The celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Madras High Court started with an expenditure of One Crore. A song was broadcast lauding the greatness of the High Court, a tamil lyric by Poet Vairamuthu with music by Bharadwaj. These lines apparently in praise of the then Chief Justice formed a part of the lyric:
“Born in Chief Justice’s mind
A pioneer in nation’s history;
Family courts on holidays
Establishing the majesty of law ever”
The original Tamil lyric was also translated into English and Hindi and published in the souvenir released along with the function. The Madras High Court has had thirty-five Chief Justices. Excluding the eleven Whites, only one of the remaining twenty-four has come for special praise. Not clear who was behind this selective benediction. It is also not clear why the other twenty-three Chief Justices did not deserve mention.
The Family Courts Act provides for the establishment of Family Courts in all corporation areas with a population of ten lakhs. There are four Courts in Chennai and one each in a few corporations. The authority of the Civil Courts in matters concerning divorce, alimony, inheritance rights, and the right to custody of children has been conferred upon these Family Courts. Matters concerning Maintenance, hitherto dealt with by Criminal Courts under section 125 of Cr.P.C have also been transferred to these Courts. Because of the centralization of power, cases have piled up, and as many as 20,000 cases are pending in Chennai courts alone. Nearly sixty percent of divorce cases have been filed by Non Resident Indians (NRI). Though consultations regarding the speedier disposal of such cases were ongoing at different levels, in 2010 the then Chief Justice Eqbal issued a precipitate order that all the Family Courts should function all through the year, including holidays. The praise in the lyric was apparently with reference to this order.
Section 21 of the Family Courts Act confers authority on the High Court to order the Family Courts to function during holidays also. Till now the matter has not been discussed in a full court meeting of all the judges of the High Court, the related rules have not been formulated or published in the government gazette. The Women Lawyers’ Association conducted dharnas and processions against this self-willed order but to no avail. When the lawyers threatened court boycott, they were warned that the courts would function even without their participation. Under Section 13 of the Family Courts Act the lawyers do not enjoy an inherent right to directly appear in the cases there and can only appear as amicus curiae that too with the permission of the court. During a recent training camp for the judges of Family Courts, the judges expressed their frustration and dissatisfaction over working during holidays. One of the judges expressed his apprehension that if he continued to neglect his family by attending courts seven days a week, his own family matter may come up before the Court one day.
When advocate and PUCL activist Ms. Sudha Ramalingam questioned as to how minimum labour standards are not applied to these judges and staff of the family court, the Registrar General of the Madras High Court informed her by his communication dated 9.3.2012 as follows : –
“Labour Law Standard is not applicable to the Family
Courts at Chennai”
She has now filed a Public Interest Litigation before the High Court challenging the legality of conducting holiday courts and a division bench had ordered notice and the matter is now pending.
Needless to state the consequences of all the Courts functioning all through the year without any holidays. Even for the textile mill workers operating in three shifts throughout the year, law provides for weekly holidays. Thirty percent of workers are kept in reserve for this purpose. Forcing only the judges to work with no respite is not only unjust but is against the Constitution.
The Holy Bible has this to say about the shepherds of workers:
“Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and
Understanding” (Jeremiah 3.15)
Let us also pray.