Can the Madras High Court Advocates Association return to its past glory?

Lawyers lament that the MHAA, which is the oldest lawyers' body in Asia, is not what it used to be in the first 100 years of its existence because of party politics.
Madras High Court Advocates Association
Madras High Court Advocates Association

On December 16 last year, the Madras High Court Advocates Association (MHAA), one of the oldest and largest lawyers’ bodies in Asia, successfully conducted elections to elect its office bearers.

It had been four years since the last election took place. Pending cases, politics and allegations of misconduct on the part of the Association members were amongst the reasons for this delay.

After multiple rounds of litigation, two orders from the High Court, an expenditure of ₹35 lakh and the Association's Teller Committee working round the clock for three full months, 3,600 lawyers cast their votes to elect Advocate G Mohana Krishnan as MHAA President for the next two years.

The win, Krishnan later said in his public address, was a message of caution to those who indulged in “party politics and political strategies.”

MHAA President G Mohana Krishnan's poll campaign poster
MHAA President G Mohana Krishnan's poll campaign poster

In fact, 'politics' is a word that crops up every time one speaks about the MHAA these days. The one common lament all lawyers seem to have is that the MHAA of today is not what it used to be in the first 100 years of its existence.

And the reason behind such deterioration, they say, is the Association's tilt towards political action focused on unnecessary strikes, pressure on courts and hooliganism.

“MHAA was born out of subaltern activism. However, gradually, along with the MHAA, elections to the Bar Council and all these things turned out to be one unified front for politics. Often, candidates become fronts for politicians and political parties,” said author and academic V Krishna Ananth.

Ananth, who is also a lawyer and member of the MHAA, went on to say that over the years, the MHAA polls have been reduced to a means for lawyers looking to establish their careers in electoral politics at the State and national level.

“Take the example of lawyer and former MHAA President RC Paul Kanagraj (Former President of the MHAA), who ended up being in the DMK and is now the State VP of BJP. Also, the Association is flushed with money. A position in MHAA is something that everyone jostles for. It also has a role in chamber allocation and thus holds much power there. However, what it stood for actually, is represented by older members like R Vaigai, NGR Prasad etc, who did not even want to be senior counsel,” Ananth said.

Newly elected office bearers of the MHAA with Chief Minister MK Stalin
Newly elected office bearers of the MHAA with Chief Minister MK Stalin

"Today, If I am the MHAA president, I get direct access to the Chief Justice, the Chief Minister, other important dignitaries. A lot of money too is involved," said Advocate K Sathyabal, on whose petition the High Court passed the order directing MHAA to hold the stalled elections and “restore the Association’s lost glory.”

During one of the hearings before the High Court, allegations of misappropriation of funds worth over ₹40 lakh were made against the MHAA. It was alleged that when quizzed, the Association had claimed that the amount had been spent on getting biryani for lawyers.

"This expenditure on biryani is evidence of how the Association members' professional and financial integrity has been compromised and how the campaigning for the MHAA elections, without an objective manifesto, continues throughout the year using all sorts of unethical means," Sathyabal said.

Even as lawyers lament the loss of the MHAA's past glory, it is worthwhile to dive into the origin of the Association.

Birth of the MHAA and the golden years

When the Madras High Court was established in 1862, three classes of lawyers existed - Barristers, who were advocates; Solicitors, who were attorneys; and Vakils, who were non-barristers, the official Court website says.

Barristers were permitted to practice both on the original and appellate sides, but Vakils were restricted to the appellate side only. In 1876, however, the small bunch of Vakils of the Madras High Court secured a full bench order that permitted them to practice under both jurisdictions of the Madras courts. The order, however, was resisted by the Barristers, who were part of the 1865 ‘Madras Bar,' an all powerful, self perpetuating association that denied entry to Indians.

22 Vakils came together later on 1st March 1889 and founded an organisation known as the Madras High Court Vakils Association. The Vakils Association subsequently became the MHAA.

“The Association was born out of an agitation to resist the control that the barristers were yielding on the legal profession in Madras,” said Sathyabal.

This history of its origin, and specifically the fact that it was born out of an agitation, has become a defining characteristic of the organisation that now has over 13,000 members and is reportedly the largest advocates' association in Asia.

"During its first 100 hundred years, the Association was led only by legal stalwarts, who had no interest in concentration of personal wealth, but were driven by their desire to strengthen the legal profession, encourage young lawyers, pass on their knowledge to others," Sathyabal recounts.

The MHAA worked not just for legal reforms, but also for broader civic and social concerns, he added.

"The MHAA has had legal luminaries as its office bearers in the past. Take the example of late Justice V Ratnam. He used to be the Association's Secretary before he was elevated to the Bench. He was someone who always cared for the welfare of lawyers, especially the younger or newer ones. He was someone who would open the case files and read up, and then start helping the junior lawyer, who had merely come to court to ask for an adjournment, to argue the matter. He would be helping from across the dais, imagine that. Like that, there have been much respected lawyers such as R Gandhi, NGR Prasad, R Vaigai, CT Mohan, PS Raman, TV Ramanujam, TR Rajagopalan, who used to be active embers of the MHAA in the past," he said.

A history of violence

Changes began to be seen in the early 2000s, and not just in the internal functioning of the MHAA. There was a marked shift in its commitment from social concerns to fulfilling personal and professional ambitions, lawyers say.

Between 2000 and 2016, the MHAA called for indefinite boycott of courts on at least four occasions. It began with protests against the proposed bifurcation of the Madras High Court into the principal bench in Chennai and the Madurai bench. Then, the body demanded the withdrawal of a code of conduct issued for lawyers by the High Court. Protests were also held for Tamil to be accepted as an official language of the Court. The lawyers also demonstrated against the Sri Lankan Army's excesses in the Tamil-dominated northern region.

Boycotts during these years witnessed assaults on lawyers, clashes with the police, lawyers walking into the then Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul's courtroom to protest, and episodes of violence.

Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul
Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul

In a recent interview, Justice Kaul recounted that incident, saying,

"I cannot think of a strike where a lawyers’ procession is going through the corridors and trying to enter court; it was totally alien to me. It first occurred when Indian seamen were being taken into custody in Sri Lanka. It was not my jurisdiction. It was a sensitive issue, so we tried to help. When they came to my court, I cautioned them and requested them to move. And they shut the door and left. But it was a awakening incident for me, that can such a thing happen in court. And it kept escalating, because a culture of strike had taken over there."

The situation was such that in September 2015, then Chief Justice of India HL Dattu remarked that lawlessness among a section of advocates had led to a "fear psychosis" among the judges of the High Court.

Sathyabal shed light on the reasons behind these protests.

"Earlier, I would say, till around the year 2002, the MHAA was in its glory. If MHAA called for a boycott or passed a resolution, it was followed by everyone. However, slowly, a lot of lawyers from other courts such as the Saidapet magistrate's court, the sessions court etc, who barely had any practice in the High Court, started becoming members of the MHAA. This, I would say, has contributed to the Association's deterioration. Over the last two decades, MHAA's biggest problem has been the lack of leadership. There are no stalwarts like before, to lead such a big association."

Advocate K Sathyabal
Advocate K Sathyabal

Senior Advocate and four time MHAA Secretary CT Mohan said he stopped contesting the Association elections around the year 2005.

"The standards of the Association had begun going down in the early 2000s. There were no people of stature anymore and the Association became prone to political interference. Candidates backed by political parties, big traders, etc, began to be propped up and elected to get favourable orders from the Court," Mohan said.

That the Association was becoming a different institution became most apparent on August 20, 2004, when lawyers obstructed traffic outside the High Court compound and deflated a tyre of a police bus. When policemen tried to take three lawyers into custody, others smashed the windshield of the bus.

The lawyers were agitating against a 25-point code of conduct issued by the High Court, which, among other things, specifically prohibited boycotts of a court or a judge.

The MHAA, which was then headed by current Bar Council of India Vice-President S Prabakaran, had called for a day-long boycott of court work, but eventually called it off. However, in the process, the Association witnessed much unrest amongst its members and ultimately, Prabakaran was removed from the post of MHAA President mid-term.

S Prabakaran
S Prabakaran

The next two years saw repeated conflicts between the lawyers and the Tamil Nadu police at the High Court campus. The MHAA, which was now headed by Paul Kanagraj, petitioned the Court for a State-level committee to resolve the issue.

On October 9, 2006, a Bench of Justices AP Shah and K Chandru of the Madras High Court passed orders directing an eight-member State-level coordination committee to look into the lawyers' grievances against the police.

The Bench said that such committee was the need of the hour, given that regular calls for boycott of work at the Madras High Court and across the State was leading to loss of judicial time.

The worst, however, was yet to come.

On January 29, 2009, alleging that the Central government was not taking any action to stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the MHAA called for an indefinite boycott of courts. Such call was supported by the Law Association and the Women Lawyers' Association, while the Madras Bar Association (MBA) decided neither to support, nor oppose such call.

After several rounds of discussion, the Association decided to call off the boycott from February 19.

However, on February 17 that year, a group of lawyers entered court rooms shouting at those who had defied the call for boycott. The same group then entered a court room where a three-judge bench led by Justice PK Misra was hearing Subramanian Swamy in a temple related matter.

The lawyers threw eggs at Swamy inside the courtroom, in the presence of all three judges.

Two days later, on February 19, the police claimed to have received some intelligence of further violence against Swamy and posted scores of its personnel across the High Court campus.

At around 3:45 pm, while the Court was in session, some police personnel entered into a scuffle with a few lawyers, following which they began pelting stones and initiated a lathi charge at random on anyone who could be spotted in a black lawyer's gown.

These attacks went on for the next two hours as the police dragged out lawyers and staff from courtrooms and chambers and brutally assaulted them. During such time, the Chief Justice had called the Commissioner of Police, asking him to remove all police personnel from the campus immediately. But an order of the Court in the suo motu petition taken up following the incident records that it was only around "5.30–5.45 pm that the Court learnt the police force had gone outside the campus."

(L) February 19, 2009 violence, (R) Mohana Krishnan
(L) February 19, 2009 violence, (R) Mohana KrishnanG Mohana Krishnan

Mohana Krishnan recalls that dark day.

"Many of us, after hearing loud noises, went out of our chambers and courtrooms to help resolve the issue. We wanted to placate the irate cops, but the police wasn't in the mood to follow procedure. It was throwing blows, and blindly attacking lawyers with their lathis. When I went to talk to one of the policemen, he stopped for just a few seconds to listen to me. He could have easily arrested me if he thought I was adding to the problem there. However, in just five seconds, he had a change of mind and the next thing I know, something hard struck the back of my head. Blood was flowing across my face and I don't even remember how many times I was hit. I stayed in the hospital for one full month and had to visit the doctors regularly for four months. My head and the front of my face was restored through reconstructive surgery. Yet, my injuries were amongst the milder ones. Several lawyers spent months in hospitals for no fault of theirs."

Eventually, four police officers including IPS officer and then Additional Police Commissioner of Chennai AK Viswanathan and Joint Commissioner M Ramasubramani were held guilty by the Court and placed under suspension.

It took something as shocking as the February 19 incident for the lawyers and the whole legal system in the State to reflect and to resolve to put an end to such 'boycott culture.'

"February 19 is a black day in the history of the Madras High Court. On the day of the violence, I was in Kanyakumari to attend a relative's wedding. I heard what had happened and returned to the Court the very next day. I was a member of the DMK then. 10 days later, I resigned from the party. It was shameful what the State police had done," Kanagraj, the then MHAA President, said.

"The Association resolved to never let something like this happen ever again. We realised it was time to focus our attention solely on the welfare of lawyers. It was around this time that the Association worked hard and secured a lawyers' welfare fund to help young lawyers who struggle to make ends meet at the beginning of their careers. in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the social welfare measures and better educational facilities, lots of youngsters break social barriers and secure professional degrees including degrees in law. So, I urged then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi to give us some such funds and a GO was issued allotting ₹4 crore from the State exchequer to the State Bar Council for the lawyers' welfare fund. This amount was increased to ₹20 crore annually by J Jayalalithaa," he added.

While calls for boycotts have been fewer since the 2009 violence, in 2015 and 2016, the violence reared its ugly head once again. Lawyers at the Madras High Court went on a rampage on two separate occasions, shouting slogans and burning effigies of then Chief Justice Kaul, asking the judge to "go back to Delhi or to Kashmir" while protesting against the CISF's entry into the Court for its security, and against the amendments to the rules under the Advocates Act.

Focussing on the real issues and hope for the future

The MHAA currently has over 13,000 members, 400 of which are women. Many of its lawyers, as is the case with the Bar across Tamil Nadu, are affiliated with or are members of regional and national political parties such as Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Pattali Makkal Katchi, BJP, Congress, DMK and AIADMK.

The Association lawyers, therefore, routinely end up finding responding to the evolving political climate in the State. Caste considerations also play a role.

"The Dalit identity in Tamil Nadu also contributed to it, and let us not forget that the MBA has remained largely an upper caste body, while the MHAA has an open membership system. Besides, the legal profession is special or unique for it allows you to take up an issue without the need for any institutional backing. A lawyer, a lone ranger can take up a large rights based matter on an individual level and bring significant changes for the society without the help of any political or lawyers' bodies. This profession allows you to do that as long as you are committed to a cause. That is also where the strength and weaknesses of an institution like the MHAA get tested," Ananth said.

The MHAA is in a way "microcosm of the society," both Ananth and Mohan say.

Mohan, Prabakaran and Sathyabal all unanimously agree that the Association must build a good relationship between the Bar and the Bench. It should focus on real issues faced by lawyers today, they opine.

"E-filing, online hearings are some of the issues that the lawyers are concerned with. Lawyers at the Madras High Court are not allowed lunch motions, urgent motions anymore. The mentioning of urgent matters is restricted and frowned upon, we have issues in listing of matters. These are all matters of practical difficulty that need to be taken up by the Association to the Chief Justice," Sathyabal said.

After the recently concluded elections, the hope is that politics do not hamper the functioning of the MHAA.

"Politics should not enter the court campus. We are expecting smooth functioning. Also, you have to realise that the lawyers who have voted to bring back the same team of office bearers, are not naïve. They know what they want and whom they want to vote for," Prabakaran said.

Madras High Court Advocates Association Library
Madras High Court Advocates Association Library

Mohan added that the MHAA must take steps to spruce up its library.

"During my time, the MHAA had a very convivial atmosphere. We used to encourage each other, share our knowledge, think about the welfare of all lawyers. The library used to be well stocked and catalogued. If you go to the MHAA library today, you won't be able to find a single book in the place that it is meant to be. These are not trivial issues, because you see we have hundreds of lawyers who, even today, cannot afford laptops and expensive electronic devices. It is not possible to buy all the books related to every case law in the country. So, a library then becomes a really important resource for lawyers. It is a place of learning," Mohan said.

The Senior Counsel has hope that young lawyers will restore the Association to what it once was.

"I also want to add that the current lot of younger lawyers is very good. The youngsters in the legal profession today give us hope. They are knowledgeable, responsible, very aware and conscious citizens. They read a lot, even if they don't read physical books, they read online and keep abreast with whatever is happening in the world. They can help revive the Association and do good for the legal profession," he said.

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