India dispatch: Delhi High Court suffers a lawyers’ strike Dispatches
India dispatch: Delhi High Court suffers a lawyers’ strike

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Nakul Rai Khurana, a law student at Jindal Global Law School.

The Delhi High Court came to a standstill Monday after lawyers heeded the (colloquially known as “Harthal”) call of the Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA) to express their opposition to the transfer of Justice Gaurang Kanth from the Delhi High Court to the Calcutta High Court. As a result of the protests, the Delhi High Court was forced to postpone the majority of the cases that were scheduled to be heard that day.

As per the Supreme Court, the Hon’ble judge should be transferred to the Calcutta High Court, as recommended by the Supreme Court Collegium in a resolution that was passed dated 12th July 17, 2023. Additionally, it denied Justice Kanth’s plea to be transferred to either the Madhya Pradesh High Court or the Rajasthan High Court, or any other surrounding State. Furthermore, Justice Kanth was amongst 3 judges who were transferred, namely Justice Manoj Bajaj and Justice Dinesh Kumar Singh who were transferred to the High Court of Allahabad and the High Court of Kerala respectively. It is pertinent to note that all the 3 judges have previously expressed their dissatisfaction with the Collegium system of judicial appointments, where select members of the higher judiciary consult among themselves and make largely binding recommendations to the executive to appoint judges. In light of the recent controversy surrounding it, these transfers raise an important question: Was the move of the Collegium system asking to transfer all three judges with contrary views on the same day away from the National Capital Region (despite requests by the judges to not do so), marred by subjective biases or was it merely a convenient coincidence, with meritorious reasons behind it?

The resolution adopted on 13th July 2023 by the DHCBA urged its members to abstain from work as a sign of protest, saying the following- “ Delhi High Court Bar Association unanimously resolves to request its members to abstain from work on Monday, i.e 17th July 2023 as a token of protest as the said transfer is a rarest of rare case. Members are requested to co-operate…. It is a matter of regret that while no attention is being paid by all concerned regarding the process of filling up the existing vacancies in the Delhi High Court, the transfer of the Hon’ble sitting Judge is being made thereby further reducing the existing strength of Hon’ble Judges in Delhi High Court.”

The result of the strike largely affected the dispensation of justice as almost all the matters were adjourned due to the abstinence of counsel. Proxy councils appearing on behalf of senior counsels had asked for adjournments without properly justifying the grounds for their requests. Chief Justice Satish Chandra of the Delhi High Court and Justice Sanjeev Narula expressed their dismay over the rampant requests for adjournments which led to all the courtrooms, usually packed to the brim, eerily empty.

“We can’t adjourn cases like this…You can’t appear in every case like this. If someone is not well, fine we will adjourn it. But none of you is giving ground for adjournment,” the Division Bench comprising the two aforementioned judges remarked.

Most of the benches witnessed similar situations of abstinence in their courtrooms, paving the way for an alarming pile-up of cases, among a sea of cases already waiting to be heard.

The strike signifies the unity of the capital’s legal fraternity against the system, which according to their resolution is more concerned with increasing the working strength of judges at India’s Apex Court at the cost of the High Courts. Previously covered at JURIST, the Collegium system, responsible for judicial appointments, has faced criticism for its lack of accountability, general opaqueness and possible instances of nepotism in the process. According to many, the system does not function on merit, but on favour. These questions were at the core of the public spat between the Ministry of Law and the judiciary earlier this year.