Virtual courts, COVID-19 PILs, paeans for free speech and more: The Madras High Court in 2020

As citizens and the State grappled with the uncertainty surrounding how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during its initial stages, the High Court was often called on for aid.
Virtual courts, COVID-19 PILs, paeans for free speech and more: The Madras High Court in 2020
Madras HC 2020

As was the case with other courts in the country, the Madras High Court also had to resort to a virtual system of functioning from April to ensure that the administration of justice did not come to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as also noted by Advocate General Vijay Narayan in his farewell address to the Court's Chief Justice, AP Sahi on December 23, the Madras High Court held fort to emerge as one of the best performing High Courts in the country during this crisis period.

Navigating the COVID-19 era and Virtual Courts

The Court presently hosts virtual and physical hearings, with the former being hosted on the Microsoft Teams platform. Notably, the Madras High Court is among a select few High Courts that has opened up its virtual hearings for the public, thereby upholding the mandate to keep justice administration an open affair (for the most part).

This period also saw the inauguration of several e-Projects set into motion by the High Court's Computer Committee, which is chaired by Justice TS Sivagnanam.

Weeks after the Court began its virtual functioning, Justice S Vaidyanathan commented that online hearings did have its perks given that video calls can help the Court save time and ascertain accurately what the fact situation is.

As citizens and the State grappled with the uncertainty surrounding how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during its initial stages, the High Court was often called on for aid.

Madras HC 2020
COVID-19 Pandemic ushers in a volley of PILs in Madras High Court

This period saw the High Court intervene in myriad matters including the conduct of online classes, tuition fees, allocation of medical seats, a case concerning the rise of child labour, distribution of food, rations and sanitary napkins, the plight of the mentally challenged and the homeless, overcharging by private hospitals, the right to a decent burial and even the sale of liquor through the State's TASMAC outlets.

In a unique move, Justice Anand Venkatesh allowed the transfer of a batch of insurance cases to the Court so as to allow compromises arrived at between insurance companies and claimants amid the COVID-19 lockdown, after finding that there was requisite "digital consent."

In August, Justice B Pugalendhi defended the High Court's virtual functioning, pointing out that the Madurai Bench saw 5,020 cases (including 1,971 Miscellaneous Petitions) being filed in July alone, of which, 4,832 cases (including 1,929 Miscellaneous Petitions) were heard and disposed of via virtual court hearings.

Madras High Court judges were vocal about exploring alternative medical systems to tackle COVID-19, with Justice N Kirubakaran remarking that the Siddha system and other traditional systems of medicine are being sidelined amid the pandemic.

The Court was also called in to monitor the grant of financial aid for lawyers and law clerks struggling amid the pandemic. During these hearings, the High Court urged the Bar Council of India (BCI) to amend the law so that interim payouts can be made for lawyers in need. The Tamil Nadu Bar Council also pooled in with contributions to aid the COVID-19 aid efforts. Justice SM Subramaniam drew widespread admiration for making generous contributions to aid those suffering during the pandemic.

Justice SM Subramaniam
Justice SM Subramaniam

The migrant worker crisis brought about amid the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown saw the Madras High Court express its anguish while directing the State to ensure appropriate relief work on a war footing.

While granting bail to 31 foreigners who took part in the March 2020 Tablighi Jamaat convention, the Court had occasion to comment on the pitfalls of "collectively thingifying them as 'Tablighis."

The Sathankulam case and ensuing concerns of Police reforms

The death of two traders - Jeyaraj and his son, Bennix - in police custody, after they were picked up by the Sathankulam police for an alleged COVID-19 curfew violation, sent shockwaves across the country. The case eventually prompted the Madras High Court's interference.

Jayaraj (L) and Bennix (R) died while in police custody earlier this year after being arrested citing a violation of the COVID-19 lockdown
Jayaraj (L) and Bennix (R) died while in police custody earlier this year after being arrested citing a violation of the COVID-19 lockdown

The matter involved allegations of police brutality, including sexual abuse, mechanical remand by the judicial magistrate and inadequate medical treatment, leading to the deaths of the father and son duo.

Amid concerns that the probe may be derailed due to the involvement of policemen in the crime, the Madurai Bench's decision to suo motu monitor the case added to the pressure on the State and, eventually, the transfer of the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The case prompted the Court to raise broader concerns as well, including the need to address underlying mental health issues which could trigger police violence as well the obligation to refrain from resorting to media trial.

The year also saw the Madras High Court raise concern over the stress faced by police officials, leading to suicides and desertions within the force. In another case, the Court emphasised that police officers are expected to maintain clean service records as well as a clean personal life.

Last month, the Court iterated that it cannot issue blanket directions that would confuse police when it comes to matters of arrest and registration of cases, while declining to pass orders mandating the police to issue notice before the registration of a case.

In an earlier judgment, the Court expressed concern that the declining quality of police investigations were leading people to now hail police encounters and kangaroo courts.

On a related note, the functioning of the CBI also came under the Court's scanner on at least two occasions, with the Court also querying after the recruitment policies of the probe agency. The apparent loss of over 103.84 kgs of gold from the CBI's custody also made headlines recently, with a Justice PN Prakash Bench directing a CB-CID enquiry into the matter.

Madras HC 2020
Many cases investigated by CBI ending in acquittal: Madras High Court seeks response on CBI's recruitment policies

Rules notified for designation of Senior Advocates

The High Court notified its Senior Advocate designation rules this year, although not without controversy. The new rules barred Senior Advocates from seeking adjournments and introduced a minimum age limit as an alternative criterion to be eligible for senior designation.

Stating that some of the newly introduced rules has created strong resentment within the legal fraternity, the Bar Council of India (BCI) wrote to Chief Justice Sahi in September seeking a recall of the Rules.

On the media, free speech and expression

"What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander", Justice GR Swaminathan remarked in March while upholding the citizen's right to conduct demonstrations both in favour or against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The High Court stepped in to grant relief to anti-CAA protestors in a number of other cases this year.

The High Court had occasion to mull over questions of the media's free speech and expression in April as well, when it dismissed a petition challenging the exemption of print media operations from lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. A Bench of Justices N Kirubakaran and R Hemalatha ruled that "any attempt to restrict or prohibit the publication of newspapers would amount to muzzling of independence of Media."

The High Court acted on media reports in a number of cases this year, including reports on water pollution of the river Amaravati and a policeman's attempt to sexually assault a woman in Tenkasi. While taking suo motu cognisance over the latter incident, the Bench mooted the creation of special wings for the police to monitor media reports so that the State may act against reported offences without waiting for a formal complaint.

However, the High Court also had occasion to express its ire over some of the content broadcasted via electronic media. The Madurai Bench of Justices Kirubakaran and Pugalendhi issued an interim order banning the telecast of condom ads, and other ads with sexual content. In a later hearing, the same Bench also made several critical oral remarks over the broadcast of such awkward content, as well as irresponsible media reportage and unethical advertisements in some cases.

Justices N Kirubakaran and B Pugalendhi, Madras High Court
Justices N Kirubakaran and B Pugalendhi, Madras High Court

In January, the High Court had also commented that there were fake journalists who maligned the entire community of journalists, going on to express its inclination to constitute a special committee to look into circulation of newspapers, magazines etc. to counter false journalists and press persons.

This is not to say that the High Court has not been proactive in coming to the aid of the media and its exercise of free speech and expression.

In May, Justice Abdul Quddhose emphasised that criminal defamation proceedings cannot be misused by the State to throttle democracy or settle political scores with adversaries, while quashing defamation cases launched against a host of media outlets by the ruling regime over press reports dating between 2011-2013.

 Justice Abdul Quddhose
Justice Abdul Quddhose

"There is no point in merely singing paeans to freedom of press, if one cannot go to its rescue when the said right is faced with a serious threat", Justice Swaminathan said in the same month, while quashing defamation proceedings initiated against journalist Sandhya Ravishankar for articles published by the Economic Times on illegal beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu back in 2015.

Justice GR Swaminathan (L), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court (R)
Justice GR Swaminathan (L), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court (R)

In June, the Court observed that fair criticism of the government triggers better administration, while quashing criminal proceedings initiated by the State against a Congress MLA in 2015 on allegations that she had defamed then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

On the the functioning of the Bench and the Bar

A number of the High Court's rulings also touched upon the questions of professional ethics, the role of lawyers, and the functioning of the Court itself.

One such ruling came a day before the Court closed for the December break, with a Bench of Justices Kirubakaran and Pugalendhi passing an interim order directing the Bar Council to ask lawyers to refrain from wearing the advocate's gown and neckband during strikes and protests. Days earlier, the Bench had emphasised that advocates should generally refrain from resorting to boycotts and strikes, given that this would affect the rights of the litigant public and the justice delivery system.

The same Bench also expressed concerns over the potential misuse of advocate stickers and the trend of some people claiming to be lawyers who acted like paid hooligans to grab land.

Advocate sticker
Advocate sticker

In August, Justice Pugalendhi came down heavily on requests for his recusal from a mining case, despite a detailed order justifying why such recusal was not warranted in the matter. While concluding that these requests were part of efforts to further prolong the conduct of the case, the judge also underscored that "advocates before throwing mud on the Judge, must realise that by doing so, they are attacking themselves and the institution."

The “inhumane” conduct of an advocate in a tenancy dispute led Justice S Vaidyanathan to remark last February that the intrusion of “black sheep” in the legal profession was occasioning the reputation of good lawyers to be on the “verge of fall.”

Justice S Vaidyanathan
Justice S Vaidyanathan

In December, Justice N Seshasayee lamented about how litigants, along with lawyers, also contribute to delays in case disposal when they fail to respect court appointments. The tendency of the State to delay the filing of matters was also pinpointed as a possible contributory factor by another Bench of Justices Kirubakaran and Pugalendhi.

As far as the lawyers' duties to the clients are concerned, Chief Justice Sahi recently reiterated that lawyers do not have any implied authority to surrender a client's legal rights unless the same would help achieve the purpose for which the lawyer was employed. On a related note, Justice GK Ilanthiraiyan observed that an advocate who has acted professionally as per the instructions of a client cannot generally be made criminally liable for the offence of defamation.

The month of December also saw a lawyer go the extra mile for her client, when she ventured to assert in open court that injustice has been done after the oral pronouncement of an order which emerged adverse to her client. While the Court expressed that the outcry of the learned counsel amounts to contempt of Court, it nevertheless recalled the dictated order and decided to give the lawyer another opportunity to make her case, in view of her contention that she had not been heard before the order was pronounced.

Madras HC 2020
Lawyer's outcry of "injustice" in open court prompts Madras High Court to recall dictated order, give another opportunity to present case

The Court Registry's functioning came under the scanner in November when successive bail petitions in the same case were listed without the Court's knowledge and before multiple benches. Justice Subramaniam directed the Registrar General to conduct an inquiry into the matter.

Earlier, in July, the inadvertent, duplicate listing of a PIL led the first Bench to caution the Registry to ensure that the listing of cases is streamlined “so that no future mistakes” occur.

As far as the functioning of the Court itself was concerned, Justice Subramaniam called for scaling up vigilance measures when it comes to judicial functioning as well, observing that the judiciary is also not exempt from corruption.

More recently, Justice Anand Venkatesh had occasion to observe that civil court proceedings do not come to an end that quickly and that it is a long drawn journey. In October, Justice Venkatesh highlighted that cases concerning educational admissions must be prioritised, so that it can be clarified in a timely manner that admissions done in violation of applicable rules will not be tolerated.

Justice Anand Venkatesh, judge of the Madras High Court
Justice Anand Venkatesh, judge of the Madras High Court

An empathetic note was also struck by Justice Swaminathan in November, when he drew inspiration from the legend of the King Manu Needhi Cholan, known for having ordered the execution of his son to render justice to a grieving cow, to aid the family of a 22-year-old man who had died of electrocution from a fallen live wire.

The year also saw former Madras High Court Judge, Justice CS Karnan being arrested by the Tamil Nadu police after derogatory remarks made by him against women and the judiciary went viral on various platforms. Justice Karnan, once jailed for contempt of court, also courted controversy when he attempted to barge into the Chennai residence of a former Supreme Court judge.

Justice CS Karnan
Justice CS Karnan

The Madras High Court is presently monitoring the cases registered against Justice Karnan. Notably, the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry has also demanded action against Justice Karnan for his remarks.

Environmental cases

Over seven months after it reserved judgment in the matter, a Bench of Justices TS Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan dismissed the plea filed by Vedanta challenging the closure of its Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi in August. An appeal filed against the verdict is pending before the Supreme Court.

TS Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan
TS Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan

Terming illegal mining and sand quarrying as nothing short of organised crime, the Madras High Court in September dismissed a batch of 36 anticipatory bail pleas in cases involving such offences.

Another significant environmental issue that is being played out before the Madras High Court concerns the translation of the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2020 into vernacular languages. Several petitions have been moved over the matter, and the Court has also issued notice in the same.

In another case concerning the Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary, a Madurai Bench opined that the Central government should respect vernacular languages of all States and it cannot expect everybody to know Hindi and English. Therefore, the Court said that when it comes to notifications concerning activities that would have an impact on the environment, the Central government cannot stick to communicating the same through English and Hindi alone.

On a related note, a plea for bail by a member of the banned “Tamil Nadu Liberation Army” prompted Justice Kirubakaran to express strong opinions against linguistic chauvinism.

Other notable rulings

The year saw the Madras High Court touch upon significant areas of policy. Towards the end of the year, a push by the Madurai Bench of Justices Kirubakaran and Pugalendhi contributed to the State's decision to outlaw certain kinds of online games and online gambling.

online gambling
online gambling

A PIL against the endorsement of such games by celebrities also drew criticism from the High Court, with the Bench taking note of reports that at least 30 people have died by suicide after they lost their money playing such games. PILs have since been moved challenging the ordinance brought by the State to curb such online games, particularly since it also covers online rummy, which the petitioners assert is a game of skill rather than online gambling. The Principal Bench is due to take up this batch of cases in January.

Among the notable cases that arose before the High Court in the area of reservations were petitions against the Central government's apparent reluctance to implement Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservations for State-surrendered seats in the All India Quota for medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. Political parties in the State presented a united front in the matter for the implementation of the reservations. In July, the High Court directed the formation of a committee to decide the manner in which the reservations can be implemented. On a related note, a Single Judge expressed concern last November that reservation in higher education has become a serious issue and that it has created differences between different sections of the society.

The debate over the contempt jurisdiction of Constitutional courts arose when Justice SM Subramaniam wrote to the Chief Justice urging contempt action against Tamil actor Suriya who had criticised the conduct of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while commenting that even judges are hearing matters through video conferencing.

A Bench of Chief Justice AP Sahi and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, however, closed the contempt proceedings with a cautionary note for those speaking on institutions such as the judiciary. It also emphasised that it is not on the courts to drive home this message with a sledgehammer.

Chief Justice AP Sahi (L) and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy (R), Madras High Court
Chief Justice AP Sahi (L) and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy (R), Madras High Court

Later in the year, however, Justice V Parthiban had occasion to caution that the Constitutional jurisdiction of the High Court cannot be undermined. In cases where court orders are disobeyed, the Court must take its contempt jurisdiction seriously, the judge warned.

On a related note, a Division Bench of the Court recently also slammed the government for failing to implement a 2010 Government Order. When such is the state of affairs for government officials, the Court queried, "how we can expect a common citizen to comply with the orders of the Government?"

Cases where the Court touched upon State policy included an appeal by the Court for the enactment of a law on torts/civil wrongs and State liability, the need to better prioritise mental healthcare in India, the need to provide for alternative employment for those who had lost jobs in the firecracker industry, a proposal for imposing the death penalty for corruption, directions to crack down on drunken driving, and proposals for the extension of the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act to certain offences such as water pollution, corruption and the sale of adulterated food.

In other notable rulings, the Court lauded the role of homemakers while enhancing the compensation payable to a housewife after an accident, recommended that Public Information Officers who adopt tactics to mechanically reject RTI requests must be shown the door and questioned why the Centre is yet to enact a law to bar politicians with criminal backgrounds from contesting elections.

In September, Justice Prakash issued directions on the procedure to be followed by criminal courts so that accused persons suffering from mental illness are relieved of the misery of being an indefinite undertrial.

Justice PN Prakash, Madras High Court
Justice PN Prakash, Madras High Court

In the interest of ensuring transparency in cases involving allegations of custodial deaths, the Madras High Court in December issued various directions including for the preservation of the body of the deceased and to ensure that the family has access to the body and the autopsy report.

Earlier in the year, Chief Justice AP Sahi and Justice Subramonium Prasad (now part of the Delhi High Court Bench) ruled that a Central government employee who had given birth to a third child, after the birth of twins during her first delivery, was not entitled to maternity leave with pay. In February, the Bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and R Hemalatha clarified that a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offence under the Sexual Harassment Act.

In November, a single judge allowed bail to a man accused under Section 6 of the POCSO Act after he undertook to marry the 17-year-old pregnant victim once she turns 18 years of age. The Court granted bail taking into account the submission that the victim and the accused man were closely related and had fallen in love.

In January, Justice Anand Venkatesh ruled that for the purpose of granting family pension, the law presumes that there is a valid marriage when there is long cohabitation. The same month, Justice GR Swaminathan clarified that the initiation of corporate insolvency resolution proceedings would not create a bar on the continuation of criminal proceedings initiated for cheque bouncing under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act.

In another landmark case, on an interpretation of Rule 13 of the Standing Order No. 26 of the Revenue Board, Justice R Mahadevan ruled that temple land can be utilised only for the beneficial purposes of the temple.

Justice R Mahadevan
Justice R Mahadevan

The year also saw an end of sorts to the court battle between Puducherry's elected government and its Lieutenant Governor, Kiran Bedi, with a Division Bench directing both functionaries to work in unison.

On Tribunals

As far as cases concerning the functioning of tribunals were concerned, the High Court ordered in August that advocates should also be allowed to apply for the post of judicial member for the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) in an interim order passed in a plea challenging the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2020.

The same month, the Court also granted interim relief to petitioners challenging the validity of the GSTAT (Appointment and Conditions of Service of President and Members) Rules, 2019, when it restrained the Central government from appointing technical members to the GSTAT until further orders.

In July, the Court passed an interim order to allow advocates to also apply for the post of Presiding Officer of the Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) in response to a call for applications issued by the Union Finance Ministry on June 23, this year.

Before it closed for its December break, the Court also issued notice in a PIL questioning the delay in setting up the Southern Bench of the National Company Appellate Law Tribunal (NCLAT) in Chennai. Thereafter, an allied petition was also filed in the Supreme Court.

NCLAT in Chennai
NCLAT in Chennai

On Insurance law

In September, High Court emphasised the need for the scrupulous implementation of the online facility for uploading and communicating the Detailed Accident Report (DAR) when it comes to motor accident cases in Tamil Nadu.

In another ruling, it was clarified that insurance claims under Personal Accident Coverage policies cannot be adjudicated on by Motor Accident Claims Tribunals.

Putting an end to a decade-long dispute, a Full Bench of the Madras High Court in July upheld the extension of the Employees' State Insurance Act, 1948 (ESI Act) to all educational institutions, including private, unaided educational institutions.

The all-women Full Bench that rendered the decision
The all-women Full Bench that rendered the decision

To ease the process of moving appeals in motor accident cases, the High Court in May issued directions to do away with the misconceived process of drafting decrees in motor vehicle cases by the Motor Accident Claims Tribunals. Justice Venkatesh also issued directions so that the parties in motor vehicle cases have expeditious access to copies of the award passed.

On Tax law

In a judgment that had significant ramifications, the High Court ruled that the transfer of shares by an assessee to its step-down subsidiary could not be termed a "gift" to be exempt from income tax payment.

The same Bench of Justices Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan also held recently that a private discretionary trust, being a representative assessee of identified beneficiaries, is liable to be treated as an individual for the purpose of taxation.

Earlier, in February, a Bench of Chief Justice Sahi and Justice Subramonium Prasad upheld Section 234 (F) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, which prescribes late fee to be paid for failing to file income tax returns on time.

Arbitration

Pertinent observations on the scope of court interference when it comes to modifying arbitral awards, as well as the authority of arbitral tribunals to award interest on the payment of awards in the absence of an agreement to that effect, were made by Justice PT Asha in an order passed in May.

Justice Asha also had occasion to clarify that where an arbitral award is passed after the expiry of the period stipulated for passing the same, the Court cannot retrospectively validate such an award by granting an extension of time afterwards.

Earlier, the same judge reiterated the requirements to be borne in mind when it comes to appointment of arbitrators to ensure the independence of the arbitrator, while underscoring that the neutrality of the arbitrator is the touchstone of the arbitral proceedings

Intellectual Property Rights

In June, Justice C Saravanan was called on to settle a dispute over "magic masala" for instant noodles. The Court ruled that neither ITC's Sunfeast Yippee! noodles nor Nestle India's Maggi noodles could claim a monopoly over the word "magic" in describing its products, while dismissing a suit for passing off brought by ITC.

A trademark case that assumed national spotlight amid the COVID-19 pandemic was the dispute over the word "Coronil", used by Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Ayurved to market its immunity boosters.

In August, Justice CV Karthikeyan allowed a trademark infringement suit by Chennai-based Arudra Engineering which had registered the trademark for 'CORONIL-92 B.' While ruling in favour of Arudra in the trademark suit, the Single Judge also slapped a fine of Rs. 10 lakh on Patanjali and the Divya Yog Mandir Trust for "exploiting the fear and panic among the general public by projecting a cure for the Coronavirus."

Madras HC 2020
[Breaking] Patanjali injuncted from using "Coronil", Madras HC slaps Rs 10 lakhs as costs; says company is exploiting fear amid COVID-19

Following an appeal against this order, the High Court's Division Bench headed by Justice R Subbiah allowed interim relief to Patanjali and the Divya Yog Mandir Trust. The Bench also suspended the injunction earlier imposed and allowed Patanjali to use "Coronil" for a two-week period. Later, however, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a case against Patanjali.

Going into 2021

Come 2021, the Madras High Court will see a new administrative head. Chief Justice AP Sahi will superannuate on December 31, this year. To fill the post, Justice Sanjib Banerjee has been recommended for appointment as the next Madras High Court Chief Justice by the Supreme Court Collegium.

Before the year closed, four more women judges also joined the Court's ranks, which ensured that the Madras High Court retained its position as the High Court with the highest number of women judges.

Another milestone witnessed was a husband and wife couple taking oath as High Court judges together, as part of the 10 additional Judges who were sworn in earlier this month.

Among the cases to watch out for in the next year are the petitions challenging Tamil Nadu’s online gaming ban, the LVS-DBS Bank merger and the verdict in petitions moved by MK Stalin and other DMK MLAs challenging privilege committee proceedings initiated against them earlier this year for their display of Gutka packets in the Legislative Assembly back in 2017.

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