CHENNAI: “We are unable to understand how any court in our country can insist that the accused shall keep standing during his (or her) trial,” wondered a three-member bench of the Supreme Court in 1982 (Avtar Singh vs State of Madhya Pradesh). The SC further directed all high courts to relax rules pertaining to the accused allowing them to take a seat in court, unless required to stand for specific purposes like identification.
Almost 34 years later, Siva Elango, an activist in Chennai, was roughed up by lawyers in the Egmore Court complex for refusing to stand when appearing before a magistrate court. “We are taxpayers, we are the ones paying the advocates to represent us and the judges are getting paid to deliver justice to us. No one is higher or lesser inside the courtroom, we are all equal, so why does anyone have to stand?” says Siva Elango, justifying his refusal to stand up.
Whether it is an accused, a witness or a government official, it has almost become mandatory to remain standing when appearing before the court. There is no law requiring them to remain standing in court, but the opinions of legal pundits are divided.
Justice T N Vallinayagam, retired judge of the Madras High Court, feels it is a matter of respect. “If the teacher asks a question, the student stands up to give the answer. So, it is simply respect. The court is the temple of justice, so it is a matter of discipline to stand up while talking to the judge,” he said, adding that in the name of freedom, people are disrespecting others.
Several Western countries have given designated spaces for the accused and witnesses to be seated next to their advocates in the court halls. But this tradition is yet to reach Indian courts. On a PIL filed by Satta Panchayat Iyyakkam, in July 2015, the First Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice T S Sivagnanam, observed that the bench felt it is “difficult to accept that the accused and the witnesses were not being allowed to sit,” and added “that the point was to record the testimony and not cause pain to anyone.”
Renowned advocate Sriram Panchu, who specialises in Constitutional Law, says in some cases it may be necessary for judges to get a full view of the accused.
Noor Mohammed, retired district judge, says that to provide a chair to an accused is a matter of fundamental right. “In the 80’s, I remember that the witnesses would be seated next to the advocates. But when the accused was allowed to sit, he or she would squat inside the dock. But, I feel that a chair should be placed inside the dock as it is a matter of their fundamental right,” he said.
When judge offered a seat to accused
Justice M R Hariharan Nair, while hearing the case of a serial killer in the late 90’s, offered a seat for the accused when the accused requested for one. “He had more than six cases against him and each trial lasted 10 days and he had remained standing from 11 am to 5pm, imagine the pain he must have gone through, he did not deserve that kind of treatment,” said that judge, in an article he had written about the case. Nair also pointed out that even if the accused invoked negative feelings from the public, he was not guilty until proven as one, therefore the accused deserved as much respect as anyone else.
1982 Supreme Court verdict
According to the 1982 Avtar Singh vs Madhya Pradesh government case, the Supreme Court directed all courts in India to allow witnesses or the accused to be seated. “We hope that all the High Courts in India will take appropriate steps, if they have not already done so, to provide in their respective Criminal Manuals prepared under Section 477(1) of the Criminal P. C. that the accused shall be permitted to sit down during the trial unless it becomes necessary for the accused to stand up for any specific purpose, as for example, for the purpose of identification.”
The practice abroad
In the USA and the UK, the witness box has a chair, while advocates, plaintiffs sit on counsel tables near the bench and stand up to speak to the judge or interrogate the witnesses and the accused. Witnesses are also are seated throughout the trials.
We are the ones paying the advocates to represent us and the judges are getting paid to deliver justice to us. No one is higher or lesser inside the courtroom... so why does anyone have to stand?
Siva Elango, activist