Reading time: 8-10 minutes.
The President of Gujarat High Court Advocate Association, Mr. Yatin Oza has been stripped of his “Senior Advocate” Designation and a suit for Contempt of Court has been initiated against him, in the Gujarat High Court, for allegedly making allegations of corruption and malpractices incurred in the functioning and administration of the High Court.
On June 5 during a live Facebook conference, Mr. Oza made some serious allegations against the High Court and its Registry, which, according to the said Court, were made without verifying the contents thereof and were made on frivolous grounds, which directly targeted the credibility and sanctity of the Court. He alleged that:
- The Court favors the lawyers of billionaires.
- The Registry of the High Court engages in corrupt practises.
- Favoritism is showed to high profile industrialists, traitors and smugglers.
- The rich get their case settled in 2 days, while the poor have to suffer for longer periods of time.
- If the litigants want to file any matter in the High Court, the person has to be either Mr. Khambata or builder or company.
The High Court Judges, Justice Sonia Gokani and Justice NV Anjaria took a suo-moto cognizance of the incident and initiated a suit for Criminal Contempt of Court, condemning the erstwhile Senior Advocate’s actions, and crossing all the limits in a move to ride on the wave of populism in such a distressful time of pandemic. Mr. Oza challenged this petition in Supreme Court, but the Apex Court refused to interfere in the matter. Along with the Contempt of Court, the bench invoked Rule 26 of the High Court of Gujarat- Designation of Senior Advocates, Rules, 2018 and ordered a full court reference to be made on 18th July, which resulted in the taking away of this Senior Advocate Designation.
The Senior Designation of the lawyers is provided by the rule book of their respective courts, be it in the Supreme Court, or the High Courts. The proper and effective guidelines for such designation was provided by the Supreme Court after the case of Indira Jaising vs Supreme Court Of India. These guidelines replaced the earlier arbitrary procedure of designating an Advocate as Senior, and instead formed a permanent committee chaired by Chief Justice of the specific Court, who can recommend names or invite applications from the lawyers willing to attain such designation.The Rules (with minimal variation across States) provide that an advocate needs to have a minimum of 10 years’ experience as a district or session judge or be a practicing lawyer; or has been Chief Justice or Judge of a High Court. In the event that an Advocate of such designation is found to have engaged any practice or conduct, which is expressly stated to be violative, the Committee can be called upon, to review the matter, which is then referred to the full court (all the judges of the respective High Court or the Supreme Court), which decides if such Senior Advocate is found guilty of any offence or for violation of the code of conduct expected of him/her; which in the present case was done under Rule 26 of the High Court of Gujarat- Designation of Senior Advocate Rules, 2018.
The benefit of being designated as a Senior Advocate is that it improves the reputation and honor of the Advocate and is characteristic of a certain level of expertise. They have to follow a separate code of conduct and are disallowed to accept certain legal work such as drafting, drawing pleadings etc.
A number of provisions of the Contempt of the Courts Act, 1971 found application in this case. They were:
- Section 2(c): publication of the material which scandalizes the image of the court
- Section 14: defines the procedure to be followed when contempt is faced under the Supreme Court or High Courts.
- Section 15: provides power to High Court to file suo moto contempt case against someone.
- Section 17: provides the procedure to be followed after taking cognizance of contempt under the section 15 and provides opportunity to the person against whom the contempt is filed to submit his defense in an affidavit.
- Section 20: Sets the limit upto 1 year for initiating proceedings for contempt.
These all sections were read under Article 215 of the constitution which provides the power to the High Court to punish for contempt of itself.
This is not the first time that Yatin Oza has been charged under Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. In year 2016, the Supreme Court, in the case of Yatin Narendra Oza v. Khemchand Rajaram Koshthi closed the contempt proceeding against Yatin by accepting an unconditional apology exhibited by him. In this case, Yatin Oza criticised the collegium regarding the transfer of judges and functioning of 2 sitting Judges of Gujarat High Court.
The reason for the existence of the contempt of court proceedings, is not to prevent fair criticism, which, if allowed will violate the fundamental right of freedom speech and expression, but to protect the interest and confidence of the people which they hold in the Judiciary, its functions and its sanctity. Bona fide criticism of certain institutions is welcome, and even necessary for overcoming its drawbacks and for its development. But demeaning the majesty of the institution in the name of the fair criticism supported with unverified facts is not acceptable. In E.S. Reddi v. Government of AP the Court stated that “by the virtue of reputation that Senior Counsel holds, they not only hold greater responsibility in maintaining the sanctity of the judiciary but also act as a role model for junior advocates” which is supported by the statement of Lord Denning in Morris v. Crown Office stating that “to maintain law and order, the Judges have and must have, power at once to deal with those who offend against it.”
While it is the duty of the judges to define the thin line between fair criticism and Contempt of the Judiciary, the same duty should be performed cautiously without involving any biases so that authenticity of freedom of speech is maintained.
Depriving Yatin Oza from his Senior Advocate designation by the Gujarat High Court emphasizes that behavior, which cannot be tolerated by the Court from the professionals of such high stature. It also shows us the power of Contempt of Court as a tool, which is essential for the Courts to administer justice as per law, in an orderly and effective manner. The verdict of the Court in the present case is still pending and we await the same.
Author: Nikhil Jain, Gujarat National Law University, Gandhingar, Gujarat
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.