In the ongoing battle for leadership of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, the Bombay High Court called upon petitioner in the case Taher Fakhruddin Saheb and online publication Udaipur Times (UT) to explain how access to trial records pertinent to the case was made available to media (Taher Fakhruddin Saheb v. Mufaddal Burhanuddin Saifuddin).
The directions came in an interim application filed by defendant/applicant, Mufaddal Burhanuddin Saifuddin.
The applicant's grievance was that Saheb allegedly made available or gave access to trial records in an ongoing trial, and without permission, circulated on social media some third party material that quoted portions of the cross-examination which was conducted before Justice Gautam Patel.
In his order, Justice Patel demanded a personal explanatory affidavit from the plaintiff with an appropriately worded apology and an undertaking. He also directed the plaintiff to personally remain present at the next online hearing.
The Court also directed an authorised representative from Udaipur Times to explain its conduct while being personally present at the next date of hearing.
Justice Patel made some strong observations against the respondents as well.
Conduct of plaintiff, the respondent in the application
The applicant had also sought for removal of links to the online reports and articles which he claimed were put by the plaintiff on social media.
Justice Patel admonished the plaintiff for "assuming it was perfectly all right to put these links on social media, when it was most emphatically not".
"If the Plaintiff believes that a litigation like this is going to be more satisfactorily addressed on social media or in print media, he is welcome to invite a dismissal of his suit, one that I will accompany with an extremely significant order of costs," Justice Patel cautioned the plaintiff.
He also stated that since it was the plaintiff who had approached the Court, the plaintiff was "rigidly subject to the Court's discipline, procedure and rules".
"It makes not the slightest difference who the Plaintiff is or he imagines himself to be," Justice Patel added.
Justice Patel warned that if there was a single infraction after this, no matter how slight, he would initiate contempt proceedings against the plaintiff for "interfering with the administration of justice" and that he would immediately dismiss the suit with costs.
Conduct of Udaipur Times
The annexures to the application contained portions of the cross-examination along with "editorial comments on the cross examination itself".
Some of the comments, Justice Patel noted, pertained to him (who was presiding over the trial) and Senior Advocate Iqbal Chagla, who appeared for the applicant.
He deduced from the reports that either the publication was provided with the material or one of their reporters was present during the cross-examination sessions and reproduced bits and pieces of the question and answers.
He held that the either way, what was done was "an entirely impermissible reporting of the actual trial before it is complete."
Stating that he had never barred reporters from attending hearings in his court, Justice Patel observed that "as far as he was aware, no one had gone to this extent."
Reiterating that "reproductions of ongoing trials are not permitted and journalists are expected to know this," Justice Patel clarified that UT could not have been unaware of the restrictions as his orders were online.
He also raised concerns that if UT did manage to get the transcripts from the plaintiff, then that was indeed serious, "especially because of the deep interest and concern of the Dawoodi Bohra Community".