Right of lawyers to go on strike: Mumbai HC

Prachi Kumari

A bench headed by Chief Justice Mohit Shah of the Bombay High Court has warned contempt action against lawyers who go on strike. The HC was hearing a PIL filed by advocate Manoj Laxman Shirsatthe contending that the strike observed on calls given by the District Bar Associations on August 29, 2013 and by the Bar Council of India on March 11, 2013 for a countrywide protest on varying issues, were illegal.

The court observed that, “The law with reference to the advocates going on strike is now well settled. It is the duty of every advocate who has accepted a brief to attend trial even though it may go on day-to-day and for a prolonged period. He cannot refuse to attend court merely because a boycott call and/or to go on strike is given by the Bar Association.”

As strike is considered one of the oldest and the most effective weapon for redressing grievances of any sort, it has not left any walk of life unaffected. It appears that legal community too, has developed a tendency of going on strike for any cause.

Subsequently, the Indian judiciary has moved towards taking action against strike.

In Mahabir Prasad Singh Vs. Jacks Aviation (P) Ltd. ((AIR 1999 SC 287)), it was held that “No court is obliged to adjourn a cause because of the strike call given by any association of advocates or a decision to boycott the courts either in general or any particular court. It is the solemn duty of every court to proceed with the judicial business during court hours. No court should yield to pressure tactics or boycott calls or any kind of browbeating.”

In Koluttumottil Razak Vs. State of Kerala (([2000] 4 SCC 465))it was observed that “It is the duty of Court to carry on with court proceedings. Adjournment cannot be justified where appellant was languishing in jail for a long time. Court should in such cases look into the matter itself and interfere if necessary on merits.”

In Ramon Services Pvt. Ltd, Vs. Subhash Kapoor (([2001] 9 SCC 118))it was observed that “…regrettably courts have contributed to continuance of strikes by sympathising with the Bar and by failing to discharge their legal obligations. In future, inaction by courts may result in contempt of Supreme Court. In future advocates would be answerable for the consequences, at least the monetary loss, suffered by their clients, if non-appearance by advocates were due solely to a strike call.”

The most important case in this regard is Harish Uppal (Ex. Capt.) Vs. Union of India (([2003] 2 SCC 45)). In this case it was held that, “lawyers have no right to go on strike or give a call for boycott, not even on a token strike. The protest, if any is required, can only be by giving press statements, TV interviews, carrying out of court premises banners and/or placards, wearing black or white or any colour armbands, peaceful protest marches outside and away from court premises, going on dharnas or relay fasts etc. Lawyers holding vakalats on behalf of their clients cannot refuse to attend courts in pursuance of a call for strike or boycott. All lawyers must boldly refuse to abide by any call for strike or boycott. No lawyer can be visited with any adverse consequences by the Association or the Council and no threat or coercion of any nature including that of expulsion can be held out. No Bar Council or Bar Association can permit calling of a meeting for purposes of considering a call for strike or boycott and requisition, if any, for such meeting must be ignored. It is held that only in the rarest of rare cases where the dignity, integrity and independence of the Bar and/or the Bench are at stake, courts may ignore (turn a blind eye) to a protest abstention from work for not more than one day. It will be for the court to decide whether or not the issue involves dignity or integrity or independence of the Bar and/or the Bench. Therefore in such cases the President of the Bar must first consult the Chief Justice or the District Judge before advocates decide to absent themselves from court. The decision of the Chief Justice or the District Judge would be final and have to be abided by the Bar. It is held that courts are under no obligation to adjourn matters because lawyers are on strike.”

Again inCommon Cause, A Registered Society Vs. Union of India (([2009] 9 SCC 295))it was observed that Action should be taken against Bar Associations/Lawyers instigating/participating in strikes. Immediate disciplinary action is needed to be taken. There should be imposition of costs by courts in addition to compensation payable by advocate to client for loss suffered due to his non-appearance.

Besides law against strike, there is no moral or equitable justification to go on strike. Although I am not against strike, but I think strike should always be opted as last resort and for the purpose of achieving some gainful objective. Recent history reveals that strike as a weapon is mostly misused which results in chaos and total maladministration. Therefore, strike cannot be justified in the present day situation, because sufferer is the society or public at large.