A massive protest by lawyers in Chennai on Monday against conduct rules for advocates that the High Court issued in May following a Supreme Court directive, appears to have achieved its objective.

On Wednesday, Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, said that the rules would be held in abeyance for the time being.

The protest saw busloads of advocates from Kanyakumari, Madurai, Namakkal, Salem, Trichy, Coimbatore and other lower courts pouring into Chennai, where they blocked roads leading to the Madras High Court, shut down shops and attempted to forcibly enter the high court premises despite tight security.

Against code of conduct

The protest was triggered by two sections of the new rules: Section 14-A (ix): “An Advocate who browbeats and/or abuses a Judge or Judicial officer” and Section 14-A (x): “An Advocate who is found to have sent or spread unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations/petitions against a Judicial Officer or a Judge to the Superior Court”.

The rules, notified on May 25, said that lawyers who violated these sections could be debarred from practice.

In 2009, the apex court directed all high courts to frame rules of conduct for lawyers. This came after lawyer RK Anand, the counsel for the accused in Delhi’s infamous BMW hit-and-run incident, was found to have tried to influence witnesses,

The rules for lawyers in Tamil Nadu were subsequently framed following meetings between a court-appointed committee of judges of the High Court, and representatives of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, leaders of lawyers associations and others.

The lawyers said that the rules were draconian and restricted their freedom to argue cases freely.

Chief Justice Kaul had told the lawyers in June that the new rules would not be enforced until advocates came to the court-appointed committee to submit their suggestions.

“The lawyers who were present at the meetings simply did not say anything but went out and stated that they had been disregarded,” said a sitting judge of the High Court. “We did not give any deadline either for the protesters to submit their suggestions to the committee. None of them has bothered to submit any suggestions. There is a section of lawyers intent only on flexing muscle.”

‘It’s a just cause’

The lawyers hold Justice Kaul squarely responsible for the protests. “All these problems are due to the ego of one man – Chief Justice Kaul,” said advocate Rajashekharan. “He is responsible for all these protests.”

Lawyers said that they had reason to protest. “It does not make me or anyone here happy to be protesting on the roads like this,” said C Rajashekharan, one of the advocates who joined the protest. “We are protesting against our own family. The rules have to be kept in abeyance.”

On Monday, five lawyers were arrested and sent to prison after being charged with sections relating to damaging public property and not allowing government servants to discharge their duties. The police also detained over 200 lawyers for a few hours. They were later released.

Taking the law into their hands?

This isn’t the Madras High Court’s first brush with agitating lawyers. The court has seen several such protests, as well as incidents of violence that have hampered the court’s work.

In 2009, lawyers protesting against Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, clashed with the police. At least 100 lawyers and police personnel were injured. The resulting acrimony between the police force and the advocates continued to flare up in smaller incidents across the state.

Lower courts have also been paralysed frequently due to protests over various issues not exactly related to law or lawyers.

In September 2015, massive protests took place at the Madras High Court over a demand to implement Tamil as the language of the court. A week later, lawyers at the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court protested against a compulsory helmet ruling by the court.

When contempt action was initiated against two lawyers, who led these protests, barged into court and disrupted proceedings, busloads of lawyers poured into the Madras High Court, demanding to be present at the contempt hearings.

This resulted in contempt proceedings being telecast live on a screen outside the court hall for the first time ever.

The disruptions were such that Chief Justice Kaul ordered Central Industrial Security Force protection for the high court.

‘Lawyers or racketeers?’

“One section of lawyers has caused a lot of havoc over the years,” said the sitting high court judge. “[They were] threatening judges, disrupting proceedings at will, not allowing certain advocates to practice in lower courts and spreading corruption.”

He added: “This group of lawyers does not practice law. They are simply racketeers, making a quick buck and fooling innocent litigants. There has to be discipline in court. Such hooliganism cannot be tolerated. Ultimately the courts are for the litigants.”

Sources said that Chief Justice of India TS Thakur had specifically asked Chief Justice Kaul to stay put in Chennai and bring order to the high court there.

As the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry appeared reluctant to take action against lawyers threatening judges in court, abusing them and accusing judges of taking money for verdicts, the Bar Council of India stepped in. Since September 2015, it has suspended close to 200 lawyers in the state with 126 suspended only on Saturday.

Rules too harsh?

P Wilson, former additional solicitor general, did not participate in the protests but agreed that the new rules were too harsh on lawyers.

“If I am afraid that I may be debarred if I argue my case vehemently, then I will not do my best for my client,” said Wilson. “Lawyers must have freedom to practice. We are there only for our clients. If there are such harsh rules, it will be difficult for us to practice freely. Contempt laws are already there. Let the judges make use of that if lawyers misbehave.”

Wilson also pointed out that if misbehaving lawyers had to be debarred the Bar Council could do that too.

But retired Justice K Chandru countered Wilson’s argument saying that “a proceeding under Contempt of Courts Act is cumbersome and highly technical.”

“Many high courts have framed similar rules and the lawyers there have not protested,” said Justice Chandru, who cited the example of the Bombay High Court that has even banned strikes.

He added that the Bar Council couldn’t be expected to deal with issues arising inside the court hall. “A judge can never be expected to give evidence before the Bar Council and become a litigant,” said Justice Chandru. “In order to stop hooliganism and blackmail inside the court these rules are essential to deal with anti-social elements among lawyers.”