The Supreme Court of India has directed the Bar Associations in Manipur to ensure that lawyers from all communities are allowed to appear before the courts without any hindrance. This directive, issued on September 25, is aimed at safeguarding access to justice for all residents of Manipur and preventing any discrimination based on community affiliation. The bench overseeing this matter, consisting of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, made it clear that this directive was a preemptive measure to ensure unfettered access to justice and not a response to any specific complaint. The bench also issued a stern warning that any violation of this directive would be treated as contempt of court.
The directive was issued during a hearing of a batch of petitions related to the ongoing ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Manipur that have persisted since May this year. During the proceedings, Senior Advocate Anand Grover brought to the court's attention the troubling issue of lawyers representing particular communities facing threats, attacks, and obstacles in appearing before the Manipur High Court. He emphasized the need for providing protection to these lawyers and ensuring their safety.
Previously, Grover had informed the Supreme Court that lawyers were hesitant to represent certain individuals due to threats they had received. He also cited an instance where lawyers withdrew from the case of Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing in the Manipur High Court after one of their homes and offices was vandalized. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) had expressed serious concerns about these reports of attacks on lawyers in Manipur who were taking up cases.
Initially, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud expressed skepticism, questioning why protection should be extended only to lawyers and not to all citizens. He also remarked that the High Court was functioning adequately. Senior Advocate Ranjit Kumar, representing the Manipur High Court Bar Association, refuted the allegations, affirming that all lawyers were granted access without discrimination.
In response, Chief Justice Chandrachud asked the Association President if lawyers from any community were being prevented from appearing before the court. The President responded in the negative, asserting that no lawyers were facing impediments based on their community affiliations. To further ensure transparency, the Chief Justice requested a sample of court orders indicating that lawyers from all communities were indeed practicing before the High Court.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, representing the State of Manipur, presented a report from the Registrar General indicating that 2638 cases had been listed for hearing within 30 days, and virtual hearings were made available daily, affirming the normal functioning of the High Court. Mehta criticized the petitioners for attempting to exacerbate the situation through court proceedings.
However, in order to dispel any doubts about access to the Manipur High Court for members of the bar, the bench issued a directive: "There are nine judicial districts covering all sixteen districts in Manipur. The State of Manipur, along with the Chief Justice of the High Court, shall ensure that video conferencing facilities are set up and operationalized to ensure that any member of the bar or litigant can address the court. The video conferencing shall be operationalized no later than one week from this order."
The court added, "The members of the bar shall ensure that no lawyer is prevented from appearing before the court. Any violation of this direction shall be treated as contempt." Chief Justice Chandrachud emphasized, "We have not acted on any complaint; we have just cautioned...we want to ensure access to justice."
After the directive was issued, a lawyer belonging to the Kuki community addressed the bench, recounting that his house was attacked during the ethnic violence, forcing him to flee. The Supreme Court's directive aims to ensure that such incidents are not repeated and that access to justice remains unhindered for all communities in Manipur.
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