The Shifting Legacy of the Kerala High Court - Part II

The Court in its previous forms occupied different historic buildings which remain in use by the judiciary in Kerala. In this part, we take a look at the developments since the Court moved to its current premises.
Kerala High Court
Kerala High Court

From the erstwhile High Courts of Travancore, Cochin, Thiru-Kochi, to the High Court of Kerala , the small southern state's top court has had quite a journey since its inception on November 1, 1956.

The Court in its previous forms occupied different historic buildings which remain in use by the judiciary in Kerala even to this day.

The Kerala High Court was first established at Ram Mohan Palace, a two-storied building that was built in the mid-1930s overlooking the State’s famous backwater.

In 2006, the High Court was moved to a building in the heart of Kochi city.

In part I of this series , we take a walk down memory lane from the time of the Rajas to the establishment of the Kerala High Court.

In this second and final part, we take a look at the developments of the Court since 2006.

The High Court is presently situated in a multi-storied building right next to the old Ram Mohan Palace. So close that the new building can be seen from the courtyard of Ram Mohan Place even today.

Ram Mohan Palace
Ram Mohan Palace

Ram Mohan Palace now houses the offices of the Judicial Academy, Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre and the Vigilance Registrar and is adjacent to the office of the Advocate General of Kerala.

The new building was constructed in response to calls for a larger space and infrastructure for the High Court and its many benches to function better than it had in the smaller Ram Mohan Palace.

The State Public Works Department (PWD) was roped in to build the multi-storied structure and the PWD in turn handed the work to three building contractors.

The construction was supervised by the Judicial Buildings Circle, Ernakulam and it involved the PWD's Special Buildings sub-divisions of Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram as well as its architectural wing. The High Court registrar, the Advcoate General and many other officials from the side of the judiciary also kept a close eye on developments.

Being a project that required cooperation between multiple organisations, the judiciary and the engineers did butt heads to a certain extent, especially over some pressure allegedly exerted by the judiciary to outsource some of the structural work.

However, on February 11, 2006, the High Court officially bid adieu to Ram Mohan Palace and moved to its new premises.

Soon after the High Court complex was inaugurated, complaints regarding the alleged poor quality of construction started spreading in legal circles.

But even before those complaints garnered attention, the High Court was in the news for another interesting reason. The Kerala High Court, it turned out, did not have courtroom no.13.

A petition was filed before the High Court highlighting this curious decision and alleging that this was done for superstitious reasons. The petitioner said that there was a court no. 13 in the Kerala High Court until 1995. After that it was renamed court 12-A and it was omitted in the new building also for superstitious reasons.

The High Court dismissed the petition but it was appealed before the Supreme Court. India's top court took a dim view of the matter, saying "superstition should not be encouraged by courts."

The High Court simply changed the way in which it numbers courtrooms by renaming them as 1-A to D and so on. Hence, as it stands today, there is still no courtroom 13 at the Kerala High Court.

It is over a decade later, in 2018, that noticeable structural work was carried out in the building. According to sources, some issues were noticed in the the iron rods in one of the columns of the building.

Kerala HC strengthening work, 2018
Kerala HC strengthening work, 2018

Although the issue was initially noticed on only one floor of the building, the PWD inspected the entire building and made significant changes to increase its structural integrity.

However, other troubling issues remain.

The present location of the High Court is prone to flooding and waterlogging during the monsoon. This coupled with the fact that the roads that connect the premises to the main roads are barely enough for two lanes of traffic, have left many lawyers and court staff disgruntled.

In fact, on many days when heavy rainfall lashed the city last year, the High Court had to delay its sitting by several hours with some judges unable to reach the Court.

Another issue that is talked about in legal circles is the lack of parking facilities in the premises of the High Court. Even though the Kerala High Court Advocates' Association (KHCAA) has a building right next to the High Court with additional parking space, the same has not proven sufficient, even during the Covid-19 period when footfall was far less.

To top this all off, the High Court building is a stone's throw away from Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary, an ecologically sensitive area. It is so close that photographs of the building from less than a kilometer away shows it nestled behind the lush greens of the sanctuary.

Kerala High Court, Mangalavanam
Kerala High Court, Mangalavanam

A similar photograph was included in the High Court's golden jubilee souvenir book as well.

Kerala High Court
Kerala High Court Scan from High Court Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book

This became an especially troubling feature when in 2022, the Supreme Court passed a judgment that mandated that every protected forest should have a 1 kilometre eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) where no developmental work shall be allowed. The High Court of Kerala is within one kilometre of Mangalavanam, an eco-sensitive zone.

The State government moved a plea before the apex court seeking a relaxation of the order in light of the acute shortage of land and the dense population in Kerala. In a breather to the State and its High Court, the Supreme Court in April 2023, directed that its earlier order would not apply in cases where a draft or final notification for development has already been issued 

However, by this time, reports started surfacing that a proposal to move the High Court to the suburb of Kalamassery was being considered by the State government.

report by Mangalam said that it is with a view to improve operational efficiency that the High Court administration asked the State government to consider shifting the location of the Court to a more convenient space.

Interestingly, Kalamassery is also the constituency of current State Law Minister, P Rajeev.

Bar & Bench's Sara Susan Jiji spoke to several lawyers practicing before the High Court to get their views on the proposal to shift the High Court.

“This is a long-term plan. The High Court will require space in the future and at that time space won't be available within City Limits. So, in the next 30 years, we will require more space and in the long term, this acquisition will be good," said advocate Santosh Mathew.

Advocate Naveen A Varkey pointed that the move would be beneficial to new lawyers as the cost of renting or buying office space near the current High Court building is very high.

However, advocate Blaze K Jose said that since the district courts in Ernakulam are situated near the current building, the proposed move to Kalamassery would be meaningless unless all those courts are moved as well.

Other lawyers said that a move or expansion would be necessary to accommodate the growing needs of the State's judiciary but stressed that it has to be done in consultation with all stakeholders and the legal community at large.

However, on January 16 this year, the Registrar General of the High Court confirmed that there was no proposal under consideration regarding a move to Kalamassery.

Rather, the High Court has only requested the State government to allot additional land for further development, the Registrar General said in his letter to the KHCAA President.

All was quiet on this front, until the Court's last working day before its 2023 Onam vacation.

On that day, Justice Alexander Thomas in his farewell address called for expeditious action from the State government to allot 17.73 acres of land near the existing building in order to meet the growing needs of the Court.

He said that State PWD authorities in consultation with the authorities of the IIT Chennai have concluded that it is not possible to expand the existing building vertically. He added that proposals to allot the land in question to set up a commercial centre should not stand in the way of the needs of the judiciary.

"A court is not merely a building, it is a beacon of hope, a sanctuary for the pursuit of truth, fairness and the protection of rights...As dedicated members of this esteemed family, every judge and official in this institution are tirelessly working to enhance the High Court's operations...The demand of the High Court is fully justified and there is no suitable other vacant land in the proximity of the High Court," Justice Thomas said.

He also said that steps have already been taken from the side of the High Court in this regard.

Justice Thomas in his role as Acting Chief Justice wrote to the Chief Minsiter requesting him to intervene in the matter.

Chief Justice AJ Desai, Justice Muhamed Mustaque and Justice Thomas himself inspected the land on August 19.

In his parting words as a judge of the Court, Justice Thomas called on his fellow judges and the legal community to collectively take up the matter with the State government so that the High Court and its associated organisations can continue to grow and thrive.

The High Court has now reopened after its Onam vacation but there have been no official comments from the High Court on any further developments yet.

However, the KHCAA has passed a unanimous resolution to support the effort to procure the land needed for expansion. They have also formed a sub-committee to assist its Executive Committee to take steps in this regard.

It remains to be seen whether the larger legal community will pay heed to Justice Thomas's parting words in a proactive manner but one can take confidence from former Chief Justice S Manikumar's farewell address when he said,

"The advocates in Kerala are known for their fairness, openness and reasonableness, and in my view, they are also fearless in putting forth their viewpoint."

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news