In the Temple of Justice: A Survey Experience

Ramya Sridhar Tirumalai


As page157I step off my flight and on to the tarmac, the distinctive humidity of Kerala’s air instantly surrounds me. I am in Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, for just a day, to monitor the execution of DAKSH’s Access to Justice Survey. As part of our Rule of Law Project, we are conducting this nation-wide survey to study the experiences and map the perceptions of litigants in the Indian judicial system. Surveyors will visit district courts across the country. When we finish, we expect to have surveyed 10,000 respondents across 250 towns and cities. Exiting the airport, I find the pre-arranged taxi, and am greeted by Binu, who is my driver for the day. Immediately, we are off, first to pick up the surveyors and then to proceed to the courts.

The narrow, winding, and still quiet roads of Trivandrum are familiar to me, having made many trips here to see my grandparents. My thoughts dwell on the peculiarity of coming here on work instead of leisure. Suddenly, a harsher irony of this visit crosses my mind. The roads are familiar, however their final destination, the court, is quite foreign to me. Though I am a lawyer in name and degree, I’ve made only a few visits to the court. While I am well acquainted with the judicial system and process thanks to the work I have done at DAKSH and the Rule of Law Project over the last 18 months, my physical trysts with the courts have been mostly restricted to internships in the High Courts of Kerala and Karnataka, with an odd administrative visit thrown in for good measure. As I reflect on this, I feel a bit nervous. What am I going to see? What will I hear? Will I be able to document everything that I need to?

I am abruptly pulled out of my musings as the car stops. We are picking up my companions for the day, the surveyors. They make a contrasting duo as they cross the road to get in the car, one tall, lanky, and bespectacled, and the other shorter page158and broader. The taller one settles down in the front seat, while the shorter one sits in the back with me, and once again we are on our way.

As I talk to the surveyors, some of my nervousness starts to fade. The one next to me is an affable and jovial chap. His introduction counts him as the second Binu in the car. His more reserved co-surveyor in the front seat is Rajiv. Right off the bat, Binu narrates his survey experiences in ultra-rapid Malayalam. In my mind, I silently thank all the summers with my grandparents for instilling the ability to follow this speech, which is bubbling out at breakneck speed.

Binu is eager to answer my questions. When I ask him what the main problem they face while conducting the survey, pat comes the reply, ‘Madam, aarkum avarde case number arinjuda!’ That is, no one knows their own case number. To say that I am surprised would be an understatement. Case numbers are the unique identities or ‘fingerprints’ assigned to each case. In the litigation system, not knowing one’s own case number seems akin to not knowing your name in everyday life. I wonder out loud, how do these litigants then, manage in the courts? Binu explains that all the lawyers have clerks, who know the case numbers. These clerks are present in the court premises throughout proceedings and coordinate with the litigants to ensure they appear at the hearing. Without the clerks, Binu says, the litigants would be completely lost.

Binu has more (unpleasant) surprises in store for me — for instance, he reveals that they have not managed to interview even a single female respondent. When I question him as to why, he launches into a long-winded explanation on what kind of cases the female litigants are involved in, and how the shame and fear of social stigma make them unwilling to talk, ending with the cryptic, ‘When we get to the court, you’ll see’. This becomes Binu’s catch phrase in response to most of the questions I ask him.

It is not all bad though. Binu tells me how much he and Rajiv have learnt about the court system in the past month and how he’s applying some of his newly acquired knowledge to a case he is involved with. He is surprised when I tell him that I am a lawyer. ‘You are too soft-spoken to be one!’ he exclaims, and adds the now ubiquitous, ‘When we get to the court, you’ll see how real lawyers are.’ Though duly chastised on my decidedly un-lawyerly nature, I am unfazed and continue quizzing Binu. It is then that he makes a particularly pertinent observation, one which revealed a perspective that had never occurred to me previously, and which I still cannot get out of my head. ‘You know the main problem with this survey, Madam?’ Binu asks, when I shake my head, he continues, ‘Asking people questions while they wait in court is like asking people questions while they wait in the hospital.’ His words send a jolt through me. Though comparable in the quality of being obvious and many times inevitable final institutions dealing with problems of law and health respectively, I’ve never thought to compare the two. In my mind, courts have held a high place among institutions, as temples of justice. Is that how the common person sees the court, as they see the inside of a hospital? A place filled with dread and suffering and anxiety?

I have time to ponder this and other complexities on the long drive. Today we are visiting the courts in Attingal. Attingal is a municipality about 40 kilometres away from Trivandrum. Despite being a major transport hub and a significant town, Attingal seems tiny to me. The roads get dustier as we come to a big intersection. The trio of Binu, Binu, and Rajiv look as lost as I feel. None of them has been to the courts at Attingal before. We ask a few people, take a circuitous path, and make a sharp turn up a steep slope before finally slowing to page159a stop. Surveyor Binu exuberantly announces that we have reached our destination for the day. I step out, squinting in the too-bright sunshine, and there it is — the Attingal court complex.

My mouth drops open for a few seconds as I survey my surroundings. Sitting at the top of the slope is a ramshackle collection of motley buildings. Some have a traditional tiled roof, while the main one is a badly painted concrete block. In front of the buildings, not fitting in with the rest of the scene, are rows of pots, in rainbow colours. An afterthought to beautify perhaps? In any case, this is far removed from what I had pictured. Ruefully I make an internal note to stop using that exemplary piece of red brick architecture, the Attara Kacheri, which houses the Bangalore Bench of the High Court of Karnataka, as a benchmark for court buildings.

Rajiv and Binu inform me that we are going to visit the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, First Class, Attingal. I’ve never been to a district-level criminal court and I wonder which one of the buildings it will be. It turns out that we need to take a bit of a walk to the rear of the court complex to find the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, First Class. When we come to the last building in the complex, we see the board for the court in question.

The court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, First Class, Attingal is housed in dilapidated cream-coloured building that has yellowed with age. It is more a single large room than building. A faded blue tarpaulin sheet has been extended over the side of the room to create shade for the sitting area where litigants wait to be called. For seating, there are two long wooden benches placed against the walls. There is a notice board that contains what looks like remnants of notices from 2009. It becomes painfully clear to me how far away the ideas I had, and the pictures I had painted, are from reality.

Rajiv tells me that we are very early. I’m impatient to start the actual survey, so I suggest we start looking for respondents. Binu tells me that this is a difficult time, as people will be stressed about the outcomes of their hearings, but he scans the vicinity for possible respondents. I feel that Rajiv and Binu are being a tad reticent, but decide not to interfere for the moment, and resort to observing. I sit down on the bench and take a look around. Prima facie, Binu seems to have drawn a correct comparison to a hospital, as the faces all around me show signs of anxiety. Some are in deep conversation with their companions, while one is repetitively clenching and unclenching his fists as he looks straight ahead unblinkingly, and another is tightly clutching a rosary while silently moving his lips in what I assume must be prayer.

Binu and Rajiv reappear on the scene with a group of three men in tow. They have found the first respondent for the day. His name is Manikandan and he (surprisingly) knows his case number. He seems to be a young man, in his late 20s or at most early 30s. He is dressed in a dark-green half-sleeved shirt and a starched white cotton mundu. His stiff shoulders and rigid posture indicate his tension. I smile at him, hoping to put him at ease, but I get no returning smile. He is the accused in a petty theft case and is here with an uncle and a family friend.

Rajiv will be asking the questions and entering them in our questionnaire, which is accessed through an Android app. As none of the litigants know English, Binu and Rajiv translate the question and answer choices on the spot to Malayalam. Manikandan’s case number is entered and we start. Almost immediately, it seems that Manikandan is regretting agreeing to participate. We are at question three and he interrupts, asking what good this survey will do. Binu gives him the standard response about understanding the perceptions of litigants, and he snorts contemptuously. ‘Why do you need to understand?’ he asks angrily. I’m taken page160aback by his irritation and hostility. A pattern is set for the interview, with Manikandan jumping at the surveyor’s throats between questions. When we reach the question on his educational qualifications, he informs us that he has failed 10th standard and turns sullen, replying to all further questions monosyllabically, or saying that he does not know. Thankfully, his companions are easier to talk to and they ply us with the required information.

We learn that Manikandan is a labourer, that he comes to the court by walk and then bus, and that out of our list of 15 possible assets, he has only three, an LPG stove, ceiling fan, and mobile phone. The question on annual income particularly seems to infuriate him and he storms off. Alarmed, I look at Binu, who makes a gesture to wait with his hand, indicating that Manikandan will return. As we wait, Binu and Rajiv make small talk with the companions, who are curious about the survey. They ask if we are with the government, and when I say that we are not, the uncle laughs dismissively and asks of what use our survey is then.

Manikandan returns, and we proceed to struggle through the remainder of the questions. Surprisingly, it is the questions that seek his perceptions which rile Manikandan up the most. When asked how long he thinks his case will take to be decided, he snaps at us, saying that his perception is irrelevant as it is only the judge who can decide that. Bail is also a touchy subject, with Manikandan alternating between refusing to answer and expressing his suspicion of our intentions. I breathe a sigh of relief as Rajiv hits the save button and we finish the interview, hoping fervently that the subsequent respondents won’t be so unfriendly.

Binu and Rajiv head off for a quick cup of tea and I go back to my place on the bench. I need a brief sit-down to make some notes and process the interview. What cuts the sharpest is not just Manikandan’s cynicism, but the duality of it. Not only is there pessimism towards judicial process, but there is also scorn, distrust, and contempt at attempts to better the system. I speculate to myself on how and why a person can refuse to share opinions of a system that they are forcibly entrenched in and clearly hate, yet be disparaging of any efforts to improve it at the same time?

Rajiv and Binu reappear, raring to go after their chai break. Rajiv stays at the front of the court, while Binu ushers me to the corner of the waiting area. There is another man, who has been watching us with some interest. Binu explains our survey to him and happily he agrees to answer all our questions. Our second respondent’s name is Suresh and he is accompanied by his mother.

Binu had mentioned that a significant obstacle to the survey was the reluctance of people to speak. I truly understand this hurdle as we attempt to get answers from Suresh, and more specifically, his mother. As we ask a section of questions relating to the opposite party, it emerges that Suresh and his uncle had a dispute over family property. Before Suresh can tell us any more, his mother angrily hisses at him to stop talking. We proceed with the questions, and after four more, Binu prods Suresh into giving us details about his quarrel. Once again Suresh’s mother jumps in, warning her son not to divulge any more. Binu and I try to placate her and ensure that anonymity will be maintained. She is clearly disbelieving, telling us it is bad enough that she has had to come to court. She further admonishes us for asking these questions, which she feels violate their privacy.

Our interview with Suresh continues. He too is a labourer and has had a violent clash with his uncle over family property. He has been coming to court for three years now. After Manikandan’s brash and surly manner, speaking to Suresh is a treat. He is cautious, but endeavours to answer each of our questions to the best of his abilities. Suresh’s page161mother is on tenterhooks and towards the end of the survey, she snaps. ‘Please just leave us alone,’ she entreats. Her eyes well up with tears and she continues, ‘How will any of this help us, how can you help us? Nobody can do anything for us!’ It is evident that the sense of shame she feels in connection with this case is deep, as she starts sobbing. As Binu quickly finishes with the questions, Suresh’s mother recovers and adds her final thoughts on our survey. She feels that our endeavours and involvement are meaningless and declares, ‘Only the court can solve our problems.’ Once again the obvious contradiction in the conversation stuns me. In the space of five minutes, Suresh’s mother has demarcated the court as the source of all problems as well as the saviour. How is it that there is acceptance and moreover belief in a system that is difficult to navigate on the best of days and completely hostile on its worst?

Other than thoughts and questions on the courts, the survey starts to throw up some worrying facts. For example, Manikandan and Suresh have both said that they spend on an average Rs 1,000 each time they visit the court. The annual income each has declared is about Rs 1 lakh and both suffer loss of pay when they come to court. This means they are spending 1 per cent of their yearly income on each hearing, approximately amounting to three days’ wages. While in both these specific cases, there is no alternative to the courts as the respondents are accused parties in criminal cases, this figure nonetheless raises alarm bells on the general economic costs of going to court. The big picture is even more disconcerting, as the amount mentioned is only the monetary cost for a single hearing. Most cases in this country drag on for multiple hearings over many years. The question arises do these exorbitant costs effectively prohibit access to justice?

Binu and Rajiv continue the survey, but I take a break from the interviews to watch the court proceedings. The court, as mentioned before, is a single room. The judge, Chief Judicial Magistrate, First Class, is seated on a high platform, to the side of which is a witness box. In the middle of the room, there is a U-shaped table at which all the lawyers are seated. There are policemen and those accused crowded in the back and sides of the room. It is pandemonium, with the lawyers, clerk, police, litigants, and judge all talking at once.

There is a clerk in front of the judge calling out one case number after the other, without pause. Sporadically there is an answer from a lawyer and the calling stops. Many an adjournment is sought, but sometimes the accused are also brought before the judge. They are all men, and are roughly pulled by the police, to stand before the judge. Subservient seems too mild a word to describe their manner. As the scene unfolds, there is one moment that stands out, stamped in my memory indelibly.

I mentioned previously, that the legal fraternity considers courts to be temples of justice. To expand on this notion, it is believed that justice can be dispensed only in these institutions. Their hallowed halls are thought of as temples due to the almost sacred value they hold in the legal systems. In the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, First Class, Attingal, I see the flip side of these temples. One of the accused in a case is shoved before the judge. He falls on his knees with folded hands and tears running down his face, as he repeatedly asks the judge to forgive him. It strikes me that the court is a temple to him as well, though in a totally different sense than it is to the legal fraternity. It is the final frontier for clemency, pity, and pardon, headed by a seemingly unforgiving overlord. The judge appears to be supremely unconcerned of the plight of the man in front of him and moves from case to case in the blink of an eye. It then occurs to me that Binu’s statement on courts being akin to hospitals may be far more astute than I gave it credit for.

page162I return to Rajiv and Binu. They have finished a few more surveys and are currently interviewing Prasad. Prasad, like Suresh, is eager to speak with us. While he answers questions about himself, he is clueless about all matters relating to the court and has no independent ideas on his case. When I ask him how much longer he thinks his case will go on, he says, ‘As long as the judge sees fit.’ Unfortunately it turns out that we cannot submit his interview as he has no knowledge of his case number. Hearing my colleagues’ experiences on their field visits to survey locations and seeing the survey responses we have received so far, the lack of information from respondents about their cases was something I have come to expect. However, seeing it in reality shocks me all over again.

The day progresses and we speak to a few more respondents, but meet an equal number of litigants who want nothing to do with us. Binu’s prophetic words, ‘When we get to the court, you’ll see’, have come true more than once. A case in point is the underrepresentation of women in our survey. There were only two women litigants in today’s court, both of whom emphatically refuse to speak to us. Finally, Binu declares we have met the day’s target in terms of the number of responses, and are done. As we climb in the car to head back to Trivandrum, I’m exhausted, but am leaving with a wholly different perspective of the courts.

In addition to coming face to face with the problems litigants face and the realities of court infrastructure, the challenges of conducting a survey in the Indian courts have become evident. What seemed so straightforward when we created these questionnaires is in practice a painfully slow and arduous task to execute. The hindrances are vast and varied. From the reluctance of respondents to talk, the information that we lose in translation from the vernacular, the litigants’ lack of knowledge of key information to even technical problems, no cellular network in remote areas (meaning our app-based surveys do not work), collecting this kind of data is clearly an onerous endeavour.

As the car speeds back to Trivandrum, I engage in desultory conversation with Binu and Rajiv. The six hours I spent in Attingal have opened up an utterly novel view of the courts for me, in substance as well as form. A big separation I have made in my mind is severing the link between justice and the courts. Are the haphazard proceedings I witnessed or the ill-informed litigants I encountered indicative of justice? Those of us who do not need to go to the courts to resolve disputes or seek justice are oblivious to the reality courts represent to the vast majority of the populace who use them. Binu was spot-on in drawing congruence between the court and a hospital. We insiders may see courts as places of work and as sanctuaries of justice. This is far removed from what they represent to those who approach them to solve disputes. They are unfamiliar surroundings, they are halls of dread and doom, and they are the final say. Yet paradoxically, they are also the last and only hope. I take my mind off my ruminations and turn to Binu, who asks me one last question. ‘So, Madam, did you see?’ My answer is a resounding yes.