I’ve been trying for several months now to gain access to the Indian criminal legal system to better understand the environment for the novel I am writing. A friend helped me get in touch with an “advocate” (lawyer) at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, which appears to function as a combination court and appeals court. In the US, one could likely attend these sessions without any issue; we have a very strong commitment to open government and open legal systems. In India, this visit seemed to be viewed with suspicion. The court was guarded not just by local police but my federal police. I had to write a letter requesting permission to simply observe court proceedings, and then had to obtain this letter below.
Copies of the letter were sent to several court offices so they could be aware of our presence. Each courtroom was guarded by police who had to examine the letter. My guess is that the courts are not secure in India. There is so much violence here, and many of the court’s cases involve caste, religion, government crimes, and public interest issues. These create high emotion, and mobs of men seem to easily gather and vent their feelings with noise and sometimes violence. Also, I don’t think the Indian constitution and laws provide the same First Amendment rights and open government requirements that we enjoy in the US.
What did I learn from observing the High Court for two hours? Most of the lawyers are men, although there are a growing number of women entering the field. They all wear black robes. All proceedings were in English. The judges I observed seemed to be very intelligent, outspoken, and willing to challenge advocates quite openly and strongly. The attorneys, in contrast, seemed a bit unprepared and confused, although that may be my wrong impression because they did not use microphones and their English was often fast and a bit difficult to understand.
Gandhi’s statue and picture were everywhere. It’s always inspiring and touching to see the Father of Free India everywhere- on money, on walls, in posters. Often it seems that his anti-caste and non-violent philosophies have been forgotten- but clearly Gandhi remains a key figure in India’s psychological memory.
At the Court, record rooms were amusingly old fashioned, with huge piles of folders tied with string. It appears that the courts are not using very modern technology. On the other hand, the place was certainly buzzing with activity. People definitely use the courts to bring forward disputes. And advocates seem to frequently launch challenges to government inaction or neglect. There was discussion of garbage, water pollution, and other issues. It would be fascinating to visit a law college here and learn more about the Indian legal system. For now, I have only a vague grasp of how things work!