Law Schools

Why I wish law schools would organise more court visits

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityMy first court visit, during an internship, remains etched in my memory. Visitor pass in hand, I entered the Supreme Court, gazing awestruck at the beautiful façade. I set out to find Courtroom Number 12. How hard could it be? Very hard indeed. It took me half an hour, during which I was even ushered out of a judges’ enclosure, and I missed the matter. I later discovered that this was a rite of passage. All my classmates had stories of getting lost in the winding corridors of court complexes.

Today, only after some months of running around the many district courts of Delhi am I able to carry myself about with a measure of certainty. I discovered many previously unknown parts of court complexes. On its face, a court is little more than the main building with many small courtrooms inside. Only when you get your elbows into work do you discover what lies beneath. Inside the courtroom itself, there is a lot that goes on beyond the interaction between a lawyer and a judge. The judge is assisted by a Reader who handles all administrative work inside the room and the Ahlmad who is charged with handling all judicial files for that court. Outside courts, areas are designated for lawyers’ chambers, and all sorts of para-legal assistance — typists to help with an application, oath commissioners for the accompanying affidavit, and copiers to get the several copies that courts require.

The library and canteen are more interesting. At the court libraries, there are lawyers deeply engrossed in commentaries and preparing their arguments, while others rush in and out looking for copies of cases in matters that are currently being argued. At the canteens, there are tables where lawyers gossip and others where the discussion is about an issue of law.

Windingstaircase_MadrasHighCourtThough a very interesting one, my process of discovering courts left me with some concerns. Courts seemed to pay little or no attention to the ordinary litigant. Lawyers on the other hand, were demigods. Buildings have complex layouts with little or no directional assistance to get around. Security passes at the higher courts automatically exclude litigants without readily available identity proofs but anyone in black and white will manage to enter them unchecked. The bureaucratic dependence on files breeds corruption by creating more palms to grease for any work that needs to be done. Given the scale of the problem, it seems the common litigant can only hope to snigger and chip away, one date at a time.

Courts would certainly benefit from fresh ideas, but where will these come from? A university is the best place for the germination of fresh ideas, but law students are afforded little or no opportunities to familiarise themselves with the problem. Most students only get an opportunity to attend court during internships. But in those few weeks, there is rarely time to explore the court. More exposure to the court would also allow students to make better decisions about their careers.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Lounge Uncategorized

Kheema Matar and lassi at Triveni

The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.
The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.

If an arduous morning in the Supreme Court calls for a more satisfying lunch than the one dished out in the canteen, you have to head to the Tea Terrace at Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg. For years, the “Triveni canteen” is the Supreme Court lawyers’ first choice for a quick, tasty and nutritious meal.

Triveni Kala Sangamam is a venerable fixture in the Delhi Cultural Scene. The tasteful campus houses exhibition spaces and training centres reverberate with traditional and classical music from its classrooms and stages. The canteen itself has been operational for some 30 years now.  It used to be a magnet for the Delhi’s cultural crowd though now you are more likely to run into a lawyer or corporate executives than a jhola-wallah though prices still remain reasonable.

The ambience is pleasing and quiet. The snug indoor area has low tables and cushioned stools and seats around 25. What takes the cake, though, is the open-air dining area surrounded by tendrils and overlooking the amphitheatre.

Hot favourite for lunch here is the kheema matar (minced goat with peas). It thankfully lacks the oil bonanza that is a ubiquitous trait of such dishes in Delhi. Rotis come hot and fluffy from the griddle and the shammi kebabs succulent and textured. The judicious use of oil in the freshly cooked dishes lends them that home-cooked feel.

The vegetarian dishes change daily through the week – you can try the vegetable of the day – and includes old favourites like alu jeera and paneer bhurjis. The snacks menu is full of usual suspects like toasts, omelettes and pakoras. You can wash it all down with a glass of lassi or have a cup of espresso afterwards. You can indulge your sweet tooth with gulab jamuns or a slice of carrot walnut cake, again with a discernible home-cooked quality.

The Tea Terrace is open from 10:30 am to 6:00 pm and serves lunch from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.  With vegetarian dishes priced in the Rs. 30-35 range and meat preparations at Rs. 65, a lunch here would cost you under Rs. 100. Before heading back to the court, you can also check out some contemporary art at their galleries!

Justin Thomas Panachackel works at Rainmaker.

Litigation Uncategorized

Don’t sweat it, Dwarka!

Justin Thomas visited the Dwarka District Court Complex and explored the possible future of district courts in India.
Justin Thomas visited the Dwarka District Court Complex and explored the possible future of district courts in India.

A district court in India, usually housed in a majestic colonial-era building, is easy to describe. There are the rows of advocates and notaries under every semblance of a shade. Liver-red pan stains, that marker of Indian civil space, is ubiquitous. The milling crowd haplessly try making sense of the time-place set. It is crowded, chaotic, confusing and altogether brutish.

Since the September of 2008, the Dwarka District Court Complex (“the DDCC”) has strived to be not just an exception to the rule, but also a prototype for the future rule. Situated right next to the Sector-10 Metro station in the Delhi suburb of Dwarka, the complex is a sensible blend of practicality and the futuristic.

That the DDCC is different from other courts is apparent as soon as you enter it. As you go past the gates manned by private security guards and into the complex, two things stand out – it is rather unexpectedly spic and span, and even at the peak of a Delhi summer, it is pleasantly cool. The DDCC is India’s first district court with centralised air-conditioning and 24-hours power backup.

The 79 courtrooms of the DDCA are housed in four wings in two seven-storey buildings built around a tasteful, circular courtyard. Courtrooms are at every alternate floor, surrounding expansive lobbies, with the judges’ chambers distributed in the other floors. Separate buildings house the lawyers’ chambers and the administrative block. The entire facility is disabled-friendly and provides barrier-free access.

dwarka-tjThe complex also has a canteen, a post office, a facilitation centre, and separate libraries for judges and lawyers apart from the police station and judicial lock-up. Could not find a white shirt in the morning? There is a TJ’s outlet, a Tihar Jail initiative, where white shirts sell as briskly as their famed namkeens.

The facilitation centre provides all the information the litigant or the lawyer might need about matters taken up during the day and the courtrooms where they will be heard. Coupled with the digital display boards outside every courtroom, it goes a long way in making life simpler for those with business before the court.

Mr. I. S. Mehta, the honourable district judge, who has been at the helm of affairs here since the inception of the complex, has a very hands-on approach in running it.  “When we took possession of the complex, none of these amenities were around,” he points out, “Since then we have kept adding user-friendly features to it.”

The court is also in the forefront in the use of technology. Video-conferencing enabled courtrooms are extensively used in deposing in such sensitive matters as rape cases. A new biometric attendance system will be in place from next month for employees.

The lawyers’ chambers go a long way in adding to the dignity of the complex. It provides consultation rooms to lawyers at a nominal amount. “Chambers are essential for the efficient functioning of lawyers. The facilities provided in other (Delhi) courts are hardly conducive for business,” said Mr. P. S. Singh, Secretary of Dwarka District Court Bar Association, as he was overseeing the final work on the chambers on the sixth floor.

The facilities available at the DDCC have prompted demands for the shifting of more business here. Though the court’s jurisdiction is limited to the South-West district, it has special jurisdiction over all S.138, Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (cheque bounce) cases involving financial institutions in Delhi. The lion’s share of pendency emanates from the S.138 cases, and eight evening courts function exclusively to dispose of them. The Family Court, too, functions in the premise. The complex also has state-of-the-art alternate dispute resolution facilities.

dwarka1With just thirty-odd functioning courtrooms, the complex is heavily under-utilised. The authorities here deem this issue a policy matter for the Delhi High Court to decide on. “There is a lot of opposition from bar associations of other courts to shifting more matters here. ” a lawyer, who did not want to be identified, informed this correspondent. There is an excellent case to be made for the shifting of more tribunals to the complex. The real test for the complex would be when it approaches capacity functioning. Also, for a court complex that has automatic taps in the washrooms where you would be loath to touch the plumbing with your bare hands in most other courts, it is extraordinary not to have a website.
It is easy to pine for the architectural refinement of Patiala House. But once you visit the cool environs of the DDCC, it is hard to keep complaining.

Justin Thomas Panachackel works at Rainmaker.

Litigation Uncategorized

Good design and law courts

(Prof. T. Oommen)

Court buildings are mostly monumental in character and designed in modern or traditional styles. Famous examples are the Supreme Court at New Delhi in the traditional style and the High Court at Chandigarh, which is modern. Despite the difference in architectural styles, both are built on a monumental scale. The association with the institution of law and its importance as one of the pillars of civilized society drive architects to conceive the exterior in awe inspiring form. Even the interior spaces of these buildings such as the entrance lobbies, the halls and the court rooms match the exterior in monumentality to enhance the feeling of reverence that is thought to be appropriate.

Photo: The Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh, by robespiero.
Photo: The Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh, by robespiero.

Questions of style in court buildings are not entirely simple, but the proper organisation of interior spaces to make it functional, convenient and comfortable for users is most complex and likely to extract all the skills of an experienced architect.

There are generally five categories of users for a court building: (1) the visiting public (for purposes of litigation or for attending court sessions, (2) court officials, (3) attorneys and their aids, (4) judges and (5) detainees or prisoners and their security guards (according to the type and level of the courts).

Great care and skill in planning is required to segregate the circulation of these different categories of users so that they do not unnecessarily come in contact with each other unless required. This is of special importance when terror and security are such a major concern. Good design can reduce the massive commotion and associated security threats in the court precincts and can efficiently keep high profile defendants and their lawyers secure while entering the court and attending proceedings.
For example, the circulation routes of the visiting public, whether their purpose of visit is to transact official business with the court or a casual one to the public gallery of a court hall, must be planned and segregated in such a way that the public do not casually come across judges and their office rooms. Again, the category of detainees and criminals, who are brought to appear in the court, has to be amply protected and segregated from the public areas. Any contact of this category with the circulation of other ones will obviously be highly inappropriate and dangerous. At the same time, detainees and criminals may require secure facilities for consulting their attorneys in private. Thus all the five categories and their sub categories have to be provided with appropriate segregation in circulation and controlled meeting points for the discharge of court functions.

The close involvement of judges and administrators of the court building for determining these requirements of segregation and meeting points is absolutely essential to the design process.

The detailed needs and requirements for each category of court users tend to be so special and different that planning the building becomes quite complex.  A common approach to the problem of segregation, separation of movement routes and workspaces and security needs is grade separation by levels. For example, spaces for the detainees and prisoners can be provided in the basement floor. They would be escorted down in to the basement from closed vehicles and be brought to the courtroom directly from there. The spaces for guards and policemen would also be provided in the basement and so would consultation facilities with attorneys. Facilities for judges may be provided at the highest level with separate entries – perhaps separate lifts and exits and direct routes of entry to the judges podium in the courtrooms.

In such a set up, courtrooms would be at the middle level. The public may be provided access at the ground level due to their large numbers and for their ease of use. Further, each of the categories would require their necessary service spaces like toilets or mechanical equipment rooms.  A meticulous listing of conveniences and services for each category in an inventory list, and cross checking them out in the final scheme will be necessary for good results.
There can be no great disagreement that courthouses need to be monumental, impressive and overpowering like the institution of law. However, there can be much debate about the specific architectural style of court buildings among legal professionals, the public and especially among architects themselves.

Proponents for traditional styles would argue that each society has to reach back to great moments in its history and evoke memory and pride in its unique culture thus creating a continuum with its ancient history. Modernists would argue that the technology of the 21st century and the needs of the building should play the primary role in determining the form, that architecture must reflect “the spirit of the age” – our technological and societal progress rather than tradition. There can be no conclusive architectural argument for either position but like the debate between tradition and modernity it is perhaps the dialectic between the two that is most important in creating innovative designs.

Many of the above arguments were made after Independence when the decision to construct the capitol complex of Chandigarh in the most avant-garde version of modern architecture was made. The massive, sculptural High Court was and still is the most famous building in this architecturally world famous project. For many including Prime Minister Nehru, it represented India’s release from the burden of tradition, but one of his remarks on the subject is particularly interesting.   “It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact, but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing which India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think”.

The spirit of his remark seems to be to not lose sight of what is most important in that particular project – its symbolism and impact. It begs us the questions of what message our courthouse buildings convey today. The answer is fairly obvious. Too many of them are decrepit and crumbling old facilities that do not address security issues, efficiency or ease of use, let alone instill any sort of sense of civic pride and reverence for the institution. It is therefore imperative that architectural design must address not only the creation of impressive monumental form, but also equally impressive planning in the organization of spaces to create efficient, functional courthouses.

Good design must not be a luxury or an afterthought, but an indispensable starting point in creating respect for the institution of law and a belief in the efficiency of our legal system.