Less than a month ago, Livelaw and Bar & Bench reported on shocking allegations of bench fixing in a number of trademark infringement cases filed by KRBL Ltd. before the Delhi District Courts through the law firm K.G. Bansal & Co.
The issue came to light when one of the litigants, Capital Ventures Pvt. Ltd. which had been sued by KRBL Ltd. for trademark infringement filed a contempt petition before a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court. Ordinarily it would have been possible to dismiss these allegations as the ramblings of a disgruntled litigant but it appears that others who have been sued by this company have made similar allegations against KRBL forcing the Delhi High Court to take the extraordinary step of restraining three district judges – Mukesh Kumar, Veena Rani and Chandrashekhar from hearing lawsuits filed by KRBL Ltd. until such time that the Delhi High Court has had an opportunity to examine the allegations in more detail. I reproduce below the main allegation from the court’s order:
“The grievance highlighted in the present contempt petition as well as in the intervention application raises very serious concerns about the manner in which the matters particularly, suits are listed before a particular Judicial Officer in the District Courts. The petitioner and the intervenors has brought out several instances where the same counsel representing the respondents has moved repeated applications in different suits to have the different suits listed before particular Judicial Officers, namely, Mr. Mukesh Kumar, Ms Veena Rani and Mr. Chandersekhar. The petitioners claim that favourable orders were obtained by the respondents from the said Judicial Officers to which they were not entitled on merits.”
I spoke to a few lawyers who are familiar with the listing practises before the District Court to understand exactly how cases are listed before different judges. Apparently, the normal course of action is for all new lawsuits to go to the presiding judge, usually one of the senior judges of the court complex who then marks cases to specific judges. Litigants however may move an application requesting that a case be specifically listed before certain judges who are hearing similar or connected lawsuits. It saves judicial time to have the same judge hear similar or connected cases. The allegation in the present case is that KRBL had specifically sought for the cases in question to be listed before the three judges who then passed favourable orders that were allegedly not entirely warranted on the merits. In order to investigate these allegations, the High Court summoned the following information from the district court:
“i) The number of suits it has filed in respect of its IPR with complete particulars of suit number, the date of its filing, the counsel through whom the same has been filed and the Judicial Officers before whom the matter was listed initially;
ii) Whether an application for marking and listing before a particular Judicial Officer was moved;
iii) The name of the Judicial Officer before whom the matter was sought to be listed;iv) Whether the matter was listed before the Judicial Officer as desired by the respondents;v) Whether any ex-parte orders of injunction were passed, and;
vi) The date of the ex-parte ad-interim orders of injunction, if any.”
In an interesting coincidence, similar information was requested from the District Court by a gentleman called Harish Lamba under the Right to Information Act. The specific questions are as follows:
“1. During his tenure as ADJ, in how many cases Shri Mukesh Kumar ADJ as given ex- party injunction orders in cases represented by advocate M/s K. G. Bansal & company, New Delhi.” And “1. During his tenure as ADJ, in how many cases Shri Mukesh Kumar, ADJ has given ex-party injunction orders in cases/suits filed by KRBL Ltd. and (old name ‘khusi ram behari lal’) 5190 Lahori Gate, Delhi-110006.”
The district court refused the information under the RTI Act before being over-ruled by the Central Information Commission whose order was in turn stayed by Justice Bakru of the Delhi High Court until he hears the case on merits in January, 2019. His order can be accessed here.
Bench fixing in India
Allegations of bench fixing are quite common within the Indian judicial system. In 2014, Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave had levelled similar allegations against one particular bench of the Supreme Court. He had accused the then Court Room No. 10 of being a ‘builder’s court’ that was hearing matters that should have been listed before other benches. I’ve heard whispers of the practice from different courts in different cities. It isn’t necessarily the case that the judge in question has been bribed. Sometimes lawyers and litigants try to get matters listed before particular judges because they are perceived to be more inclined to grant injunctions or because the lawyer has a good equation with the judge. It is also entirely possible that litigants manage the ‘fixing’ without getting the lawyer into the loop.
Trying to determine the exact reasons for why certain cases are being listed before certain judges is going to be difficult without a criminal investigation. If the Delhi High Court found the allegations in this case credible enough to restrain three district judges from hearing any future lawsuits by this particular litigant, it should order a criminal investigation or at the very least initiate an administrative inquiry and withdraw all judicial work from the three judges in question. Trying to get to the bottom of these allegations through contempt proceedings is going to be difficult.