KRS Janakiraman from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, was thrilled that he could finally get his tenant, an influential local politician, to vacate his shop. The Alternative Disputes Redressal Forum-cum-Arbitration Tribunal (ADRF) had issued a favourable order on 3 July last year, within a month of his petition. As such cases are known to drag on for more than 10 years in the courts, Janakiraman didn’t mind shelling out Rs 40,000 as the arbitration fees.
But his joy was short-lived. When he tried to execute the tribunal’s order, the tenant B Arumugam — a ward member of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation — complained to the police. Janakiraman had to apologise to his tenant after he and the arbitrator PR Shanmugam were summoned to the local police station. The tenant continued to occupy the shop on a nominal rent, while Shanmugam was arrested on 16 July this year for issuing a fake ‘legal notice’ in connection with another property dispute.
“How could they threaten me with fake court orders? I have been a councillor since 1983. I know all of them. They are all cheats,” Arumugam told TEHELKA. At least five organisations like the ADRF ran fake courts in Tamil Nadu and made money by duping petitioners and issuing verdicts that had no legal sanctity. They set up ‘court rooms’ that resembled normal court rooms, with witness boxes and ‘judges’ sitting on a dais below a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi. The arbitrators were a group of lawyers who are members of the Coimbatore Bar Association (CBA).
CBA president P Nandakumar says the fake courts racket started in 2007 when AR Chandran, a native of Mettupalayam in Coimbatore district, floated a partnership firm along with a group of lawyers and called it the All India and Overseas Arbitration Council. Chandran, who is not even a graduate and has no background in the legal profession, became its registrar-cum-chairman. The council ran an arbitration tribunal in Coimbatore, claiming it had legal power under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act to mediate in disputes of a civil nature.
“It was a false claim, but nobody stopped them from functioning,” says Nandakumar. “In 2010, we complained to the Coimbatore Police Commissioner against the organisation and the lawyers who acted as arbitrators and delivered fake verdicts. We also petitioned the Madras High Court, but there was no action.”
Apart from Chandran, the petition names CV Vadivel and S Poonamchand as directors of the All India and Overseas Arbitration Council, and Shanmugam, NJR Jegadeesh, K Rajaram, N Gousalyadevi, R Vijayanand, NC Sanjay, V Vijayalakshmi, K Prabhakar and P Loui Boss as the “panel of arbitrators”. The petitioners stated that the arbitration tribunal was illegally set up without the sanction of any court or government order.
“Most of the lawyers who acted as arbitrators were not doing well in their profession,” says P Vijayakumar, former secretary of the CBA. “So they preferred to play the role of self-appointed arbitrators in the fake tribunals.”
Following the CBA’s petition, the Coimbatore Police raided the premises of the All India and Overseas Arbitration Council and arrested two of the subordinate staff. “But, as they didn’t seize any documents, we doubt if they really intended to pursue the case,” says Nandakumar. “We suspect there are some powerful persons behind the fake courts.”
The CBA received more than 30 complaints from lawyers saying the fake courts were delivering judgments without legal powers. They also got five petitions from people who were cheated by the fake courts as proof.
The fake courts often quote non-existent clauses of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act in their orders to make them sound legally valid. For instance, in an order dated 16 December 2010 directing the attachment of a disputed property in Erode district, arbitrator Loui Boss refers to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act’s “Section 17 (d)”, which does not exist. Moreover, arbitrators cannot mediate in matters where no arbitration clause is incorporated in the property transaction documents, says Coimbatore-based lawyer M Sanjiyan. Most of the petitions heard by the fake courts related to land disputes or service matters.
M Loganathan, secretary of the CBA, blames the slow judicial process and the casual approach of the district judicial officers as the reasons for the fake courts to thrive. “Nobody was willing to call their bluff,” he points out. “They had a free run and exploited the common man’s ignorance of the law.”
In November 2011, Coimbatore-based lawyer D Kalairasu filed a public interest petition in the Madras High Court on the issue of illegal arbitration tribunals. “But the then DGP Latika Saran and Coimbatore City Police Commissioner C Sylendra Babu filed affidavits denying there were fake courts in Tamil Nadu,” says Sanjiyan.
When the high court did not take action for two years on his PIL, Kalairasu was disappointed. “I am a junior advocate practising in Coimbatore and do not have the resources to fight the powerful fake courts,” Kalairasu told TEHELKA. He withdrew the petition and his counsel Manikandan Vathan Chettiar filed another petition in the Supreme Court. Chettiar painstakingly collected numerous verdicts issued by the fake courts and submitted them along with the PIL as evidence of the existence of fake courts in Coimbatore. “We got only the tip of the iceberg. Nobody wanted to accept that a parallel judicial system was operating in Tamil Nadu,” says Chettiar. The Supreme Court directed Chettiar to approach the Madras High Court again, where the case is now pending.
The PIL also listed the names of judges who were shown as “patrons” or legal advisers of the fake courts. The list includes former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati, Justices S Mohan, S Natarajan, Tarun Chatterjee, SB Sinha, KM Natarajan (former Supreme Court judges), former Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court M Karpaga Vinayagam, Justices S Jagadeesan, R Ramalingam, TN Vallinayagam, AK Rajan, S Thangaraj, K Swamidurai (former judges of the Madras High Court), Justice S Tamilvanan (sitting judge of the Madras High Court) and Justice AD Mane (former judge of the Bombay High Court).
“Many of the fake courts frequently used the photographs of these judges and also that of former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam when they advertised in the media,” says Chettiar. “It was a ploy for winning credibility and public support for their illegal activities.”
The fake courts have a network of agents working for them. They keep track of people who have lost their cases in regular courts and offer them a quick solution through the tribunals. One such agent, who did not want to be identified, told TEHELKA that he used to get Rs 1,000 per client from a tribunal run by Poonamchand and Chandran that was later closed down in a police raid in November 2010. “They used to charge the clients 10 percent of the market value of the disputed property,” he reveals.
Residents of the Rathinapuri locality in Coimbatore say that Poonamchand, 42, a school dropout from Rajasthan, had come to the city with his father, who was in the gold business. He too dabbled in the jewellery business but soon found running fake courts more lucrative. “He used to travel in a car with a red beacon light and was always accompanied by security guards,” says a local shopkeeper.
The maximum number of fake court verdicts was reportedly issued by Coimbatore-based criminal lawyer NJR Jegadeesh. In 2010, he passed an order in a land dispute case in favour of his sister-in-law M Nagesh Kumari, a professor in the PSGR Krishnammal College for Women in Peelamedu, Coimbatore, against Professor Sumadevi of the same college and her husband. When Sumadevi failed to respond to the summons of the fake court, Nagesh Kumari filed an appeal in the district court, which is now pending a hearing.
Interestingly, district courts in Tamil Nadu have often admitted the appeals filed against the arbitration tribunals’ orders, lending credence to the legality of these illegal courts. “By accepting these verdicts as a real court’s order, they have unwittingly given sanctity to the fake courts,” says advocate A Rajan, who has been fighting against the fake courts.
However, one reason for this could be that the verdicts delivered by the arbitrators read very precise and clear. Quoting different high court and Supreme Court judgments, they resemble any verdict passed by a district court.
“I’ve gone through many judgments and found them to be written by very competent persons who have sound knowledge of the law,” says R Arunachalam, a member of the Madras Bar Council, who has been practising law for the past 35 years. “I know some of the advocates who colluded with the fake courts and none of them can write such judgments. I strongly suspect that somebody else was preparing these verdicts. Only a CBI probe will expose the real brains behind these fake courts.” Arunachalam is planning to seek the cancellation of the licences of the lawyers arrested for issuing fake verdicts, after they are convicted.
With the arrest of two lawyers who acted as arbitrators for the fake courts and the matter having reached the Supreme Court, the State seems to have finally woken up to the existence of the racket. But the illegal tribunals could not have managed to dupe so many people for almost six years had the judicial system shown the promise of delivering justice without frustrating delays. There cannot be a greater travesty of justice.
The farmer who fought against a fake court
In 2009, Venkataswamy Naidu Gopalaswamy, a cotton farmer from Thekkupalayam village in Coimbatore district, received a notice from the All India and Overseas Arbitration Council asking him to appear before it. This was regarding a dispute over 8.36 acres of farm land that he thought had already been resolved in his favour by the Madras High Court.
Gopalaswamy and his brother Swaminathan had bought this land from one Venugopal in 1945.
All was fine until Venugopal’s sisters Rukmini and Sarojini petitioned the Coimbatore Sub-Court in 1980, claiming the title to the land. The case was dismissed and the sisters appealed to the Madras High Court in 1986. The high court too dismissed the appeal and declared Gopalaswamy and his brother as the owners of the land. Though the matter should have closed there, the two sisters decided to approach the arbitration tribunal.
“I never imagined it was a fake court. There was a registry in place and judges sitting on the dais were directing the proceedings,” says the octogenarian farmer. “I recorded the entire proceedings with a tape recorder.” When he informed the ‘judges’ that the high court had already upheld his ownership of the disputed land, he was told that the tribunal is “equivalent to the Supreme Court”. Overruling his objections, the ‘judges’ passed a verdict in favour of the two sisters.
Gopalaswamy learnt later that the sisters had got the land registered in their name at the sub-registrar’s office with the help of two lawyers, N Gousalyadevi and NJR Jegadeesh. The two lawyers were also arbitrators with the All India and Overseas Arbitration Council. Jegadeesh got a board put up on the ‘disputed’ land saying it belonged to the two sisters and their sons.
Not one to take things lying down, Gopalaswamy decided to fight back. He got an injunction passed by the Munsif Court, Coimbatore, against the fake court’s verdict and got the board removed. Soon after, he decided to teach the fake arbitrators a lesson by taking them to a real court.
“He tracked all the arbitrators, taped their conversations and presented it to the court as evidence against them,” says Gopalaswamy’s lawyer M Sanjiyan.
His labours bore fruit on 22 July this year when the Coimbatore Sub-Court sentenced Jegadeesh to one-and-a-half year’s imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 1,000 under sections 120(B) and 468 of the IPC for conspiracy and forgery.
Gopalaswamy, though, feels his battle is far from over. “I will see to it that all these crooks get severe punishment,” he says.
Fake court dupes both petitioner and defendant
In 2008, Kandaswami Murugesan bought a plot of land from Mohanraj Mahadevan to set up a fruit stall. While he was waiting for Mahadevan’s tenants to vacate the land before taking possession, he found that Mahadevan had sold the same land to Jaibunisa Nasser Basha two years earlier. In 2009, Jaibunisa got the sale deed registered in her name on the basis of a verdict by an arbitration tribunal run by S Poonamchand.
Murugesan approached the Coimbatore Judicial Magistrate Court and filed a criminal complaint against Mahadevan, Jaibunisa and Poonamchand, accusing them of cheating and forgery. The magistrate asked the local police to look into the matter, but no action was taken. Again, in 2010, the accused tried to take over the land with the help of goons. Instead of registering an FIR, the police asked Murugesan to approach the Munsif Court. The court ruled that the land belonged to him.
When the judicial magistrate demanded an explanation from the police regarding the delay in investigation into the previous case, the police arrested Mahadevan and Jaibunisa. Poonamchand managed to evade arrest and approached the Madras High Court for anticipatory bail. On 30 September 2010, the high court directed him to surrender before the magistrate. When he came to the magistrate’s court to surrender, his bodyguards thrashed the lawyers and a case of rioting was filed against them.
Murugesan blames the fake court for getting him trapped in litigation that cost him more than 4 lakh. “I had no choice. Had they taken over my land, I would’ve had to commit suicide along with my family,” he says.
On the other hand, Mahadevan, who had to spend a month behind bars, says he never intended to cheat Murugesan. “I had approached Poonamchand to get the tenants to vacate the land so that Murugesan could take possession of it,” he says. “But Poonamchand fabricated a sale deed in Jaibunisa’s name. After I was arrested, I turned approver in the case.” He too blames Poonamchand and the fake court for his plight.