Case record vanishes, Punjab and Haryana HC asks Registrars to explain

Issues contempt notices to father-son duo of lawyers for ‘bench hunting’.

THE PUNJAB and Haryana High Court Tuesday asked its Registrar (Judicial) to explain how a petition which came up for hearing in March was returned to a lawyer purportedly for “correction of defects” and asked its Registrar (Computer) to explain how the record of the case vanished from official website. The court also issued contempt notices to the petitioner and his lawyer in the case for “bench hunting” and non-disclosure regarding filing of an earlier plea for a similar cause of action.

The developments took place during the hearing of a case challenging the appointment of Punjab law officers and its Act regarding their appointment process. The plea was filed by advocate RL Mittal through his son and advocate Chetan Mittal in March. A single bench of Justice Rajan Gupta, following the issuance of notice to state on March 27, had referred the matter for hearing before a division bench on April 2 as it was apprised that the litigation involved the question of vires.

During the resumed hearing before the division bench of Chief Justice Krishna Murari and Justice Arun Palli on Tuesday, Punjab Advocate General Atul Nanda apprised the court that advocate Chetan Mittal had earlier filed a plea with a similar cause of action in his own name as petitioner. The petition, the AG said, simply vanished from the official website and record after preliminary objection was raised on March 20 before the bench of Justice Tejinder Singh Dhindsa and the court was told that the litigation appears to espouse a public cause and accordingly needs to be placed as per roster.

Nanda further submitted that even the petition copy was returned to the lawyer by the Registry and the website now shows “No Case Found” when the case number is entered. Nanda also informed the court that the same lawyer, Chetan Mittal, now has filed a petition in his father’s name and has become an advocate in it with no disclosure regarding the previous plea. Describing it as a “serious contempt”, Nanda argued that such a person does not deserve relief by the court.

Taking a strong note of the submissions, the division bench observed that it cannot ignore the fact that the petitioner is a practicing lawyer and has filed a new petition in his father’s name after withdrawal of one in his own name.

“How does he justify this and why should he not be hauled up in criminal contempt. We are also going to issue notice to the Registry. The limits of propriety have been passed,” observed the court, while addressing the advocate Hari Chand Arora, who appeared for the first time for RL Mittal. “The Registry may be in connivance. We do not know”.

Addressing Arora personally, the court told him that he also owes his duty to the court. “You have spent your life here. You want the institution to go to dogs? All canons of propriety have been passed. You have been assisting the court in various matters and we have a huge regard for you,” observed the court. Following the hearing, Arora sought to withdraw from the case as a counsel and was allowed to do so by the court.

The court also raised question over the single bench’s decision to issue notice in the matter involving the question of vires and observed that it had no jurisdiction to do so. In the order, dictated in the open court, the division bench said since the order passed by the single judge was ‘coram non judice’, it stands “discharged”. On the non-disclosure of the the previous petition in the fresh one with same cause of action but change in case title, the court observed that it “amounts to nothing but bench hunting which is prima facie criminal contempt” and directed advocates RL Mittal and Chetan Mittal to explain why they should not be punished for criminal contempt.

During the hearing, senior advocate Chetan Mittal, who is also Assistant Solicitor General of India, appeared before the division bench and apprised it that the similarity of names between him and the petitioner lawyer has led to a confusion in the bar. The court said it will make a clarification in the order regarding the identification of the two lawyers.

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