The High Court of Madras has an unusual architectural feature, a 175-feet high Tower of the Light House overseeing the city of Chennai. This tower symbolises the role this High Court has played for over a century and a half. It has been a guardian and a watch tower for the rule of law, seeking to secure for our citizens justice — social, economic and political — as enjoined in the preamble to our Constitution.
The High Court of Madras has, over the years, earned fame as an institution of high standards with strong traditions and ideals. Its Bench as well as Bar has been well known for legal erudition and intellectual acumen. Independence and fairness has been its hallmark. Land mark decisions of this Court have contributed greatly to the strengthening of the legal and constitutional framework of our country. Many luminaries from the Madras Bar have contributed to the national movement and politics of independent India. Sir C Sankaran Nair was Advocate General, then judge and finally Member of the Viceroy's Council. He abandoned the Membership in the Council and joined the Indian National Congress and became its President in 1897.
Shri C Rajagopalachari or 'Rajaji' as he was popularly known, had a successful career in law at this Bar, before he gave up practice and plunged into the freedom struggle. Rajaji served as Governor General of India from June 21, 1948 to January 26, 1950.
My eminent predecessor, Shri R Venkataraman, was also member of this Bar and went on to serve the country in various capacities such as Minister of Finance, Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and Vice President of India before becoming the President of India from 1987 to 1992.
Sir C P Ramasamy Iyer is a name etched in our memory. He not only had a lucrative practice and later became the Advocate General of this Court, he was also the leader of the Home Rule Movement along with Dr. Annie Besant.
Shri V Krishnaswami Aiyar is another name that deserves to be recalled, both for his contribution to this Court as well as to society at large. He was a close friend of Gokhale and Surendranath Banerjee and highly respected by Sir Phirozeshah Mehta, all of whom represented moderate views of the independence movement.
The independence of our judiciary is widely recognised and a matter of pride for every citizen of our country. The Indian Judiciary has enlarged the scope of fundamental rights, increased the space for democracy, while maintaining the quality of justice delivered. We must do everything possible to preserve and protect the independence of our judiciary from any form of encroachment. At the same time, the judiciary, as an important pillar of democracy, must also keep reinventing itself through a process of introspection and self-correction. The separation of powers, long established as one of the basic features of our Constitution, ensures that each organ of the government operates within its own sphere and none takes over functions assigned to the other. It is the Constitution that is supreme. The laws are enacted by the legislature, the executive does the implementation, and the judiciary is the final interpreter of these laws. The delicate balance of power enshrined in the Constitution should be maintained at all times.
Our judges, through innovation and judicial activism have contributed enormously to expanding the frontiers of justice and providing access to the poorest of the poor of our country. Taking into account the special circumstances of a developing country, our Supreme Court has expanded the common law principle of ‘locus standi’ when it comes to violation of the fundamental rights of our citizens. A post card or a newspaper article has been sufficient to trigger the intervention of the Courts in support of individual rights. Today, our Courts permit any person, acting with bona fide and having sufficient interest in maintaining an action for judicial redress for public inquiry, to put the judicial machinery in motion. However, a note of caution needs to be sounded. Judicial activism should not lead to the Constitutional principles of separation of power getting eroded. Judicial pronouncements must respect the boundaries that separate the legislature, executive and judiciary.
The principle of separation of powers is equally a principle of restraint. While the exercise of powers of the legislature and executive are subject to judicial review, the only check on the judiciary's exercise of powers is the self-imposed discipline and self-restraint. Judging the judges is a delicate and sensitive topic and one which has been viewed with some concern by jurists. Legislation which carefully balances the independence of the judiciary with the need to protect and preserve its credibility is a useful complement to the judiciary's own efforts. Ultimately, the credibility of the judiciary will depend on the quality of the judges who man the various Courts of the country. Therefore, the process of selection and appointment of judges should conform to the highest of standards and should be based on well established principles.
Justice delayed is justice denied. Administration of justice must be quick and accessible to all. Despite various challenges, the judiciary in India is working hard to reduce backlog of cases and provide speedy justice. Our courts must be strengthened with additional resources and the Government is fully engaged in this task. A National Mission for Justice Delivery has been launched, the Constitution is being amended to raise the retirement age of High Court Judges and efforts are underway to create an All India Judicial Service. The filling of vacancies in courts across the country is a matter that must be taken up as a priority by all concerned. We must make haste in this regard but without compromising on quality.
The judicial system in our country should not only be accessible but also affordable. The fact that litigation is time consuming and expensive is well known. To address this, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation and arbitration should be encouraged. This will help ensure timely and effective justice, and ease judicial dependency. Greater efforts are also needed to spread legal literacy across the nation.
The great traditions and vitality of the Madras High Court exemplify the high sense of duty that has animated the judiciary and the legal profession of this state. I am confident that it will continue to uphold its glorious heritage of 150 years.
Excerpts from the address of Pranab Mukherjee, President of India, at the valedictory function of sesquicentennial celebrations of the Madras High Court in Chennai, Tamil Nadu on September 8