New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday asked the Odisha lawyers on strike demanding, among other things, setting up of a permanent bench of the high court in the western part of the state, to resume work starting Wednesday or face consequences, including facing contempt of court proceedings and suspension or cancellation of their licenses.
The observations came on an application filed by the Odisha High Court last month lamenting the loss of judicial time due to strikes by lawyers in various district courts in the State over the past few months.
The reasons, mentioned by the High Court, for such abstention include establishment of a permanent bench of the Odisha HC in Sambalpur, “scorching heat”, “demanding crop insurance” and enhancement of welfare funds. It then submitted that “such abstention by the members of the Bar Associations has seriously hampered the judicial work in all the subordinate Courts of the State”.
Hearing the application, an apex court bench comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Abhay S. Oka on Monday emphasised that “access to justice” was the very foundation of a legal system and asserted, “The legal fraternity is the instrument of access to justice to the people at large. When the very instruments abstain from court proceedings, the casualty is the access to justice to the common people and it is the common people and litigants who suffer. We will not countenance this.”
Justice Kaul then warned the advocates to “not force our hand”, and said, “Even if we have to suspend 200-300 advocates, we will do that. We can ask the state bar council to cancel all your registrations. We will come down very heavily on you.”
‘2,14,176 hours lost’
Strikes in district courts in Odisha have been under the Supreme Court radar for several years now. In October 2019, the SC was informed that the Odisha HC, as well as the district courts, had been brought to a standstill due to strikes by lawyers.
On 8 November 2019, the apex court noted that the high court had lost 65.5 out of its 210 working days in 2018, and in 2019, it had lost up to 18 working days. The court had then suggested that “where if really the advocates feel that there is a cause to protest, they wear white bands”.
On 17 February 2020, the Supreme Court was assured by the lawyer for the Central Action Committee of all bar associations of Western Odisha that all district bar associations will resume work. However, the application filed by the Odisha HC now said that “in the recent past…the members of the Bar Associations not only of the Western Odisha but also the members of Bar Associations of other districts of the State of Odisha have on different occasions not participated in regular court proceedings”.
The High Court, in fact, claimed that from January to September this year, the loss of cumulative judicial working hours in the subordinate courts in Odisha is 2,14,176 hours. It urged that the Supreme Court demand an explanation from the concerned district bar associations for not adhering to their assurances.
In another affidavit filed on 10 November, the Registrar General of the High Court apprised the Supreme Court of the reports received from district judges from Odisha on disruption of court work due to non-participation of lawyers. It now told the court that in the month of October, 3,216 cumulative judicial working hours were lost in at least 20 courts across the state due to such abstention from work.
It also listed down specific instances of court boycott by lawyers, and said, “Such picketing of the members of the Bar Associations of the State of Odisha and non-participation in Court work on account of unreasonable demands has not only caused loss in judicial working hours and hampered the court work but also the process of justice delivery system has been greatly affected”.
(Edited by V.S. Chandrasekar)