Dec. 18: Law minister Nisith Adhikari was roughed up by Trinamul Congress legislators in the Assembly today, though the mood among Bengal’s striking lawyers had turned more conciliatory by evening.
The state bar council sought an appointment with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to find “a resolution” to the agitation that has crippled courts across the state for over a month.
In the Assembly, Trinamul MLAs, especially the lawyers among them, heckled Adhikari as soon as Speaker H.A. Halim announced recess. The din prevented Halim from finishing his speech in reply to the MLAs’ statement on the court fee hike.
Trinamul MLAs Ashok Deb and Sougata Roy raised the issue of the ceasework and said they would ask the chief minister to intervene. They also demanded a statement from the law minister.
When Adhikari started speaking, some lawyer MLAs of the party began shouting at him. As soon as he moved towards his chamber, one of them caught hold of his hand and pulled so hard that Adhikari almost fell.
Adhikari, a cardiac patient, was taken to SSKM hospital for a check-up. CPM chief whip Lakshmi De said Trinamul members had even punched the minister.
In the evening, lawyers held a rally on Brabourne Road where they asserted their agitation would continue as they had not yet received a copy of the Supreme Court’s judgment banning strikes by lawyers.
Council chairman Amiya Chatterjee, however, said the lawyers had sought an appointment with the chief minister “so that the strike can be brought to a conclusion at the earliest”. “We are hopeful of an early resolution to the strike,” he added.
State bar council members will meet on Thursday to review the situation.
SC verdict flouted
While Bengal’s lawyers continued their agitation, their counterparts in the rest of the country today went ahead with their one-day ceasework, ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling that the strike was “illegal” and advocates had no right to stop work.
The Bar Council of India claimed the strike was “absolute” barring the Jodhpur and Jaipur benches of Rajasthan High Court and, “of course, the Supreme Court”.
The strike, called in protest against a proposal to set up lok adalats in every department of public utility, raised questions on whether the apex court was helpless in enforcing its verdict and what tangible action could be taken against thousands of lawyers.
Bar council vice-chairman Adish Aggarwal described the apex court’s judgment as “impractical” and said it curtailed “our right to strike”.
Although Chief Justice G.B. Pattanaik maintained that “striking work is no right”, he, too, indicated that the apex court was helpless. “We can give judgments. But who can physically prevent the striking lawyers'” he asked. “No judgment can physically stop the lawyers. We can give directions, guidelines and even orders. But only self-restraint or self-regulatory mechanism can help it and hence we advised it in our judgment.”
Aggarwal said the bar council would meet in Guwahati on December 25 to “consider” the judgment and decide whether to file a review petition.
There was a clear “division” between lawyers of the apex court and those of lower courts in the matter. Supreme Court designated senior advocate P.P. Rao said a “ban on strike by lawyers already existed in the statute. So, when I protested against a strike, of course years back, I was expelled from the bar association”.
Another senior advocate, M.N. Krishnamani, too, welcomed the ban. Both Krishnamani and Rao said today’s strike amounted to professional misconduct.
But nobody answered the crucial question: who would initiate the action' “In the absence of a complaint from a client, it is, of course, difficult to initiate any action,” Krishnamani said.
The bar council said it was too late in the day to call off the strike as it had already been announced and the judgment came on the eve of the strike. Second, the “right to strike” could not be taken away by a judgment, Aggarwal reasoned.
The meeting assumes significance as, except a review, there is no option other than punishment as stipulated in the judgment. The punishment includes barring a lawyer from practice and also a fine in the form of costs and compensation of damages to clients.