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When Justice Kathawalla finally called it a day, it was the wee hours, when the only other place buzzing with similar energy in Mumbai is T2 of the international airport. He sat for over 10 hours beyond the regular court closing time of 5pm, making it three court days in one to prevent a backlog pile-up. The judicial hours in HC are from 11am to 5pm, with a one-hour lunch break at 2pm. TOI had on April 27 reported how he had been sitting till midnight for some days to clear backlog.
At 6pm on Friday, Kathawalla’s courtroom at one end on the first floor was teeming with litigants and lawyers as usual. The scene was the same at midnight too. The judge hadn’t taken a dinner break. After the post-midnight record, on Saturday, the judge was back in court at 10am, all set to hear 14 matters listed on board.
Litigants, like film and theatre actor Arif Zakaria who had come at 3pm on Friday for a matter where he and other members of RNA Exotica Flat Purchasers Association are battling a builder against delay in possession of flats in a 32-storeyed tower at Goregaon (W), left after the matter was called out eventually at 1.15am. He went looking for eats at 10pm, but many lawyers too forsook dinner plans. “At 3pm, serial number 945 was on, at 11.15pm it was around 972. Ours was 1001 on board,” said Zakaria. The board listing starts at 901. “It was incredible, a unique dispensation of justice. He is a midnight crusader,” said Zakaria.
By 11pm, other facilities in the HC had shut, even the library on the second floor and the Bombay Bar Association on the third. A lady lawyer complained about toilets being shut. The judge summoned the court keeper, and, rapping him, asked him to open the washrooms.
‘Judge inspires confidence that justice can be delivered swiftly’
Courtroom number 21, adjacent to his, too remained open all night with the a/c on, ensuring litigants and lawyers awaiting their turn had a place to sit.
Pravin Samdani, senior counsel, argued a property dispute matter at 3.15am for a flat purchaser in a redevelopment project which was delayed. He said, “The judge was as fresh as he is in the mornings. Energy levels were high in the court.” A few other counsel who also burned midnight oil did not wish to speak. But young counsel Karl Shroff, who argued a matter at 11pm to get a stay on attachment of property, said, “He inspires confidence in litigants that justice can be delivered swiftly.”
Not all lawyers support such late working hours, however. Bombay Bar Association president Milind Sathe and several other members had earlier met Justice Kathawalla and requested him not to sit beyond 5pm and on holidays, without consent of both parties in advance. The court administration had then issued a notice that matters after 5pm would heard by consent in his court. Sathe said on Saturday, “Sitting beyond court hours and certainly through the night causes a lot of inconvenience to a large number of advocates, paralegals and their staff as well the court staff and administration. The library was kept open till 11pm on Friday. Therefore, despite the great work he is doing, it raises issues of institutional functioning.”
Some said that the nearly 25 judges’ vacancies needed to be filled to aid in tackling backlog. Former Maharashtra advocate General S G Aney told TOI, “This incident will go down as part of fascinating HC lore. There is no doubt about his remarkable dedication and ability. The underlying tragedy, however, is of the persistent refusal of the legal fraternity to work all year round.” Ex-HC judge V M Kanade said “with rise in pendency, there is a need for more speedy disposal, but the disposal has to be done within court hours. Though admirable, sitting late is not a sustainable solution in the long term for an institution.”