Last day lottery
In 2003 the fate of a famous – but unauthorised – suburb in a major city in northern India was hanging in the balance. The municipal corporation had been wanting to demolish the colony for more than a decade but were prevented from doing so by court stays obtained by the city’s richest residents who called it home.
The case finally reached the high court, and worryingly for the colony’s residents it was to be heard by a lady judge known for being strict and honest. I was working at a leading newspaper and we had two senior journalists reporting from the court. As the day of the verdict arrived, I could visualise the following day’s headline: “Zebra Farms to be Demolished”, “HC Orders Zebra Farms Demolition”. (Name changed).
Around 5m the decision was announced – the colony would stay. I asked the chief reporter what happened. She replied: “They offered her Rs 3 crore in cash plus a house in the very colony that she was to declare illegal.”
So why did the judge known for her honesty crumble? “The representatives of the colony approached her and said that after 30 years of service what do you have, just a pension and two children still at college. With the money we are offering you, your children can study at Ivy League colleges in the US. This is the final case of your career – in the unlikely event they find out you took a bribe and they declare the verdict null and void, you walk away unscathed. They can’t touch your pension. You will have enough cash for the rest of your life, and a house you can sell in the future when things cool down.”
Gallery of incompetence
Judges don’t have to crooked, abusive or show-offs to be dangerous. There are plain stupid ones as well and they are a drag on the system. Here are a few examples:
The Cheater: This Metropolitan Magistrate in Delhi’s Tis Hazari court had forgotten all the knowledge of law acquired at the judicial college. In order to pass judgement he would keep a cheat sheet under his papers on the desk. Like a professional exam cheater, he would take a quick glance at it to deliver the sentence. Neatly written in small print were cookie cutter verdicts for most common offences. Flouting tadipaar – one year simple imprisonment; theft – 24 months; pickpocketing – 18 months. Since Metropolitan Magistrates could sentence a person to a jail term of three years maximum, there was very little chance they could go wrong but he still needed his cheat sheet.
Phone a Colleague: If you thought the above judge was incompetent, wait till you hear about the judge who would adjourn his packed court, go into his chamber to phone a colleague in order to ask what quantum of punishment should be given in such and such circumstances. Although he was the butt of jokes at Tis Hazari, it didn’t bother this judge as his colleagues indulgently considered his behaviour “cute”.
He’s only taking a bribe: I appeared in the court of this judge in 2000 when I had to get my motorcycle released from the Delhi Police. What had happened was that my closest friend had borrowed my Yamaha motorcycle while I was out of town for two weeks. When I returned I got the horrible news that my friend had died in an accident while speeding on my motorcycle in the South Extension area of New Delhi. Although I was devastated, I still had to get the bike cleared. The Delhi Police in its FIR had – either with malafide intentions or due to incompetence – placed the motorcycle under supardari (stolen goods). Along with a family lawyer I appeared before a judge at the Patiala House courts. Despite clear proof that it was an accident case and that I was a respectable householder and a journalist with a leading media house, the judge declared that the motorcycle would continue to be considered stolen goods. I was not to sell it for three years – in case the real owner showed up later!
Although it was a bizarre decision, what was even more shocking was that right under the judge’s nose the court clerk was openly accepting bribes from lawyers for moving their case to the top of the pile. So basically it meant that if you were either honest or poor, you could be waiting for your turn from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. On the other hand, if you paid the court clerk Rs 500, you could get out of the place by 11 am.
As we walked out of the courtroom, I did not bother to ask my lawyer these rhetorical questions:
Was the judge getting a cut from the day’s take? Ballpark figure: 50 people pay up; that’s Rs 25,000; let’s assume the judge takes home a quarter; that’s Rs 6000 per day. Not bad for a day’s work.
Was the judge indulgently allowing a low paid clerk to earn some money?
Was the judge suffering from loss of peripheral vision so that he couldn’t see the clerk – sitting only two feet below and five feet away from his table – accept banknotes from lawyers?
— Read on indiafacts.org/judgement-day-tales-judicial-chambers/