In a significant development, the Supreme Court of India, led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, issued a directive, emphasizing the importance of unimpeded access to justice for lawyers of all communities practicing in Manipur. The directive, issued during the hearing of a series of petitions related to ongoing ethnic clashes between Meitei and Kuki communities in the state, aims to maintain the integrity of the legal profession and ensure the safety of lawyers.
Manipur has been grappling with ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities since May this year, leading to significant disruptions and an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Lawyers representing various parties involved in these conflicts have faced threats, attacks, and obstacles in discharging their professional duties, undermining the principles of justice and the rule of law.
Lawyers in Peril
Senior Advocate Anand Grover, representing lawyers associated with a specific committee, informed the Supreme Court that lawyers were facing grave threats, physical attacks, and obstructions when attempting to appear before the Manipur High Court. Grover highlighted the urgent need for protective measures to safeguard lawyers in the region, citing instances where legal professionals withdrew from cases due to threats. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) had previously expressed deep concern over reported attacks against lawyers who took up such cases.
The Court’s Scrutiny
Chief Justice DY Chandrachud initially questioned whether protection should only be extended to lawyers or encompass all citizens, emphasizing the broader implications of the directive. He also expressed skepticism about claims that the Manipur High Court was not functioning efficiently.
Senior Advocate Ranjit Kumar, representing the Manipur High Court Bar Association, strongly refuted allegations of discrimination, stating that all lawyers were granted access without bias. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud requested the Association President to provide a sample of court orders demonstrating equal access for lawyers of all communities, ensuring transparency and adherence to the directive.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, representing the State of Manipur, reported that 2,638 cases were listed for hearing in the High Court within 30 days, and virtual hearing facilities were made available daily. Mehta argued that these facts indicated the normal functioning of the High Court and accused the petitioners of attempting to exploit the situation through legal proceedings.
A Proactive Step
To dispel doubts about access to the Manipur High Court, the Supreme Court issued a comprehensive order. This order mandated that the State of Manipur, in coordination with the Chief Justice of the High Court, establish and activate video conferencing facilities in all nine judicial districts, covering all sixteen districts in Manipur. This move aimed to ensure that every member of the bar and litigants could address the court without any hindrance. The court emphasized that this video conferencing infrastructure must be operational within one week of the order.
A Stern Warning
The Supreme Court also sternly warned that it expected all members of the bar to guarantee that no lawyer would be obstructed from appearing before the court. Any violation of this directive would be considered contempt of court, reinforcing the commitment to upholding access to justice.
As the proceedings concluded for the day, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud clarified the court’s intentions, stating that they had not acted on any specific complaint but rather sought to caution and ensure that access to justice was preserved.
The Human Side
Following the issuance of this order, a lawyer representing the Kuki community addressed the bench, recounting how his house had been attacked during the ongoing ethnic violence, forcing him to flee. The Supreme Court’s directive aims to prevent such incidents and secure the rights of lawyers from all communities to practice law in Manipur without fear or obstruction.
The Supreme Court’s directive in response to the challenges faced by lawyers in Manipur serves as a beacon of hope for the legal community and the pursuit of justice in the region. While it addresses specific concerns related to lawyers, its broader message resonates with the principles of equality, transparency, and the rule of law. The court’s unwavering commitment to ensuring unimpeded access to justice for all lawyers, regardless of their community, is a testament to its pivotal role in safeguarding the foundations of democracy and the rule of law.