*Ameya Mishra

I had gone to the Delhi High Court on June 26, 2013 for the purpose of inspecting the files relating to a writ petition filed by Common Cause (an NGO where I am interning presently). But what I had not anticipated was that it would take me three days to complete this task. The credit for this goes to the totally uncooperative and ignorant staff of the High Court who made this simple task look like a herculean one.

I have just finished my first year in law school and was visiting the High Court for the very first time and thus had no clue about any of its procedures. After enquiring from about 5-6 persons, (of which about half were clueless about the term "file inspection" and the other half gave half baked information) at 10:40 a.m, I reached an area in the basement which dealt with file inspections relating to writ petitions. The clerk in-charge was nowhere in the vicinity. After about ten minutes I met a burly man who just wanted to be left alone. He asked some irrelevant questions regarding the writ (as if he was the opposite counsel in this case) and after wasting my time till 11 a.m., finally informed me that in order to be able to inspect the files, I have to submit an application in a prescribed form and had to buy the application form from the "Typing Pool". I bought the form and reached the basement about five minutes later. As soon as I opened my file to fill in the details in the form, the inspection clerk intimated me about the only rule he seemed to follow sincerely- "no urgent applications for file inspection after 11 a.m". I was late. Then he asked me the first relevant question since morning and that was whether the writ petition was regarding a civil or a criminal matter. When I told him it was civil, he announced that this section dealt only with criminal writ petitions and chuckled. He told me to proceed to the first floor of the "new" building of the Court.

Now when you come to a place for the first time and that, which has a huge compound, you can't really judge which building looks new (or is actually new) and which doesn't (or isn't).

So after another round of struggle for about 15-20 minutes, I reached the appropriate room for inspection. There I learnt that I would need a stamp (court fee) worth Rs.10 in order to get my application form accepted. I informed the clerk in the inspection room that I would get the stamp and submit the form the next day and then commenced the journey to look for a person who could sell me the stamp (court fee). I reached the "Typing Pool" again after asking a security guard about the court fee. Now, there I was told that the person who sells the stamps i.e. the stamp wala was not coming to the High Court during the vacations. In other words he was on leave and the senior High Court staff were too busy to recruit a substitute. Infuriated, I left the HC premises.

The next day, my NGO arranged for the court fee for me from somewhere. I reached the inspection room at 10:20 a.m. (on time) with the court fee and application form filled in neatly. I was sure that there would not be any more hurdles then. But unfortunately I was wrong. The in-charge clerk came out with a rule (or I think as he had "interpreted" the HC rules) that only the counsel in that case could inspect the files and the application form should carry the counsel's signature. I was bewildered. I asked whether he was sure about the rule and whether I could verify it. He got agitated and told me to go read the rules "carefully". Now 1 year in law school had taught me the basics of the profession. I found the relevant rule and this was what it said-

"2. Inspection of pending cases by parties or agents Records of pending cases will be open, as of right, to the inspection of parties or their authorized agents or any Advocate of the Court, who is duly authorised to act in the case or junior counsel whether he be an advocate of a pleader of such duly authorized advocate provided the latter certifies on the application that he has authorized his junior to inspect the record for him. Provided that an Advocate of the Court may inspect the record of any such case on giving an assurance that he is in communication with one of the parties with a view to being retained in it: Provided also that the inspection of a record will not be permitted on the date fixed for hearing without the special order of the Judge or one of the Judges before whom the case is pending."

As it can be observed, the rule does give the authorized agents of the parties a right to inspect the files and there is no prima facie ambiguity in any such rule. I showed the clerk the same (who was evidently unaware of any such rule) and also informed him that I was in possession of an affidavit by the Director of Common Cause which authorized me to carry out the inspection on behalf of Common Cause. In other words I was the authorized representative of the party which had filed the writ petition.

Indifferent, arrogant and adamant as the clerk was, he tried to "interpret" the rule in his own way. When he failed (which was very much likely to happen), he told me that the HC follows some "customs" which supersede these rules. I was amazed by the argument put forward by him. But I didn't give up. I kept bugging him. So he told me to visit Mrs. Sharda Manchanda, the Assistant Registrar of the PFA Department. He was too annoyed with me to tell me the way.

However, I managed to reach Mrs. Manchanda's room where this clerk was already present. I explained everything to her (including the rule) in the clerk's presence. My expectations of a sensible reply at least from her proved futile. She told me that there is a difference between what a rule says and how it is actually followed. I was shocked. My exasperation and anger compelled me to raise my voice. I know I hurt her ego by behaving in that way. She finally told the clerk to send the application forward and announced that it would be rejected anyways and then told me to leave.

Aggrieved by this I took my application form to the "dealing" section where all the files are kept (I don't know why they use that term). This time I was given the directions by the clerk probably because he was too sure that it would get rejected anyway. There I met one of the most ignorant and indifferent staff members ever. They were not even ready to read the rule! After a brief altercation, they told me to meet Mr. R D Sharma. He was also an Assistant Registrar.

Mr. Sharma's room was extremely crowded. However I managed to get hold of him. Unfortunately it was "lunch time" then so he told me to come after an hour. I waited patiently, yes very patiently, for an hour. But this time luckily the wait was worth it. Mr. Sharma was one of the few people who actually used his mind and comprehended the rule correctly. He agreed with me. I presented the affidavit and he was convinced with it. He made a few phone calls including one to Mrs. Manchanda and another to that crackbrained clerk in the inspection room. He assured me that my application would be accepted the next day and I wouldbe able to inspect the files then.

Next day I reached the High Court at 10:30 AM. My application form was accepted. But then again I was called to the "dealing" section. They were facing another problem. They said that the signature on the affidavit was not matching the one on the writ petition filed. I explained to them that it was because the earlier director Mr. H. D. Shourie had passed away and this affidavit carried the signature of the present Director, Mr. K. K. Jaswal. Now suddenly this erstwhile ignorant staff turned into an investigating officer. He asked me to present the minutes of meeting in which the new director was appointed. I reminded him that this was an NGO and not an MNC and told him that I did not think that we would be having the minutes of that particular meeting. In response to this he declared that he had no reason to believe that the signature on the affidavit was that of the person who was the present director. I was stumped.

I searched my bag and fortunately found the Rules and Regulations of Common Cause which also had the names of all the members of the Governing Council of Common Cause. Moreover it was also attested by the Registrar of Societies. It was a moment of victory for me. I presented the same to the staff. This sufficed.

The files reached the inspection room in about 20 minutes and I was allowed to inspect them. I can never forget that feeling of accomplishment. I know it's a very small task and would not be a big deal for most of the lawyers but for me it was; maybe it was because of the amount of effort I was made to put in.

*Ameya Mishra is studying law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. He interned with Common Cause during June, 2013.

July September, 2013