The case of soiled hands


M J Antony / New Delhi January 13, 2010, 0:09 IST

The growing tribe of litigants who pollute the fountain of justice worries the Supreme Court

We are told to disclose the full truth to doctors and lawyers, and never tell lies or suggest falsehood to them. But the courts are left out. That is perhaps why the Supreme Court lamented recently that the tribe of litigants who have no respect for truth has increased over the last four decades. No prize for guessing who advises these litigants. The problem must be quite serious because the judgment delivered last month in the Dalip Singh vs State of UP case is prefaced with long passages on the fall in standards from the Gandhian precepts. It says in part: “For many centuries, Indian society cherished two basic values of life, that is satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence). Mahavir, Gautam Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi guided the people to ingrain these values in their daily life. Truth constituted an integral part of the justice delivery system which was in vogue in pre-Independence era and the people used to feel proud to tell truth in the courts irrespective of the consequences. However, the post-Independence period has seen drastic changes in our value system. Those involved in litigation do not hesitate to take shelter in falsehood, misrepresentation and suppression of facts in the court proceedings.”

Perceiving this trend, the courts have evolved new rules, and it is now well established that a “litigant who attempts to pollute the stream of justice or who touches the pure fountain of justice with tainted hands is not entitled to any relief, interim or final.” However, the problem has not gone away.

It has deep roots in the judicial system.

Every year, a few cases in which unscrupulous litigants are found abusing the process of the courts reach the apex court. The situation in the courts below must be worse. In 2008, the court stated that if the litigant has not approached it “with clean hands”, not candidly disclosed all the facts he is aware of and intends to delay the proceedings, he would be kept out of the system (Sunil Poddar vs Union Bank of India). This was reiterated in several other cases.

In the present case, a landowner who was told to surrender surplus land under the UP Imposition of Ceiling on Land Holdings Act could delay the proceedings since 1975 till his death, when his legal representatives took over the litigation. It ended last month in the Supreme Court, but not before depriving hundreds of landless persons of the benefit of the law. The failure of land reforms may be attributed to several other causes, but litigation is one sure bet for delaying the surrender and enjoying the land for three generations, as in this case. The grandson’s main argument was that his ancestor did not get notice of the proceedings under the law and, in any case, he was too ill to present himself before the authorities.

Disbelieving all these, the Supreme Court remarked: “We are amazed at the audacity with which the grandson could make a patently false statement on oath… The efforts to mislead the authorities and the courts have transmitted through three generations and the conduct is reprehensible.” They belong to the category of persons who not only attempt but succeed in “polluting the course of justice”.

The cases above are hard cases, but there are grey and white lies too. How deep must be the stain on the hands of the litigant to disentitle him to enter the portals of the court? Two years ago, the court asked itself, “Even if the dirt is removed and the hands become clean, would the relief sought for be still denied?”

In the Arunima Baruah vs Union of India case, an employee hid the fact that she had moved the district court when she tried a gamble in the Delhi High Court at the same time. The high court dismissed her writ petition as she was found “forum shopping”. However, on appeal, the Supreme Court was lenient towards her. It said that the right to move a court was a human right and if she was shut out from its doors, there might be grave injustice in individual cases. According to it, the suppression of “material facts” alone would disentitle a person from moving the court. But material facts depend upon individual cases.

The English courts seem to have confronted this dilemma a hundred years ago. Discussing the judgments there, one of the jurists said: “The absence of clean hands is of no account unless the depravity, the dirt on the hand in question, has an immediate and necessary relation to the equity sought for.” The clean-hand rule cannot be either precise or capable of satisfactory operation.

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