Installing a national flag at the Patiala House Court premises, creating happiness committees, exploring the architecture of courts and writing books. These are just a few things Justice Poonam A Bamba did apart from her judicial work in the two decades she served as a judge of Delhi’s district courts and the High Court.
In her farewell reference, she talked about the mental health of judges, the work-life balance that they must maintain and the fact that her first love was science and not law.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Prashant Jha, Justice Bamba discusses her experiences at the trial court and the High Court, why mental health is extremely important, the pressure judges face from social media and more.
Edited excerpts follow.
Prashant Jha (PJ): You been a lawyer and a judge for nearly four decades. How does it feel to leave the job in which you spent such a significant part of your life?
Justice Poonam Bamba: I have not yet retired. I would say that I have demitted office as a judge of the High Court of Delhi. That is all. I am busier than before, concluding my upcoming coffee-table book on the Patiala House Court. So, there is hardly any time.
PJ: You did your Bachelor's in Botany, and then you switched to law. What made you choose law as a career?
Justice Bamba: Law was not my first choice. I had applied for MSc Botany, which was taking time. My name was not there in the first list. While I was waiting, my father persuaded me to join law, which I did. And I found that I have started liking law and I continued with law. Rest is history.
PJ: It has been forty years since you became a lawyer. How has this profession changed over the last four decades?
Justice Bamba: See, it was very different when I started practising. I would even go to the post office to dispatch notices through registered post as a junior colleague, because my father, who was my senior, believed that I should know everything. I must have first-hand knowledge of ground realities.
Even the filing of process fee or inspection of court files and to find out the order passed, was a Herculean task those days. Now you have everything on the court website, you can pull out the last order very quickly. I used to make rounds to the courts to find out with the reader, the order passed and what was the next date. But now everything is so easily available that people do not need to spend time on all these things. You can even serve notices by way of SMS, email, or WhatsApp.
Another difference I feel is that we were more tolerant of each other. It is something that is missing now. Even judges used to make lighter comments earlier. Now any comment made by a judge in court is all over the social media. By the time you finish your board and rise, you find it is already circulating. Not only that, a comment is pulled out of context and made out to be scandalous. A judge might have made a comment in a lighter vein. These things are very inhibiting.
I think those judges who can make a conversation to lower the anxiety in the courtroom are great performers. It really relieves everyone of pressure. But now, everyone, including advocates, have to be very, very careful when they open their mouth. Sometimes, even light banter used to take place earlier. The kind of camaraderie which was there earlier is also not so prevalent now.
PJ: Are you saying that judges are not as expressive today as they used to be?
Justice Bamba: When they are, there is a every possibility of words being taken absolutely out of context and blown out of proportion. We do not have any mouthpiece to clarify these things. We do not have second opportunity to explain. So, it is better to avoid. The moment you say something, you never know how would it be taken.
PJ: Isn’t that a little problematic? For judges not to be expressing views.
Justice Bamba: It is not that the judges have stopped putting queries to the lawyers pertaining to the case or to seek clarifications. Only thing is, judges are more careful while doing so and we train ourselves to do that.
PJ: You were in the district judiciary for nearly two decades. How was this experience? Do you find any difference between the trial courts and the High Court?
Justice Bamba: Not really. We are doing the same work. Rather, in trial courts, the work is more strenuous in the sense that we do a variety of work. Right from making efforts to serve notices, framing of issues (which happens in the High Court on Original Side as well), recording of evidence, dealing with the litigants and witnesses, which is a major job difference. I feel the kind of court management that is required in trial courts is not so much needed in High Court, where you generally deal only with advocates, unless you are on the Original Side.
Also, in the trial courts, you are supervised by the High Court. It is a very close supervision. You are also mindful of how much time to spend where. Because you have to dictate a required number of judgments to have a requisite grade. So, that kind of pressure is also there in trial courts.
There are lots of complaints against judges as well. These complaints are increasing. People have lost patience; people have their own perceptions. So, that is another stressor.
Most of the time, the High Court may ignore these things, but there are times when they also do not know. And they would like to have an explanation. Not for any other purpose, but to satisfy themselves. Writing down an explanation is no less than a judgment and puts a lot of pressure on trial court judges.
PJ: Can you share an example when such a thing happened? Has something like this happened to you or any of your colleagues?
Justice Bamba: When I was District and Sessions Judge in Saket, there was a complaint made by a lawyer of misbehaviour against a judge. That complaint was sent not only to the District Judge, but also to the High Court and the Supreme Court.
Of course, the High Court tried to find out and then it was sent to me for resolution. I called the lawyer to know her grievance. The judge was also called separately. I looked at the record and realised that the lawyer was pursuing a personal case. When one does a personal case, one tends to take things personally and I found that it was more of that. But the lawyer did not budge and insisted that the tone and tenor of the judge was not proper. Similar was the grievance of the judge against the lawyer. There was no way to verify the same.
I tried my best, but the lawyer remained unsatisfied. It must have put a lot of pressure on the judge.
PJ: People have this grievance that cases in trial courts go on for years. There is a huge pendency and data shows that. What do you think is the reason for this?
Justice Bamba: This cannot be answered in one or two sentences. It is a larger issue. I think a lot of studies, reports have already come up. The Civil Procedure Code (CPC) was amended to be strict with the procedure. But when you analyse, you will find that even litigants are responsible. Pick up one sample file and you will find that litigants take dates, lawyers take dates, service takes time. Every case would throw up a different reason for the delay.
I will tell you an extreme case. I was conducting a criminal trial as a district judge. It was a triple murder case. Some of the accused approached the High Court for bail quoting delay in trial. The High Court, while recording that the case for bail was not made out, passed directions to conclude recording of eye-witnesses (which were many) within a given time. When I fixed the schedule for recording witnesses’ testimony, the accused themselves were instrumental in seeking adjournments/delaying trial. Despite their approaching the High Court and getting the trial expedited, lawyers made every effort that witnesses are not examined, to delay the trial.
So, as I said, we do not have mouthpieces. People who are employed from outside to conduct studies do not know many finer nuances of what goes into a trial. Trial courts have to give a disposal. They will be very happy to give shorter dates and conclude. But if the time does not permit, what to do?
Also, litigation has increased manifold. Earlier, people were not approaching courts as quickly and they would try to resolve their disputes.
PJ: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that more people are approaching court?
Justice Bamba: It is good in the sense that it reflects that people feel confident that their grievances will be addressed by the courts. But, if I perceive that my neighbour has done something and instead of talking to him, I rush to court, that I think is not a great thing to happen.
That is why I was saying that conversations have reduced and that is why mediation is now being embraced by people.
PJ: Is this pendency also because of lack of infrastructure or manpower in the trial courts?
Justice Bamba: Yes. Lack of requisite number of judges. Recruitment of support staff has also not kept pace with the increase in judges, although efforts are being made. There is also a lack of space for housing newly created courts.
When I was a District and Sessions Judge, I was fortunate to have had two stenographers. But there were times as an Additional District Judge when I wrote short orders in my own hand, because the stenographer was busy typing out longer judgments. I know of some of my predecessors, who have written judgments by hand.
PJ: What are some of the most challenging cases that you dealt with?
Justice Bamba: I found family courts to be challenging in the sense that you see everyone being dragged into matrimonial disputes. Whether it is the husband's family or the wife’s family. Children are the worst affected in these disputes.
I am sure parents love their children, but in their fight, they do not think of the impact their unmindful utterances/actions have on the child. They just pull the child in opposite directions. That is one thing I found to be very painful. Painful in the sense that the child gets impacted for a lifetime, as this trauma does not ever go away.
PJ: Your books also focus on similar themes. What made you write those books?
Justice Bamba: I am in the habit of writing a diary. So, I jot down happenings of the day, things which I observed during court proceedings, how humans behave, my own journey during the day.
There was one very stark case. Both the husband and wife were from Bihar. The husband was not willing to live with his wife anymore for his own reasons. But the wife was adamant. I tried to counsel both, but the husband said he cannot live with his wife. The wife said, "जिस घर में शादी होती है वहाँ से अर्थी निकलती है" (In our culture, marriage happens only once. And it is only her dead body that would leave from matrimonial home.)
It was very difficult to put across to her that the relationship was not working and it was only weighing them down. As the divorce did not happen, the husband started falling sick. Then I realised that he is also getting mentally disturbed by it. He then started going into depression, but the wife did not agree for a divorce. I could make out that the man was suffering from schizophrenia. But the wife never agreed for divorce. The fellow ultimately ended up in a mental asylum.
You see how human beings are so much governed by their belief systems and are unable to see, the reality...what is happening to them. She [the wife] could not take the tag of being ‘divorced’. You cannot judge if it is wrong or right. But, what to do?
This is the story I have also shared in my book. These are the stories that I thought of sharing to let people know when to call it a day and not to stick to a dead relationship. I have not given any preachings in my books and have just shared what I have seen and experienced.
PJ: People say that judges get a lot of holidays. But in your farewell speech, you said that judges are overworked and that there is no work-life balance. Can you elaborate on that?
Justice Bamba: Many lawyers who switch over to the Bench say that they used to think judges know everything. They would think that we come and dictate orders and just enjoy our holidays. But after making the switch, they (lawyers) have got to know that as judges we do struggle and have to put in lot of reading to arrive at the right conclusion, and it is the lawyers who help us.
Sometimes, while the advocates are arguing, the judge is making an effort to make up his mind this way or that way. People just see the order, but do not know the mental process that goes on behind the order.
Judges are not gods. They are as human as you are. They have their own predicaments.
Another thing which people may not realise is that before we hold court, we must go through all the case files. In the High Court, it is even more, because you do not know in advance about the matters in the supplementary list. After rising from court, the dictated orders need to be gone through, corrected/re-corrected etc. After this, orders kept during the day need to be dictated. Then one has to dictate judgments and correct them.
On reaching home, at night/next morning, one needs to prepare for the next day. So, it is like a roller coaster. Even if you alight physically from this roller coaster, mentally you are still on it. So, it is extremely important for judges to take care of their health, which call for taking breaks.
Also, people may forget that we are also emotional beings and it is not as if nothing touches us at all and that we just walk away. Sometimes, not-so-happy interactions in court and other goings-on in life also impact judges and need time to be dealt with.
PJ: What do you say about the criticism of long vacations in the higher judiciary?
Justice Bamba: I think someone needs to come and live with a judge for a day. Do not do anything, just observe their life. I do not say we do not take holidays. If there are two holidays, we say, “Hooray! Now, we can finish a judgment.” Even our family members have a complaint all the time that we do not have time for them.
Therefore, it is not that if there is a one month holiday, there is only merry-making. We try to catch up with pending judgments and also take a break.
Moreover, there is a logic to these holidays. I think people need to go back and read the concept of these holidays. There are studies to show that productivity increases with breaks in between, to relax. Today, there are organizations which make it compulsory for their employees and senior executives to take breaks.
Judges’ work is extremely creative, and for creating something, you need to pause. Constant mental work exhausts you. When you are dealing with family litigation, it even drains a judge emotionally.
When I was holding family court, I would get up in the evening and feel absolutely drained. I always felt that when I reached home, nobody should talk to me for at least half an hour. Because during the day, one would have gathered so much of anxious energy of people that one needs time to get out of it.
PJ: What then is your advice to people in the legal profession? How can they balance work and life?
Justice Bamba: I think they need to take time out for themselves. It is for everyone. Whatever may be the field you are working in. If you pause for a while, you perform better and you will be a happier version of yourself. If I am not happy, what will happen to people around me? They all get affected by my temperament.
PJ: You have a book coming up on the Patiala House Court. What is the inspiration behind it?
Justice Bamba: This idea was born in 2017 when I was posted as District and Sessions Judge there. I wanted to showcase the journey of this place from a palace to a court of justice. I discovered how beautifully this palace has been designed. People do not look at those things. They come hassled and go back hassled. I found so much beauty and warmth in this court complex. I wanted people to see its beauty and magnificence through my eyes, which I have tried to capture through my camera.
You remember, there was a roundabout at Patiala House Court, when one enters from gate no 4. People would just stand around that, drink tea and dump paper cups in that park. I thought, instead of supervising, I will put up a national flag there. Patiala House became the first court complex in Delhi to have a 50-foot high flag. I felt touched whenever I saw the tricolour fluttering.
We put up vertical gardens as well. It became the first court to even have that. Even boards of the birds that frequented Patiala House, were put up, which generated a lot of interest amongst people. I have tried to capture all that in my upcoming coffee table book. I have also shared famous trials conducted in this court. Let me not reveal all, let some curiosity remain!