New Delhi: The role of former and sitting judges in the setting up of the Hyderabad-based International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC) has become the subject of a public war of words that has been playing out since last month between three senior members of the Bar.
The fraught back-and-forth over the mediation centre started with a 13 June op-ed in The Wire written by Sriram Panchu, a leading mediator and senior advocate of the Madras High Court. In the strongly worded piece, Panchu contended that “India’s mediation process” faced the threat of being “captured by retired judges”.
Further, he suggested that the IAMC, which was inaugurated last December by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, reflected a trend of judges “using judicial office to benefit former colleagues, or themselves by way of post-retirement benefits”.
Pointing out that Justice Ramana was the author of the deed of the public charitable trust and that justices Hima Kohli and the recently retired L. Nageswara Rao were trustees, he alleged that the trust had “apparently sought land and largesse from the state government of Telangana, which has happily obliged”.
Panchu’s arguments were rebutted in a counter op-ed by retired Punjab and Haryana High Court judge K. Kannan, who argued in Live Law that while government bodies were prone to “corruption and nepotism”, judges could establish “institutions of everlasting glory”. Senior Supreme Court advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan also questioned Panchu’s “unfounded fears” in Live Law. The Wire also ran versions of these pieces.
Both Kannan and Sankaranarayanan faulted Panchu’s argument that the IAMC provided “post-retirement sinecures” to former Supreme Court judges. They both asserted it was a public trust set-up in 2017 with infrastructural support from the Telangana government without the latter’s interference in the body’s functioning.
Panchu reiterated his allegations about the judges’ “misdeeds” and “misuse of office to divert work into their own centre” in another op-ed in The Wire this Sunday.
ThePrint contacted Panchu and Sankaranarayanan, but both declined to comment on the debate.
What is the IAMC?
The International Arbitration and Mediation Centre was inaugurated in December last year by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana in the presence of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao at Nanakramguda on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, CJI Ramana said that the IAMC would emerge as one of the top destinations for arbitration and mediation. He also thanked the chief minister for providing “world-class” infrastructure for the mediation centre.
In January this year, the CJI laid the foundation stone for the construction of a new building of the centre at Raidurg. Apart from earmarking land for the IAMC, the state has also extended financial aid of Rs 50 crore for its construction.
According to the trust deed, there are two life trustees — former Supreme Court judges R.V. Raveendran and L.N Rao — and two ex-officio trustees — the Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court (presently Satish Chandra Sharma) and the state’s law minister (currently A. Indrakaran Reddy). There are also three three-year term trustees, one of whom is sitting SC judge Hima Kohli.
CJI Ramana is said to be the author of this trust deed and Justice Rao was a serving SC judge when the centre was inaugurated. On Rao’s retirement in June this year, CJI Ramana announced that the former judge would be absorbed as a life trustee of the IAMC.
‘Creation of a monopoly is underway’
Panchu’s first article, titled ‘Thanks to Our judges, Darkness Now Clouds India’s Mediation Playing Field’, triggered the debate around the IAMC.
In this article, published on 13 June, Panchu argued that a mediator is the “polar opposite” of a judge. “[T]he latter issues commands while the former facilitates, always leaving ultimate decision making to the parties,” he wrote.
Although he said that he’d “welcome” retired judges into the “newly emerging profession”, he felt they should “earn their spurs”.
According to him, the IAMC was a “deeply disturbing” development, not least of all because the CJI and Justices Rao and Kohli could not have in an official representative capacity set-up the “mediation initiative offering resolution of commercial disputes for a fee.”
Panchu further alleged that “instructions” seemed to have gone out to judges of National Company Law Tribunals (NCLT), “which handle high value commercial and corporate disputes”, and also “the First Court at Tilak Marg” (Supreme Court) to refer cases to this newly established centre.
This, he claimed, amounted to the creation of a “monopoly” that would hang every other player “out to dry”.
Retired judge K. Kannan was the first to rebut Panchu in a 22 June article titled ‘What The Dark Clouds Bring — Just Not Storm But Rain!’ published in Live Law.
Referring to Panchu as “my friend Sriram”, Kannan pondered over whether or not the advocate had “cross-checked” facts.
Kannan questioned why Panchu found it problematic that judges, former or present, were trustees. “What do we expect the judges to do outside courts and court hours… visit places of worship or attend weddings?” he asked.
Kannan also argued that the IAMC had a “fee scale” of Rs 7,500 to 1 lakh, which could not be exceeded even for multi-crore disputes. “It is a fraction of what lawyers charge their clients for guiding them in a mediation session,” he wrote.
On Panchu’s claim that the NCLT had been asked to refer cases, Kannan sought to put the record straight.
He said only two cases have so far been referred from the NCLT’s Hyderabad bench to the IAMC— one of which was assigned to him and the other to Panchu. Neither of them is doing the cases for free, Justice Kannan’s article claimed.
Five days later, on 27 June, TheWire published Panchu’s response to Kannan’s article, where he drove home that he did not think it was ethical for serving judges to set up mediation centres.
“The problem arises… when three individual judges have got together to form an organisation of their own accord, not in a representative capacity for the court, nor in any other official capacity. The top court has not sanctioned any such institution,” he wrote.
In this article, Panchu acknowledged that he had indeed accepted an assignment as a mediator from the IAMC.
‘Extraordinary assault on the Supreme Court’
In a 28 June Live Law article, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, senior advocate of the Supreme Court, accused Panchu of inflicting “a most extraordinary assault on the Supreme Court” and on “the reputations of some of its finest sitting and former judges”.
Sankaranarayanan then proceeded to furnish “facts” regarding the IAMC. He claimed that the land allotted by the state government was in consonance with a 2017 report of the Justice Srikrishna Committee, which said that infrastructural support ought to be given by the government without any interference with the arbitration or mediation centre.
As for the trustees, he said he had personally confirmed that none among them received a sitting fee or remuneration.
Further, he wrote that a CEO was in-charge of the day-to-day affairs. Mediators are appointed with mutual consent of the parties and in case of a dispute, the CEO proposes a panel in consultation of the governing council. Trustees, he added, have no role to play.
The last op-ed?
Panchu was back with yet another rejoinder in The Wire on 10 July, in which he once again reiterated his concerns with the “flawed command and control” of the IAMC.
He repeated his allegation that the trust had requested and received “a staggering amount of largesse from the Telangana government”, including land worth “Rs 250 crore” and “25,000 sq feet of prime commercial built up area in Hyderabad’s financial district”.
Addressing Sankaranarayanan’s accusation that he had inflicted an assault on the SC, Panchu wrote: “Not at all, sir, it only focuses on the misdeeds of three judges whose actions constitute an assault on the integrity of the institution.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)