Serious allegations of attempted bribery against an advocate of the Kerala High Court to “influence judges” have cast a shadow over the working of courts in the country. Many observers feel that the case is a manifestation of the deep malaise that has inflicted the judiciary.
AT a time when the executive has all its guns trained at the judiciary and is firing from the shoulders of the Union Law Minister and Vice-President of the country, serious allegations of attempted bribery against an advocate of the Kerala High Court to “influence judges” have cast a shadow over the working of courts in the country. The incident has also brought to light how atrocities against Dalits continue even in a so-called progressive Left-ruled state like Kerala.
The lawyer in question, Saiby Jose Kidangoor, is president of the powerful Kerala High Court Advocates’ Association (KHCAA), the prime body of lawyers in the state with over 6,000 members. Though the allegations against Kidangoor have been floating in the air for quite some time, two developments in quick succession late last month have brought the issue out in the open.
First, the vigilance wing of the Kerala High Court, which conducted an enquiry into allegations by a few lawyers, found prima facie evidence to proceed against Kidangoor. Closely on the heels of the vigilance finding, in an unusual move, a Kerala high court judge in whose name Kidangoor had allegedly collected huge sums recalled his own order granting bail to two accused in a Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Atrocities Act) offence case.
These should have been enough for Kidangoor to step down as president of the KHCAA, but that did not happen. Instead, he alleged that certain people out to kill him were behind the accusations. “I was being targeted ever since I became the President of the Bar Association. A system itself is being hunted. Personal enmity is behind the case and the complaints are made by lawyers and not the parties,” Kidangoor brazened out, adding that he “is a living martyr”.
Allegations against Kidangoor
According to press reports, the high court vigilance team, which recorded statements from some lawyers, found several instances of Kidangoor collecting huge sums of money ranging from Rs. 25 lakh to Rs. 50 lakh from litigants by taking the names of Justices P.V. Kunhikrishnan, A. Muhamed Mustaque and Ziyad Rahman A.A. of the high court. It said Kidangoor’s integrity was highly doubtful.
The reports say that Kidangoor’s act comes under the ambit of professional misconduct under Section 35 of the Advocates Act. The vigilance wing also reportedly suggested initiation of contempt of court proceedings against him as per Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, besides alerting the Bar Council of Kerala for taking further disciplinary action against him.
Interestingly, the three judges named in the vigilance report have not commented about their proximity to Kidangoor.
High court recalls order favouring Kidangoor’s clients
In a related incident, Justice Rahman A.A. issued an order recalling his earlier ruling in a bail case in which the petitioners were represented by Kidangoor. The case was registered with the Ranni police station in Pathanamthitta district for offences under the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
An American resident with roots in the Pazhavangadi panchayat in Ranni had donated 24 cents of land to be divided among eight Dalit families. However, those living adjacent to the land objected to Dalits building houses in their area, saying they would not allow a Dalit colony to come up in their area. The residents then blocked the approach road to the land allotted to the Dalit families and even destroyed a well used by them. It was then that the Dalit families filed a case against certain individuals. Anticipating their arrest, the residents moved the court through Kidangoor and obtained anticipatory bail.
Back home, they boasted that “nothing would happen to them as they have paid 50 lakhs to Kidangoor to settle the case and the Dalits were taught a lesson.” This was conveyed to the Dalit complainants by a former panchayat member of the area, Binu C. Mathew.
When allegations against Kidangoor surfaced, the Dalit complainants moved the court of Justice Rahman A.A. seeking to recall the order issued on April 29, 2022 granting anticipatory bail to two persons who were represented by Kidangoor.
While recalling the order, the court said, “It is evident that the disposal of the bail application was without notice to the complainant.” The court said that as per Section 15A(3) of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, a victim or his dependent shall have the right to reasonable, accurate and timely notice of court proceedings and the said public prosecutor or state government shall inform the victim about the proceedings. Issuance of an order without complying with such mandate makes the order null, the court said.
In this case, the public prosecutor had joined hands with Kidangoor and did not inform the victim about the bail proceedings. Till date, however, the government has not taken any action against the said prosecutor for lapse in duty.
Action taken so far
After initial dilly-dallying, the Bar Council of Kerala sought an explanation from Kidangoor once it received a complaint forwarded by the Union Law Ministry. In the complaint to Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, some advocates have alleged that Kidangoor has “close acquaintance” with most high court judges. “It is well known in Ernakulam (where the High Court is situated) that this advocate is an agent of judges of Kerala High Court and the only advocate who can influence the judges by bribing them,” the complaint said.
Following the Council’s action, the police also woke up and filed a first information (FIR) report against Kidangoor. The case has been filed against the lawyer by invoking Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code for the offence of cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property and Section 7(a) of the Prevention of Corruption Act for the offence of bribing a public servant. The high court registrar has also collected details of cases taken up by Kidangoor and handed them to the police.
Meanwhile, the Kerala High Court on Monday rejected a plea filed by Kidangoor seeking to dismiss the FIR against him. Saying the allegation of bribery was serious, the single-judge bench of Justice Kauser Edappagath said the investigation should go on. The allegation is maligning the entire judicial system and the truth should come out, Justice Edappagath said.
In his plea, Kidangoor had stated that the allegations against him were untrue and the registration of the case was “absolutely unwarranted and illegal”. Kidangoor also claimed that some lawyers had launched a smear campaign against him to tarnish his image when he declared his candidature for the post of KHCAA president.
Manifestation of a deeper malaise?
Many observers feel that the Kidangoor case is a manifestation of the deep malaise that has inflicted the judiciary. Senior lawyer Dr. Sebastian Paul, who is an outcast from the Bar Association for his stand on the lawyer-journalist stand-off in Kerala, says that Kidangoor is only a “manipulator”. According to him, there is a bigger “caucus operating on caste basis” with a retinue of touts roaming the high court premises hunting for pliable litigants. “It is common knowledge that cases get postponed till such time a particular judge’s court sits. The cancer is spreading,” he warns.
Saying that certain lawyers and judges are a class apart, advocate M.S. Saji says the silence of the judges named in the vigilance report itself speaks volumes on the goings-on in the high court. Journalist Roy Mathew, who himself is a victim of the infamous journalist–lawyers clash in 2016, feels that it is appalling that many judges who are aware of the state of things in courts are keeping mum. “This emboldens lawyers,” he says.
The KHCAA has not come out with any statement, and Kidangoor continues to be at the helm of its affairs. It is to be seen whether the police will be bold enough to take action against the lawyer.
Incidentally, journalists are not allowed by lawyers to enter the Trivandrum court to cover its proceedings ever since the 2016 clash. No judge has ever spoken up for those belonging to the fourth pillar of democracy.