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My wife and I, along with my parents-in-law, left for India on July 27, 2000, on a nearly three-week tour of the country. I expected to see lots of temples, ruins, monkeys, elephants, and hundreds of my new relatives (really). In the south of India, I saw all that and also got the chance to tour the justice system in Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Advocate Lakshimi Narayanan, a practitioner of law for six years, was my guide through a system that is structured on the surface much like our system, but which seems to be lacking — in ways perhaps even greater than our own. I first met Advocate Narayanan in his office, a small room shared with several other advocates on the second floor of a walk-up stuffed between others along a long, dusty street. There he explained that to become a lawyer in India, you must complete “ten plus two,” the equivalent of graduating high school followed by completing either a five-year “integrated” law curriculum, or a three-year undergraduate degree followed by three years of law school. Advocate Narayanan led my father-in-law and me through the streets towards one of the eight trial courts in the town, known as judicial magistrate, or J.M., courts. As we approached J.M. 6, a criminal court meant for adjudicating cases involving crimes punishable up to two years, the advocate further instructed me on the hierarchy of the courts. Advocates, otherwise called first-seat public prosecutors, practice either in the J.M. courts or in the district court if the crime involved is punishable by more than two years. The Indian trial courts, like their American counterparts, deal with questions of both fact and law. However, chief judicial magistrates who sit in the J.M. courts may have their decisions “go up for revision” in front of a district court judge who may or may not grant a petition for such an appeal. Regardless of whether this occurs, appeals may be heard from either trial level court at the high court of the state. High courts deal only in questions of law, exactly as our appellate courts do. Twenty-five high courts exist across the country, according to Advocate Narayanan. Further appeals may be made to the Supreme Court of India, located in New Delhi, in the north of India. As we drew nearer to J.M. 6, I noticed approximately 10 armed officers outside the court, watching over the throngs of people waiting to have their cases heard. The outside of the court was literally peeling away in the hot summer sun as the paint on the columns dressing the court steps fell silently away. The guards were suspicious of my small group, and, in fact, stopped and questioned us at length when I began taking pictures of the lines outside the court. Before entering the court, Advocate Narayanan exhibited the facilities provided for lawyers outside the court. The worn down structure he showed me behind the court had tiny open cubby holes for lawyers to place all their papers and effects, and the building has one toilet to serve about 150 lawyers. As we waited inside the sparse surroundings of the court to speak with a chief judicial magistrate, Advocate Narayanan explained more aspects of Indian law. He said the death penalty does exist in India, but that it is reserved for “only the rarest of rare cases.” For example, economic crimes are not punishable by death, while defendants for murder or “compoundable offenses” are candidates for the death penalty. Advocate Narayanan also described how lawyers advance within the system. A public lawyer practices first as a junior advocate, then as an advocate, and finally as senior counsel at the trial court level. After 15 years at this level, lawyers may take a test to entitle them to appear in the high court and the Supreme Court. By this time, my opportunity arrived to meet with the trial court judge, who declined to be named. The judge continued where Advocate Narayanan left off, explaining the procedures followed to become a judge. The judge said advocates practicing for 10 years in the High Court or Supreme Court could have their names suggested to the Supreme Court, who may grant appointment after consultation with the other arms of India’s government. Otherwise, the judge said, trial court advocates, who have worked their way up through five years as a court assistant and five years as a public prosecutor, can take a written and oral exam to place them in consideration for a judicial appointment. According to the judge, trial court judges are required to retire between the ages of 58 and 60, while high court and Supreme Court judges must leave the bench between the ages of 62 and 65. One distinct difference in our systems is that, according to the judge, the judges alone decide all cases, after hearing arguments and reviewing the evidence, without a jury. However, like our trial court judges in criminal courts, it is possible for a judge to hear 30 to 50 cases, examine 100 witnesses, and dispose of 20 cases each day. The judge detailed two types of cases heard at the trial court level. First, the judge described summons cases, which are more minor crimes punishable by fairly small fines and jail terms of six months to less than two years. The judge also described warrant cases, which carry larger fines and prison terms longer than two years. Generally warrant cases go to trial, according to the judge. The judge declined to comment on any changes the government might make to improve the system, saying simply that “only the government can change the system.” Showing perhaps more fear of reprisal than our judges generally do, the judge also declined to comment on how the legal education system in India might be improved. There are some lights of hope in the Indian system not easily seen from the physical appearance of the courts. These encouraging changes promise progress for the system and perhaps reflect overall systemic changes in India as a whole. Because the Indian system is plagued by heavy dockets, like American courts, some courts actually are in session six days a week. This is at least one way in which American courts might look to India to deal with its crowded courtrooms. Another new concept meant to reduce the number of pending cases is to institute additional benches around the country in the form of more high court and Supreme Court benches. The courts themselves are also undergoing an overhaul, much in contrast with the J.M. court I observed. To end my tour, Advocate Narayanan led me to a nearly completed, new building in Coimbatore, to be named the Combined Court Complex. This huge complex is meant to combine all eight J.M. courts from three areas of town into one location, with civil courts to be located nearby. Outside the new complex is a door that shows just how strikingly similar our systems are, or at least could be, despite the differences in conditions in which our courts are found and the ways in which they are run. Embossed on the gleaming wooden door is the familiar symbol of the blindfolded lady of justice presiding over balanced scales. As Advocate Narayanan said, “Her scales should always be at center station, showing no bias. The law should not bend partially to anyone.”

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