize them and expedite court process. ''We agree that justice delayed would be justice denied but it should be remembered that justice hurried would be justice buried,'' said S K Kaarvendhan, chairman of the Bar Council of India (BCI), which is leading the agitation.

The lawyers intensified their agitation into an indefinite strike after police used rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse a march to parliament on February 24 in which 12,000 members of the legal fraternity participated. On Wednesday, union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani, a well-known lawyer himself, announced in a statement that any change in the civil procedure code would be made only after it was fully discussed with the BCI. But the strike is yet to be called off with lawyers insisting on the suspension of police officials involved in the ''brutal attack'' on the lawyers as a pre-condition to talks.

According to Kaarvendhan, most ordinary people are yet unaware of the true import of the amendments and how they would impact on ordinary litigants thanks to ''disinformation'' against lawyers who, he said, are unfairly accused of profiting from slow justice.

According to B S Sherawat, chairman of the Delhi Bar Council, the amendments which demand the filing of written statements within 30 days of notice are impractical in a country like India with its notorious red-tapism. He pointed out that even the Law Commission, a statutory body, has pronounced that 30 days was too short a period especially when no affidavits seeking to make changes, corrections or additions would be entertained thereafter. ''The end result is that important documents, which may be lying in a bank or some government office may be prevented from being exhibited in court on mere technicality and justice will become a casualty,'' he said, adding that it would be the litigant rather than lawyers who would suffer.

The amendments also seek to ensure that once a writ petition is disposed off by a single judge no further appeal can be made except at the Supreme Court. ''Everybody knows that the Supreme Court serves a billion people and that it does not have benches anywhere else in this vast country except in Delhi,'' Sherawat said.

Apart from abrogating the right of appeal, the amendments seek to limit other devices through which lawyers are believed to manipulate or delay on behalf of clients such as adjournments which now have been limited to three for litigants provided they bear expenses. ''Adjournments are the bane of the existing system,'' said H D Shourie, who runs Common Cause, a non-governmental organization which has been campaigning for speedier justice and has a number of successful public interest litigations to its credit.

Shourie also welcomed the new curbs on appeals including writs sought against the government in cases pertaining to fundamental rights or those relating to superintendence over courts and tribunals. But writ petitions have in the past enabled ''activist'' judges to have people released from bonded labor, saved women from forced prostitution and ended police harassment in sensational cases and are the daily fare of the newspapers.

Less sensational but equally important are cases in which employees have successfully sought writs against supercession, discrimination in the name of caste or religion or even against erroneously applied bills or taxes. ''Most of the litigation in the high courts pertain to writs charging the government with inefficiency, bias, unfair norms, wrong action and corruption,'' Chandhioke said.

According to Chandioke, groups which are likely to be affected by the amendments include students appealing against manipulated admissions in educational institutions, trade unions, government contractors, journalists and activists.

(Inter Press Service)

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