Attacking the system is not contempt of court – Senior Advocate K Ramakumar

Attacking the system is not contempt of court – Senior Advocate K Ramakumar

Aditya AK

Firebrand, unapologetic, terse. These are just some of the words that can be used to describe K Ramakumar, Senior Advocate at the Kerala High Court.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, the veteran lawyer talks about his tryst with criminal contempt, how important it is for lawyers to have a writing habit, the high-profile cases he has argued through his illustrious career and more.

As I wait among dozens of clients in the narrow lobby leading up to Senior Advocate K Ramakumar’s office, I wonder if I will ever actually get to speak to the man. Clearly one of the most sought after lawyers in Kerala is K Ramakumar; litigants from all over the state come to seek his counsel on a daily basis.

A couple of hours later, I am finally summoned to his chamber. He begins by recounting how he, like many of his peers, stumbled into the legal profession by chance.

“Like most cases, it was an accident. In those days, graduates from a non-science background did not have as many opportunities. If not science, one had to take up teaching, clerical work, or start up a business, which was very difficult. I did not have any interest in any of these, so I took up law.”

“As usual, the early days were tough. But, I picked up the habit of hard work from an early stage. I found from some of my relatives, who were also lawyers, that in order to be successful, you have to put in the hours – working till late at night and getting up early.”

A habitual writer for the legal journal, Kerala Law Times, K Ramakumar discusses the importance of lawyers developing a writing habit.

“I still write legal literature for newspapers and journals. I have also published a book in Malayalam on what is happening in our courts. It is very important for lawyers to make it a habit to write. There are two reasons why – one, you get to communicate your views to your fellow practitioners. Secondly, the public does not have a very clear picture of what goes on in courts. So, when lawyers write, the common person gets information on what is really happening in the courts.”

However, his writing habit once caught him on the wrong side of the law. In 1985, K Ramakumar was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for writing an article about the working of the Kerala High Court. Titled “Journal Priority in Posting of Cases”, the article focused on how influential people used their clout to get their cases posted early, much to the detriment of litigants who were far less well off.

“I was appearing for a person dismissed from the Navy when I found that the case was not being taken up on time. Liquor store owners and others who had clout were being given priority over my client. This prompted me to write an article complaining about the delays in court, especially in cases where litigants are in urgent need for justice.”

Though he argued that he did not specifically mention judges or advocates that allowed this practice, the Kerala High Court found him guilty of criminal contempt. Delivering the judgment, Justice Narendran held,

“The respondent made untrue and baseless accusations and aspersions against the Judges of the Kerala High Court and the effect of the statements made by him is sufficient to undermine the judiciary in the minds of the public and make them loose faith in the integrity and impartiality of the judges.”

The judge also noted that K Ramakumar had refused to apologise for the statements made in the article. As a result, he was sentenced to pay a fine of one thousand rupees and undergo a month of imprisonment. When asked whether he would have done things differently in hindsight, he says,

“Nothing has changed. This is still my view!” (laughs)

Recently, Kerala CPI (M) leader MV Jayarajan’s conviction for criminal contempt was upheld by the Supreme Court. According to K Ramakumar, it is cases like these that warrant a review of our criminal contempt provisions.

“I believe that our contempt provisions definitely need to be reviewed. Only disobedience of court orders or scurrilous personal attacks on judges should come under contempt. I emphasize the word ‘personal’, because I cannot say that a judge delivered a judgment after taking a bribe. Apart from these instances, contempt proceedings should not be initiated. According to me, attacking the system should not qualify as contempt of court.”

In the recent past, K Ramakumar has defended a number of high-profile clients, including tainted former Indian cricketer Sreesanth. In true Saul Goodman style, he believes that his client has been made a scapegoat in the IPL fixing scandal.

“As far as I could notice, he has been unnecessarily roped in on account on cricket politics. The court did not find any reasons to invoke the provisions of the dreaded Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.”

He was also the lawyer of spiritual leader Mata Amritandamayi (better known as ‘Amma’) during the Gail Tredwell controversy. Tredwell, one of Amma’s devotees, had alleged instances of sexual abuse in the Ashram.

“All the allegations are absolutely false. The person making the statements had some kind of enmity or scores to settle with the Ashram. I’m not saying that everything is going on smoothly over there, there are so many devotees from different cultures and nationalities. Things can happen, but in this particular case, it was all humbug.”

But it is not all about high-profile individuals.

In 2011, an organisation called the Popular Front of India was prevented from organizing a ‘Freedom Parade’ on Independence Day. Championing their cause before the High Court, K Ramakumar argued that the ban was a violation of their civil liberties, especially since other political groups were allowed to organize similar events.

“The reason given for the ban is that some others have objected to it. How can that be a reason? Any organisation of a public nature will have enemies, persons opposed to it. If those people rake up an issue, how can the government ban it? Unfortunately, the High Court didn’t listen to this argument, and the case is still pending.”

On a related note, he was asked about the tangible anti-nationalist sentiment prevalent within some political quarters in Kerala.

“In some sections of the population, there is. That stems from frustration, discrimination and persecution. Very often we have seen innocent Muslim boys branded as terrorists and taken into custody. Many times, they actually end up becoming terrorists once they come out of jail. That is why it is important for the police to exercise an element of discretion while handling sensitive cases.”

He also discussed his opinion on High Court advocates applying to be senior counsels.

“I don’t think advocates should be allowed to apply for the post of senior counsel. When I sat with the Chief Justice [of the Kerala High Court], I told him that it was not an honour that should be obtained through an application. You are actually canvassing when you apply, advocates are not supposed to do that. In fact, I am opposed to the system altogether. According to me, there should be no differentiation at all.”

With the petitions challenging the National Judicial Appointments Commission being currently heard in the Supreme Court, he was asked about his opinion on the NJAC.

“I am absolutely in favour of it. The collegium system is very secretive, there are no minutes prepared. The selection of judges is entirely based on personal preferences, which is why a lot of relatives of judges have got into the judiciary. If it is allowed to continue, the time will come when we only have relatives of judges in the judiciary!” (laughs)

K Ramakumar is impressed with the rise of the National Law Universities and the prospects of the students studying in them.

So what advice does he have for the lawyers of tomorrow?

“Work hard. That is the only sure solution for success. You now have National Law Schools which give you the best education. I have seen the quality and knowledge these graduates have in my juniors and in the students who come here for internships. They have everything they can ask for.”

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