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‘Wants to solve it all’ — cricketer & singer HC judge who is breaking ‘preconceived notions’

In a protection plea by a same sex couple, Justice N. Anand Venkatesh said he’s trying to break his ‘own preconceived notions’. But this isn’t the first time he is making headlines.

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New Delhi: A Madras High Court judge was lauded earlier this week for his “refreshing candour” for admitting that he needs to break his “own preconceived notions” while deciding a protection plea by a same sex couple. 

The two women — a 22-year-old BSc Mathematics graduate and a 20-year-old BA Tamil student — had known each other for two years now and told the court that they wanted to be together. But they were both facing resistance and pressure from their respective families. 

What followed was an admission by the HC’s Justice N. Anand Venkatesh, who said that he is also trying to break his “own preconceived notions about this issue” and is “in the process of evolving”. 

He proceeded to say that he is “trying to develop this case brick by brick” and appointed a counsellor for all the parties involved.

The judge’s admission in this case was appreciated across the quarters. But a quick look at his past orders — passed over a short span of less than three years — shows that this isn’t the first time that the judge has passed an order that has made the headlines. 

As a first-generation lawyer, Justice Venkatesh began his legal practice in October 1993. He was elevated to the bench as an additional judge in June 2018. Since then, some of his orders have been set aside, with the Supreme Court saying that he exceeded his jurisdiction, some are under challenge in the apex court currently, and several have made headlines for his off-beat take on cases.

His orders have ranged from wanting to hold the state government responsible for crimes committed by drunk people, to constituting a criminal justice reform committee, suggesting amendments to the POCSO Act to exclude consensual relationships between minors, and explaining why cutting a cake with tricolour map and an Ashok Chakra design was not unpatriotic.


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‘Man of the match’, off to a rocky start

Justice Venkatesh is a “music lover”, sings too sometimes, and takes a keen interest in sports, particularly cricket, having won the ‘Man of the Match’ award in a match between judges and lawyers of the HC last month.

However, his career as a judge began with a rocky start, as some of his judgments were set aside by the Supreme Court within months, for having exceeded his jurisdiction in those cases.

For instance, in March 2019, he said that he wanted to hold the Tamil Nadu government responsible, as an abettor of offences committed under the influence of alcohol in the state. 

While the judge did acknowledge that this was in the exclusive domain of the government, the observations were made while hearing an anticipatory bail application to two accused apprehended in connection with the suicide of a labourer in Coimbatore district. 

The government immediately filed an appeal, challenging just a few paragraphs of Justice Venkatesh’s order. 

A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar agreed with the government on 2 July 2019 and directed that a few observations be “effaced from the record”, noting that the judge had “exceeded the jurisdiction”.

In another such instance, Justice Venkatesh directed the constitution of a five-member committee in April 2019 to recommend measures for reforming the criminal justice system. He devoted a fair part of his order examining whether criminals deserve to be viewed in black-and-white terms, saying that “free will is an illusion” and “no one is born as a criminal”. 

But this order was also passed while Justice Venkatesh was hearing a bail application, and was stayed less than three months later by the apex court. Setting aside this order in January last year, the Supreme Court had said that the judge’s object was “laudable but the jurisdiction exercised was clearly erroneous”.


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‘Proactive’, ‘wants to solve it all’

As to what might be the reason behind him ‘exceeding his jurisdiction’ in the past, a practitioner in the court, on the condition of anonymity, described him as “proactive”, saying that “every newspaper item he reads, he wants to solve it all”. 

“He is one of the most honest and well read people out there. He is very scholarly, even in Tamil. But the most notable thing about him is that he is not confined to this or that jurisdiction. He has had phenomenal experience as a lawyer over so many years that there isn’t one area of law that he is uncomfortable with,” he added.

Another young lawyer practicing in the Madras High Court told ThePrint that “even in normal cases, he tries to find what can be done to make the system better”.

Justice Venkatesh was finally made a permanent judge in the HC in March last year, around the time Covid-19 was beginning to make base in India. During the lockdown, he was allotted a portfolio, which included handling of motor accidents claims.

He sprung into action and passed an “unusual order” on 5 May. In essence, he withdrew 23 motor accident claims from various claims tribunals across Tamil Nadu to the Madras HC. He allowed the private insurer in the case to settle the 23 claims worth Rs 51.59 lakh. 

And notably, he accepted the insurer’s evidence of digital consent given by claimants, through WhatsApp messages, regarding the settlement amount. For those clients without access to digital media, the court accepted affirmation of the counsels that their clients had been spoken to and were agreeable to the amount quoted by the insurer.

Between 5 May and 14 May 2020 when he held the portfolio, he is learnt to have decided cases worth a staggering sum of Rs 10.38 crore. 

However, according to a lawyer practicing in the high court, this didn’t sit well with a few other judges of the court, who took the matter up with the HC Chief Justice. They alleged that such a practice is prone to fraud and cheating. This is believed to have inspired the bar in the Madras High Court video conferencing rules, against “recording of settlements and pronouncement of Awards in Lok Adalats”.


Also read: CJI Bobde writes to Modi govt seeking info on gay lawyer’s elevation as judge within 4 weeks


POCSO, flag cake and interns

The judge made headlines at the beginning of this year too, when he suggested amendment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012, saying that it was never intended to cover cases where adolescents or teenagers are involved in romantic relationships.

While the jury is still out on whether courts should consider consensual relationships under POCSO, the Supreme Court is now seized of the matter, having decided to examine whether POCSO can be used to punish teenagers for “consensual” physical relationships which later turn “sour”.

As for Justice Venkatesh, another one of his judgments was in the news recently. On 22 March, he quashed a complaint that said that cutting a cake with a tricolour map and an Ashok Chakra design at a Christmas function in 2013 was disrespectful to our national flag. 

Shutting down the criminal proceedings in the case, Justice Venkatesh exonerated the 2,500 participants of the celebration, while commenting on “compulsive patriotism and its fetishization”.

Quoting Nani Palkhiwala and Rabindranath Tagore, he asserted that “the symbolisation of national pride is not synonymous with patriotism, just like how cutting a cake is not unpatriotic”.

And Justice Venkatesh ended this verdict with an unconventional acknowledgment. While several judges thank the lawyers of the parties or the amicus curiae for their assistance in the case, Justice Venkatesh instead thanked his interns for their research, saying that without it, “I would not have been able to deliver a consummate judgement on this important issue”.

Last month, he initiated suo motu proceedings, deciding to monitor the investigation into a sexual harassment complaint against a former special director-general of police (DGP). He has also restrained political parties from “politicising/publicising” the issue. 

Scalpel and not a sledgehammer

Apart from his judgments, he is also known among the lawyers for being “strict” and for his tough stance against adjournments. 

A lawyer who has appeared before him in the Madras High Court told ThePrint that getting an adjournment in a case before Justice Venkatesh needs “a lot of convincing”.

“While in other courts junior counsel can appear and ask for an adjournment in the absence of a senior counsel, Justice Venkatesh encourages the junior lawyers present in court to argue instead if the senior isn’t present. He grants adjournment after a lot of inquiry,” he said.

“And he decides cases only on merits, doesn’t matter if it’s a senior counsel before him,” the young lawyer added. 

A lawyer who has appeared before him in the HC, recalled that Justice Venkatesh is “very courteous” in the court. “Even if the most absurd submission is made, he doesn’t get agitated or irritated. That is why he is very widely respected. Even when he dismisses a case, he does it with a scalpel, not with a sledgehammer,” he said.


Also read: Why didn’t you complain against Anil Deshmukh for alleged wrongdoing, HC asks Param Bir


 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Unconventional judges like him rock the boat. Believe me, judiciary is the most conservative institution not only in India, but all over the world. There is a reason. Consistency is more important than innovation. A litigant must entertain reasonable certainty about his success or failure. Innovative judges disturb this assurance. No disrespect meant to Mr.Justice Anand Venkatesan.

    • Unless we hv more such judges we will never be able to improve our crimnal justice system۔ There are lakh of cases of minor crimes which continue pending in courts for years۔ Accused spend more time in jail than if convicted۔ ln many cases police manufactue evidence n get innocent person convicted but no action is taken against police۔

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