“Never be afraid. Ultimately, you can’t die every day.” – Justice (Retd) Chandru of the Madras High Court

As a Marxist, I had argued this was a bourgeoisie Constitution – it had to be thrown lock stock and barrel. But (during emergency) we found Constitution itself was being subverted, and people had nothing to fall back on.
Justice (Retd) Chandru of the Madras High Court
Justice (Retd) Chandru of the Madras High Court

Justice Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court, has one of the most prolific rates of disposal in the country. Through a tenure lasting close to six and a half years, he disposed of 90,000 cases. In this interview with Bar & Bench, the activist turned lawyer turned judge speaks about his student days, the two years of his life he spent travelling across Tamil Nadu and why he enjoys being a rebel.

Bar & Bench: In your student years, you were quite an activist?

Justice Chandru: Yes, I was a student leader of the CPI(M) and this resulted in the management victimizing me. I was expelled from Loyola College for leading some student agitations. I then joined Christian College in my third year to complete my [undergraduate] degree. After that, I did not think of studying further since I felt I should work for the common people, the workers. I started working for the party full time.

At that time there was a Commission of Inquiry constituted by DMK Chief Karunanidhi regarding the death of a student in Anna University after a lathi charge. I appeared in the Commission on behalf of the students. An Additional Judge of the Madras High Court was appointed to head the Commission. This judge noticed that I would do some groundwork every day, and come prepared before the Commission. So he told me, through his bench clerk, that I should do law.

By that time, I had been out of campus for two years. I was a student leader without a campus. So I decided to apply to a law college and joined in 1973. By that time, the law college management knew that I was a very active student leader so they denied me hostel admission. I went on an indefinite fast in the front of the college. On the third day of my fast, the management came down and gave me a hostel seat.

Bar & Bench: So in 1976, you graduated with a law degree in hand.

Justice Chandru: During my college days, I would work with a law firm called Row & Reddy. They were all barristers and had gone to the United Kingdom (UK) to do the civil service but came back as barristers to fight for the poor.

It was an office that fought for certain standards. We accepted any brief and worked only for poor people. Initially, that was how the firm started and continued functioning for a long time. After graduating, I had the option to join it or join the chambers of KK Venugopal. I chose Row & Reddy and worked there for about 8 years.

Bar & Bench: What motivated you during that time?

Justice Chandru: I was driven by my own political understanding, my own convictions, and desire to excel in the profession. So in those 8 years, I was given a lot of opportunities and since it is basically a labour firm, we had a large number of clients. On the day of my enrollment itself, I appeared in the High Court. And the office encouraged such opportunities.

Bar & Bench: Did you fit into the firm?

Justice Chandru: I had a worker background in one sense. I had visited countless factories, addressed meetings; I was part of the trade union movement. I had gone to jail in support of the workers. I had all the experiences of an activist.

When I was a student leader, I travelled all over the State for two years. I would travel in lorries and buses. I ate wherever I could or wherever people would offer me some food. I slept in the houses of dalit laborers, agricultural workers, trade union leaders. I lived on my own like a vagabond and consider those 2 years as the most educative years in my life.

I came from a very middle-class orthodox family and I got to see an entirely different section of society, to see their living style, their speech patterns, how caste works etc.

So I went to Row & Reddy with this experience.

Bar & Bench: How did you manage to survive?

Justice Chandru: Money was never the criteria. I had lived an entirely different lifestyle. My ambition was not to become a “5-star lawyer”. I used to live in a single room apartment. I would cook for myself.

Within two years I established myself as a lawyer in the Madras High Court. For the first time, we organized a procession from the High Court demanding free elections after the Emergency. There were more than 200 lawyers with robes marching down the street.

Bar & Bench: But do you think lawyers should get take part in such protests?

Justice Chandru: The Emergency was an exception. When the very basis of the Constitution is being subverted, you can’t continue practicing as a lawyer.

This was not my original stand though. As a Marxist student leader, I had argued that this was a bourgeoisie Constitution – it had to be thrown lock stock and barrel. But (during emergency) we found that when the Constitution itself was being subverted, people had nothing to fall back on. So therefore we decided to defend the Constitution, to at least make sure that a minimum threshold of rights (exists).

In fact in one of the meetings, as a first year student I said that this Constitution must go and be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. I also quoted a Chattist song that went,

“Hurrah for the masses, lawyers are asses

The judges are going to jail.

The laws are illegal, the commons are regal

The judges are going to jail.”

Bar & Bench: Why did you leave Row & Reddy?

Justice Chandru: Well, they also started appearing for Management and I was working for the workers. It became an awkward situation where I would stand on the opposite side of my senior. I decided that it was in the best interest of the workers to start my private practice.

I did not know whether I would (be able to) make a living because when I left my office I did not have any clients except some legal aid matters. I took my gown, coat and would put my scooter under a tree, waiting for clients.

I (then) became interested in Bar Association politics and I became an Executive Member of the Advocates Association. I was also the youngest lawyer to be elected as a Member of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu. There were also lawyer-police clashes at that time and so we had strikes in the High Court. I was the leader of those strikes.

Bar & Bench: You don’t think it is incorrect for lawyers to go on strike?

Justice Chandru: At that time I did not think so. I thought that it was a matter of survival. Later, sitting with Chief Justice AP Shah, I gave a judgment saying that lawyers should not go on strike. In that judgment, I listed the various occasions where there was clash between lawyers and the police. So [Justice] Shah asked me, “How do you know all these minute details?” and I said, “I was the author of all these agitations!” (laughs) and this judgment is a reparation for the past sins.

Bar & Bench: You eventually left the CPI (M).

Justice Chandru: I was expelled from the party in 1988. I opposed Rajiv Gandhi’s interference in Sri Lanka, arguing that he has no right to broker a deal with Jayawardana. But the CPI (M) took a stance that this was a good solution.

Anyway, I left the party and my constituency got widened. I was no longer a party lawyer or a particular trade union lawyer. I was a lawyer for the whole world. I had no restrictions in appearing for anybody. So I suppose this expulsion was a blessing in disguise.

Then in 1990 I got married, my wife was a lecturer in a college then. In 1996, my daughter was born. I decided that I cannot carry the burden of a big office and so I decided to become a Senior Advocate. The High Court nominated me.

When I became a Senior Advocate, I did not have a single case very much like how it was, when I had walked out of Row & Reddy. Slowly, lawyers started consulting me. I strictly followed the Senior Advocate restrictions – I never had any consultation with clients, I never dealt directly with clients. Unless a junior briefed me, I never appeared in a matter.

Bar & Bench: What is your opinion about Senior Advocates. Your former senior, NGR Prasad had opined that there was no need for having Senior Advocates in the first place.

Justice Chandru: If you see the purpose for which the Advocates Act provided for having a Senior Advocate, it had an intention behind it – the Court will confer some honour on a group of lawyers who would not be a mouthpiece for the client but also help the Court in arriving at the correct position of law. So, I don’t find fault in the purpose of having Senior Advocates.

But the point is that today, the way High Courts confer such status, the persons who are conferred and the way these persons behave after being made Senior Advocate – that is highly undesirable. For instance, in Sikkim, the judges conferred some 30-40 people with Senior Advocate status. Why should a Delhi lawyer go to Sikkim to get Senior Advocate status and then come back?

Bar & Bench: Why did you choose to become a Senior Advocate then?

Justice Chandru: I wanted to get away from the drudgery of running a regular office that involves monitoring a sizeable number of staff, several juniors, conferences with clients etc.

In my opinion, 80% of your energy and money is spent on running the establishment. At that time, I had a child and my wife and I were both working. We had no other support. So the best thing was to take some time off to take care of our child. I felt that becoming a Senior Advocate helped me spend more time at home and less time in the office.

Bar & Bench: Why did you decide to accept the post of a judge?

Justice Chandru: What happened was that after 10 years as a Senior Advocate, I felt that I was making a lot of money but there was something wanting. As an independent lawyer, the client believed you and gave you the brief. Whereas when you are a Senior Advocate, you are engaged by those who judge you on the basis of your performance. Success becomes a criterion for others to judge you.

I also decided that my full energy is not being made use of. If I had 5-6 cases, this would take not more than one hour. What is to be done for the rest of the day?

My only question was, “Who will give me judgeship?”

Bar & Bench: As a judge, you had disposed of 90,000 cases in just over six and a half years.

Justice Chandru: I used to go to court 15 minutes before and leave the court one hour after court proceedings were over. I tried to increase the court hours.

Further, in admission matters I did not hear lawyers unless I wanted to dismiss the matter. I would read the briefs and if it is a matter that needs to be admitted, than I need not hear the lawyer.

Many judges spend up to three-quarters of the day on admission matters. Whereas in my court, between 10:15 and 10:30, the admission matters were over. At 10:30 when the bell rings, I would take up the final hearing cases. Always.

Bar & Bench: You also arranged the cases in a particular order.

Justice Chandru: That is how I work. I classify the cases according to my roster. Once I get the statistics, then I try to sub-classify those cases. For instance service matters can be sub-divided into separate categories – charge sheet, transfers, suspension, dismissal etc.

Now the office did not know how to classify a case – it would only be marked as “service”. So on Saturdays and Sundays, I would go to the office and categorize the paper books – For example, “S1” would mean charge sheet, “S2” would mean transfer and so on.

Then you get the staff to feed in those details and prepare the cause list. So on one day, I would take up all suspension related matters. Then put all those cases together where the service rules are the same, and ask the lawyers to argue. I would hear them and dispose of the entire batch of cases in one day.

Bar & Bench: As a judge, one of the practices you discontinued with was having a Personal Security Officer (PSO).

Justice Chandru: See, I did away with the PSO because I felt there was no threat. We are only dealing with appeal matters. In fact, there was this one case where a Bombay don threw something at a trial court judge during court proceedings. That incident was published in the papers and the High Court judges got PSOs (but) not those trial court judges!

It became more of a status symbol rather than being based on any actual threat perception. I found that most PSOs were carrying the judges briefcase or spectacle boxes, opening the door etc. It was an ornamental role.

In fact, when I refused the PSO, an Inspector General was sent to record my statement. I told them that we have 60 judges with four constables on rotation at the house. That means 240 people. Then each judge has one PSO. That means there are 300 people at the disposal of judges. Entire South Madras can be defended with 300 constables, why should they be used for 60 judges? There should be a more efficient system using lesser people. All the judges live in the same compound, perhaps there could be some entry-exit checks.

Bar & Bench: You also did away with having a macebearer.

Justice Chandru: The macebearer is a colonial legacy, why should we continue with it? And in a poor country like ours, we have 60 macebearers. In Madurai Bench the courts are constructed in such a way that the judge enters the court hall from his chambers. Now if there is macebearer, where will he carry the mace?

I told the Chief Justice that we have increased the number of women class III employees. They are often unable to physically carry the bundles of files. So when you ask for a slip to call for a particular bundle, the bundle is not coming because there is a shortage of class IV staff. So why don’t we convert these macebearers into office assistants.

Similarly, we have drivers who spend most of the day doing nothing. We also have substitute drivers who have no work. And these persons have forgotten how to drive, they cut yellow lines, drive on any side – they have the immunity of being a judge’s driver. So I told the Chief Justice we could re-designate them as office assistant cum driver.

The Chief tried to move the proposal but all the other judges shot it down. As for the macebearer, one of the judges who is now in the Supreme Court said, “Without all this paraphernalia, why would anyone accept the judge’s post?”

This is a standard reaction. Anyway, I didn’t want all of this. I didn’t want someone to say “Shhhhshhhh” when I am walking through the Court, as if I was Noah’s Arc.

Bar & Bench: Another interesting aspect of your judgeship was the practice of serving summons/notice through the police or revenue officers. How did you come up with that idea?

Justice Chandru: See there was a case where a man had murdered his wife and also had custody of the child. When the grandparents filed a custody petition, he would not receive summons even though he was attending the trial court proceedings in the same court compound. This happened for two years.

So I called the Deputy Commissioner of Police of that area and told him to serve the notice. The notice was served in the afternoon and the man filed his vakalatnama the next day.

Similarly, when I was given the land acquisition appeals roster, most of the times the land-owners were not served. The notice would go from the High Court to the District Court to the Sub Court to the Munsif Court. The Munsif Court’s bailiff then goes to the land-owner’s house. Most of the time, without even going, the bailiff would say, “No such person found” or something like that.

So I called all the Revenue Divisional Officers and told them to use their Revenue Inspectors to serve notice. Within 15 days, all the un-served notices had been served all over Tamil Nadu. Once service is complete, the matter is listed. In the next 2 weeks, all the appeals were heard and disposed of. I disposed more than a thousand such appeals in two months.

Bar & Bench: Why don’t other judges do this?

Justice Chandru: It requires you to spend more time. Unless you love your work, it is impossible. If you only work mechanically, you wont be able to do this.

For example, there are very simple things a judge can do. One of the defects often raised is failure to file the prescribed number of copies of documents. This would mean the lawyer has to add some 4-5 pages costing barely five rupees to photocopy.

Now often these defects are not cured due to some misunderstanding or the other. When the matter comes up before the judge, the judge will often pass a composite order on all the defect cases directing compliance within 3 weeks failing which it will stand as dismissed. No one sees what is the actual cause, what is the office report etc.

What I do is I tell my court peon to take copies of those documents, and tell the office that compliance has been met.

But most judges don’t want to do this. A small example – many judges will put a very small list of some 20-30 matters. And they are liberal with their adjournments. So in the morning itself, they will give adjournments in most matters. Then after lunch, they will hear one or two matters. Then they will come back to their chambers. In the evening, they will go wherever they want.

So I used to ask them, how they came back from court so quickly and they would say, “My list is over.” The list can never be over because we have some 6.25 lakh cases pending so you need to put more cases. And they would reply, “Who will do all this?”

It was inexplicable.

Bar & Bench: How do you think judges should be appointed?

Justice Chandru: Many times when a Chief Justice comes from the outside, he is not expected to be familiar with all the lawyers. Therefore, you have to get your colleagues involved, and you have no option but to take their word for it.

Once I was sitting with the then Chief Justice in the Madurai Bench. He was new to the State and would often ask me about the counsel who would appear before us. One day, he asked me about a lawyer and I told him, “Sir, you know him better than I do.” And when the Chief shook his head no, I said “Only last week, you approved his elevation to the Bench.” He was taken aback and refused to talk to me till the afternoon! (laughs)

This is how selections are being done.

Judges appointing judges has become a total failure and it is become like a club membership. Very often it is a judge recommending another judge’s son or his former junior. There is a lot of inbreeding that is going on now.

Bar & Bench: Both as a lawyer and a judge, you have been quite a vocal critic of court holidays. What about the argument that judges require court holidays to write judgments?

Justice Chandru: Which means that court holidays are for writing judgments and not for taking a break? We can always write judgments on weekends. That really depends on how you handle the work. Courts should be available to a litigant – that is the more important point.

Bar & Bench: But there are Vacation Benches.

Justice Chandru: Vacation Benches have a completely ridiculous procedure. For example, you have around 150 bail applications coming to the High Court every day.  Now during vacations, each week you have one Vacation Bench. So this one Bench will have to deal with 750 bail applications.  How is one judge expected to deal with so many bail applications?

In my opinion, the Vacation Bench is used to file all sorts of appeals, petitions etc where junior judges lacking experience admit matters or grant stay orders liberally. Thereafter, it takes one year to undo the havoc caused by the Vacation Benches. Every Second appeal is admitted or notice issued.

Bar & Bench: What do you think has gone wrong with the legal community? Do you think the profession is losing respect?

Justice Chandru: I think it is not only the advocate community. Every profession is undergoing a crisis. The profession is no longer for the people. It is for making money and therefore, all sorts of unethical practices have crept in.

We have too many people entering into the fray without any work. In our Madras High Court, say there are 15,000 lawyers in the campus, 10,000 will not have regular work. What do they do? They just sit here and gossip. Then they decide, “Why don’t we have some strike action today.”

If you see the number of strikes in the Madras High Court during the last few years and the issues raised, you will be laughing. In no other court in India do such things happen. Some leader tells them today, “How can credit card companies ignore lawyers?” So a mob of 200 lawyers goes and throws stones at some bank offices.

Bar & Bench: Any advice for the future generations of lawyers?

Justice Chandru: You know, you start facing opposition once you become a rebel. You tend to be isolated as well. But you should not be bothered. I studied in several colleges, was expelled from many. But I was taught to be a rebel. When I became a judge, I knew very well what was in store for me. I was taught to be a rebel and I enjoyed it.

Bar & Bench: At no point of time were you scared?

Justice Chandru: No. That is one thing I learnt. Never be afraid. I have faced threats but ultimately you can’t die every day. I remember telling the IG of Police that if someone was determined to finish me, they would. See the case of two Prime Ministers, I told him to which he replied, “I have no comment” (laughs)

What is there to be afraid of?

My whole life, from the student movement days, we have learned to be fearless, to express our thoughts. And we were also taught that no one can do anything to you.

This interview was conducted over the course of two days in Chennai in June, 2013. Bar & Bench would like to thank S. Seshadri for his invaluable assistance and research.

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