On Monday, the Madras High Court initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against several police officers in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu and ordered them to appear personally before its Madurai bench.

The officers were reprimanded after the judicial magistrate appointed by the court to investigate the custodial deaths of P Jayaraj (59) and J Bennix (31) on June 22 complained not just that the police officers had refused to cooperate with him when he visited the station but actually abused him. The father and son had been detained by the Sathankulam police on June 19 for keeping their mobile phone shop open beyond the permissible hours during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The two men were tortured in custody. Some reports indicated that they were sexually abused, which led to profuse bleeding. While the Tamil Nadu government initially tried to say that the deaths had occurred due to natural causes, public outrage and the High Court’s attention put the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on the spot. On Monday, the government was forced to order the Central Bureau of Investigation to inquire into the deaths.

The fact that the magistrate investigating the deaths was threatened by the police was shocking. However, the callousness of the lower judiciary was one of the reasons the deaths occurred in the first place. The deaths bring into focus the conduct of the other magistrate who mechanically remanded the two men to judicial custody without even checking their physical condition.

Media reports said that when the father and son were produced before magistrate B Saravanan, he did not check to see if they were in physical discomfort or had any injuries, a procedure required by law. The judge allowed the police to take them into custody for a crime as petty as keeping a shop open beyond the permitted hours.

The deaths throw light on the growing criticism against members of the lower judiciary, who pass orders mechanically despite being the first line of defence against state excesses. Often, this laxity leads to extended, unnecessary incarceration of suspects. The Thoothukudi incident shows that this laxity can actually be deadly.

The deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix in custody were not an one-off incident. Over the years, Several failures by judicial officers have come to light. One example is the spate of sedition cases filed against people across the country earlier this year in the wake of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. In Karnataka, a school teacher and a parent were kept in prison for an extended period for staging a school play that the police claimed criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Members of the lower judiciary are rarely punished for their abdication of duty, given the assumption in the legal system that the appeals process will eventually set right any mistakes.

The deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix show that along with reforms to the police system, an overhaul of the lower judiciary is needed just as urgently. Unless magistrates stand up to the police and follow the procedures established by law in letter and spirit, human rights abuses by the state will continue unabated.