On Mondays and Fridays, amidst the bustle and whirl of the Supreme Court’s narrow corridors, a row of men and women in grey safari suits and saris weave their way efficiently through the crowds, carrying piles of heavy tomes.
Like light-footed spirits, they delicately negotiate the swirling mass of lawyers, litigants, security personnel, clerks and reporters. As they pass through the winding corridors of the court, the single file of grey breaks up and reassembles, as one of them ducks into a courtroom. The courtrooms are often packed and claustrophobic, but this does not deter these men and women who expertly push their way to the front where the judges’ staff wait anxiously for the knowledge they bring.
Once the court staff get hold of the heavy volumes containing cases or judicial precedents — delivered by the Supreme Court for over 60 years — they hand them over to the judges in perfect timing, as lawyers refer to a precedent, which may mean life or death for the litigant. On Mondays and Fridays, when fresh cases come up for hearing in the highest court, this group of 22 is called upon to perform its extraordinary task in one of Asia’s largest law libraries — the Judges’ Library — situated in the recesses of the Supreme Court building.
Of the 22, five are professional librarians from the legislative arm of the library, recruited by the Supreme Court. The other 17 include clerks, attendants and peons, handpicked for their vast experience gained through years of serving in courtrooms and in the judges’ residential libraries. Their specialised services, accuracy and knowledge of every book and its location in the library, which boasts of over 3,50,000 law books and law reports, is vital to the smooth working of the process. These men and women are fondly called the “dancing librarians” of the Supreme Court.
Former Chief Justice of India and current National Human Rights Commission Chairperson, Justice H.L. Dattu, after his retirement in December 2015, told The Hindu about the dedication and accuracy of the staff in the judges’ library.
The dancing librarians are “extraordinary,” he says, in the cause of justice delivery.
“Making the judges’ library state-of-art was one of my pet projects. [When] I talked to the staff, some of them complained of feeling stagnant in their jobs. I sent some staff to the best libraries in India, gave promotions, incentives. On the day Iwas retiring, the first place I went to say goodbye was the library. I thanked them for their dedication, for being quick on their feet. They thanked me for giving them a free hand,” Justice Dattu recalled.
On their toes
“For three to four hours on Mondays and Fridays, they are on their toes as telephonic requests for law books and citations of cases are passed on from courtrooms,” a Supreme Court source said.
Speed is of the essence and as soon as a request is received from a courtroom, the librarians dive into the corners of the three-tiered library. The requested volume is located in seconds and what follows is a relay as it is thrown from one pair of waiting hands to the next; the relevant pages are flagged, marked and the reference then starts its journey from the library, through the corridors, to the court.
A recent Doordarshan documentary on the Supreme Court titled Truth Alone I Uphold, records for posterity the contributions of the Judges’ Library staff.
It depicts the library as the backbone of the justice delivery system in the apex court, which is based on the ‘Doctrine of Precedent’.
“At least 800 to 900 books are issued daily.” The computerised library also caters to the judges’ residential libraries and hosts 22 legal databases. Parliamentary debates, foreign journals and every written law of the land — Acts, Manuals, Rules, by-laws, notifications, Gazettes of Centre, States and Union Territories — are in the library of India’s highest judiciary.