“Frankenstein’s monster that may devour the judicial system”: Madras HC on advocates’ turf war for motor accident cases

“Frankenstein’s monster that may devour the judicial system”: Madras HC on advocates’ turf war for motor accident cases

Meera Emmanuel

’The profession of law has become a cut-throat competition’. What is the proof for this statement? This case is the proof.

So begins an order passed by Justice PN Prakash of the Madras High Court, in a case involving duplication of insurance claims, a suspicious FIR, and reports of missing motor accident case files.

Calling for urgent reform, the Court commented,

What next? Can this Court remain mute to the happenings in the MCOP [Motor Claims Original Petition] field and take an ostrich-like attitude? The turf war amongst the advocates in the MCOP terrain has reached its nadir…

The case prompting the discussion can be traced to a motor accident which took place in February 2017. After three insurance claims were made on the same case by four lawyers, the insurance company Cholamandalam approached the High Court praying for a re-investigation into the case.

The Court eventually ordered both the claimant (son of the deceased) and the four lawyers to appear before the Court to explain the situation.

The convoluted narrative presented before the Court ultimately led Justice Prakash to order the Tamil Nadu Crime Branch (CB-CID) to take over the investigation in the case.

Moreover, the judge has ordered the constitution of an Expert Body headed by Justice (Retd.) K Chandru to suggest measures for reforming the field of motor accident claims.

The Court has also suggested that a circular be issued to insist on the personal appearance of claimants in such cases, to avoid duplication of motor accident claims.

The suspicious narratives before the Court

The claimant, Kapilraj, submitted that he was approached by an advocate’s clerk named Stephen, who assured him that he could initiate action for compensation in Court.

On the basis of this assurance, Kapilraj and his family (the other legal heirs) signed documents provided to them by Stephen. Out of the three claims which were eventually filed, Kapilraj only identified his signature in the case filed by one of the advocates, M Murugan.

On his part, Stephen claimed that he had been given the FIR by a Sub-Inspector, which contained the case details. He then approached three lawyers to take up the case, i.e. Advocates Arunachalam, Murugan and Jeyakumar.

Out of the three, only Advocate Murugan agreed to take up the case. Therefore, he acted as an intermediary between the claimant and Advocate Murugan to file the case at the small causes court.

Advocate Murugan concurred with this version so far as being handed the case-brief and filing the case on behalf of the claimant. However, he admitted that he had never met the claimant. He further submitted that when he was informed by the police that there were duplicate cases being filed, he withdrew from the case.

The other three advocates, Jeyakumar, Arunachalam and his junior, Raveendran, also claimed to have been approached by Stephen to file the compensation claim. However, contrary to Stephen’s version, they submitted that they were also entrusted the case-brief and therefore went on to file claims on behalf of Kapilraj with his signed authorisation.

Notably, all the advocates concerned admitted that they had never met the claimant while pursuing the case.

Apart from these contradictory claims, the Court also raised eyebrows over the authenticity of the First Information Report (FIR) registered by the police.

Kalpiraj had claimed that he was not with his father at the time of the accident and was therefore unable to identify the vehicle. However, he also simultaneously identified the number plate of the truck that he claimed had caused the accident. The fact that the police did not probe this apparent error also led the judge to wonder,

Have the Tamil Nadu police kept their common sense in cold storage? Should not have the police officer asked Kapilraj as to how he could say two mutually destructive versions

Have the police connived with Kapilraj to convert an ‘ordinary incident’ into a ‘motor accident’ is a question that needs to be probed.

Directions issued to redress issues raised

  1. A Question of Professional Ethics

In his order, Justice Prakash has come down heavily on the questionable ethics of the lawyers concerned. Given the admissions of all four lawyers concerned that they had never met the claimant before accepting the case-brief, Justice Prakash remarked,

Is it open to an advocate to accept a brief without even seeing the parties and getting instructions from them? Is it permissible for an advocate to file a case obtained through a tout? Why should Stephen give a brief without quid pro quo? Can an advocate invest money by making payment of Court fees for a client whom he had not even met?

Justice Prakash then directed that the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry initiate disciplinary action against Advocates Murugan, Jeyakumar and Raveendran for the professional misconduct.

  1. Duplication of Insurance Claims

The Cholamandalam Insurance company furnished a list of 353 duplicate MCOPs (Motor Claim Original Petitions) relating to five insurance companies in Tamil Nadu. Considering the case at hand and taking note of the broader problem, the Court opined,

“…this Court is more than satisfied that there is a dire need for an expert body to go into the entire jurisdiction, identify its pitfalls and suggest solutions to redress them to ensure the purity of the very jurisdiction.

Therefore, the Court has appointed an expert body headed by Justice (Retd.) K Chandru to suggest measures for reform in the arena of motor accident claims. This body is to be funded by the petitioner, the Cholamandalam company, along with four PSU motor insurers and other private motor insurance companies.

Insurance companies, transport corporations, claimants and advocates are also free to furnish their grievances, complaints and suggestions to this expert body.

The terms of reference for the body include the reform of areas such as duplicate insurance claims, access to information, promotion of settlement culture, elimination of middlemen, efficiency in filing motor accident claims, as well as the preparation of templates for shorter judgments and standardised formats for the quicker disposal of claims.

Another measure suggested to clamp down on unauthorised lawyers prosecuting motor accident claims is the insistence on the personal appearance of the claimants in court.

As per the Court’s suggestion, the claimant’s personal appearance should only be dispensed with for good and valid reasons recorded in a petition. Further, an affidavit should also be filed that they are not aware of any duplicate claim being made elsewhere.

The Court has directed that a request be placed before Chief Justice Indira Banerjee to issue a circular to this effect to all Motor Accident Claims Tribunals (MACTs) in Tamil Nadu.

  1. Missing Case Files

The judge also took note of reports of missing case files in motor accident cases.

An advocate, S Thambu, had complained that bundles in 55 MCOPs filed by him between 2012 and 2017 were missing. The same could not be found in the MACT. A case registered with the High Court Police station is still pending. Expressing his dismay over the same, Justice Prakash has observed,

This is indeed ominous and signals the beginning of internecine war amongst the practitioners in the MCOP field. This blood money by ambulance chasers has now taken the ugly form of a Frankenstein’s monster and I am afraid that, it may, at any time, devour the entire judicial system, before which, we have to press the alarm bell.

In addition to handing over the instant case over to the CB-CID, the Court has also directed that the CB-CID authorities inquire in this complaint regarding missing files.

Contumacious but not initiating Contempt

Before parting with the case, Justice Prakash noted that all the “thespians” in the sordid episode before the Court could be pulled up for criminal contempt as they had polluted the stream of justice.

However, he stopped short of doing so, with the hope and trust that the order would serve as an alarm bell, not only for the parties in this case, but also for other similar advocates practising in the field.

Read the Order:

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