Interview: Why Delhi HC Lawyers Are Protesting Against Justice Muralidhar's Transfer

"We would have expected that he be sent as a chief justice to some court, then [the transfer] would have been appropriate," the Delhi High Court Bar Association president said.

New Delhi: Only “urgent” work was conducted at the Delhi high court on Thursday, as most lawyers were abstaining from work in response to a call given by the Bar Association. The lawyers were protesting against the transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar, the third most senior judge in the court, to the Punjab and Haryana high court.

Earlier on Wednesday, when the Supreme Court collegium issued a statement recommending Justice Muralidhar’s transfer, the Bar had passed a resolution urging its members to abstain from work on Thursday.

The Bar had also expressed its “shock, dismay and outrage” at the collegium’s decision, stating that Justice Muralidhar was “one of the finest judges to have adorned the Bench”. Usually, when judges are transferred to other states, it is on being promoted to chief justice.

The Bar had therefore charged that “such transfers are not only detrimental to our noble institution, but also tend to erode and dislodge the faith of the common litigant in the justice dispensation system. Such transfers also impede free and fair delivery of justice by the Hon’ble Bench.”

In conversation with The Wire, president of the Delhi High Court Association Mohit Mathur talked about the reasons behind the protest and whether this has happened in the past.

Today the Delhi High Court Bar Association has called for a strike to protest against the transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar. What sentiment is the Bar trying to convey?

First let me make it clear. We do not strike work. It is not as if there is no work which is carried out. We request our members to abstain as a mark of protest, and we do that in rare cases. Here in this case it was contrary to the wishes of the judge. His work ethos is of carrying on work at all times and working for the citizen, in whatever best way he can.

He had expressed his desire to the executive that he did not want any kind of a protest and he did not want us to register any kind of a protest.

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But the sentiments of the Bar and the Executive Committee were such that the members expressed their anguish at the manner in which it (the transfer) was done. And it was felt that it was not a question of just Dr Muralidhar, it was a question of our institution. We had in our resolution made it very clear that it is the majesty of this institution, which we represent and where we work, which we want to uphold.

In that process we also want that we should be a fearless judiciary. We as lawyers also are a part of this system. And we want the system to give a signal to the litigant at large that we are an independent institution. We are the third pillar of democracy and it should be maintained that way.

Normally when a judge is transferred to another state, it is on promotion as chief justice. In this case, he has been transferred as a judge to the Punjab and Haryana high court. Does the Bar sense that there is some victimisation in this or some injustice has been done?

I would not say that it is victimisation or anything. We expected that because he was a senior judge – after the chief justice, he was the third most senior judge or J2 as we say and in 10-12 days’ time he would have become the second most senior judge in the Delhi high court. So we would have expected that he be sent as a chief justice to some court, then it would have been appropriate. But sending him again as a puisne judge to another high court at this juncture, it was just as if our institution, our high court is not being considered properly.

The sentiments of the Bar were that we felt that he was one of the finest judges that we had. So it is not a question of victimisation, I hope it is for his betterment and a good future.

Have you learnt of any reasons for his transfer?

Unfortunately, we do not know the reasons and the notification which came on social media and in the papers does not speak of any reasons. That is why there was this anguish and the sentiments of the Bar were so severely impact that it felt that we must lodge a protest. In such cases and with such judges, there should be some kind of a system where there is a semblance of some kind of fairness.

The Delhi High Court Bar Association represents nearly 20,000 advocates. Today you have struck work, but lawyers have come to the high court. So did proceedings take place?

In the Delhi high court, we have a system. We request our members to abstain from work, we appoint proxy counsels in each court, so that the proceedings in urgent matters – wherever urgent relief is required – do not get hampered. The judges are also cooperative and they take up only such urgent matters. By and large the advocates abstain from work and leave it to the court to adjourn those matters.

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So, it is not striking work in way that there is no work, it is just that the disposal rate on such days is less. But there are reliefs given.

Is this the first time that the Association has gone on a strike over the transfer of a judge?

No, there have been instances in the past and one prominent one was in the 1980s, when Justice T.P.S. Chawla, one of our judges, was not being considered to be appointed as the chief justice of this court though he was eligible in all manners. The Bar at that time abstained from work for a considerable period of time. And if I am not mistaken, Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, the former chief justice of India, was the president of the Bar at that time and he took up the issue.

He made a representation to the government and the sentiments of the Bar were considered and Justice Chawla was made the chief justice of the Delhi high court.