Chandigarh: The Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association Monday cancelled the membership of Punjab advocate general Atul Nanda alleging that he was opposed to the physical opening of the court. However, the decision was stayed by the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana in the evening.
While bar associations are bodies representing lawyers in a court, bar councils are state-level affiliates of the Bar Council of India that regulate the working of lawyers.
The face-off between the bar association and Punjab’s top legal officer came amid efforts by the former to discontinue the virtual hearings started amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and resume 100 per cent physical hearings. The continued closure of courts, it claims, has hurt the livelihood of lawyers and served to deny justice to the public.
Just days ago, the high court decided to open three court rooms for physical hearings in some cases. However, its public relations officer told the media over the weekend that an appeal to lawyers to file applications if they want a certain case to be heard physically had elicited no response.
The decision to cancel Nanda’s membership was taken through a resolution passed by the bar association at a general body meeting. The bar association had struck work Monday and called the meeting to discuss the physical opening of the court. The resolution also sought the transfer of Punjab & Haryana High Court Chief Justice Ravi Shankar Jha on similar grounds.
In a statement to the media, Nanda described the resolution as “unilateral and arbitrary”, saying “the decision to commence physical hearing rests with the administrative committee of the high court and not with me”.
Reached for comment, bar association president G.B.S. Dhillon defended the decision.
Another order issued by the bar association, to cancel the membership of advocates who appeared virtually in courts despite the strike call Monday, was also stayed by the Bar Council.
The bar has decided to strike work till 3 February.
Not given notice
Neither Nanda nor the other advocates were issued any notice or approached for an explanation before the association passed its resolution.
In its decision staying the cancellation of Nanda’s and other lawyers’ bar association membership, the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana said the move was “extremely unfair, unjust, harsh and uncalled for”.
Disciplinary action cannot be taken against any member of the bar “without following the drill of relevant rules”, the Bar Council said in a statement released to the media. A specific agenda with due notice is required to be circulated if the conduct of a member of association is to be discussed in the House, it added.
Nanda noted that physical hearings were discontinued in light of the Covid threat, “which is far from over and the world is still battling the crisis”.
He said he had permitted the state government’s lawyers to attend court in cases where petitioners seek physical hearing.
Dhillon added that there was no need for the bar association to issue a notice. “Had I taken the decision as president. I would have issued a notice. But since the general house has taken a decision, it is final,” he added.
Former bar association president D.P.S. Randhawa, however, disagreed.
“If the general body of the high court bar association has decided (something), then I am with the general body. But, in my personal opinion, before taking any action against a member of the bar, it would have been fair and just to give him a show cause notice and reasonable time and opportunity to explain his position, which has not been done in this case,” he said.
Association skipped court meeting
Currently, all benches in the high court are functioning through video conferencing and an estimated 1,500 cases are listed for hearing every day.
On Saturday, the high court’s public relations officer Vikram Aggarwal said three courtrooms were reopened for physical hearings on 26 January, as an initial step to gradually return to status quo.
It was decided that the court would begin with physical hearings of criminal appeals where the accused are in custody, adding that a list of more than 1,100 such appeals was published on 27 January.
Lawyers, he said, were required to file an application for physical hearing with the consent of the opposing counsel. “However, till today, (30 January), no application for physical hearing has been received,” Aggarwal added.
At a meeting of the high court’s administrative committee Sunday, Nanda and his Haryana counterpart B.R. Mahajan gave their consent to have their law officers attend physical hearings in cases where the petitioner seeks one.
Office-bearers of the bar association had been invited for the meeting as well but chose not to attend.
“We have been holding such meetings since November. But every time, we are offered a lollipop. So, there was no point attending another such meeting,” Dhillon told The Print.