The High Court of Bhutan completes 50th years of its glorious existence this year, the year of Fire Female Rooster, 2017. His Late Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, among many institutional initiatives and reforms, established the National Assembly in 1953 and an independent judiciary with the establishment of District Courts in late 1950s and the High Court in 1967.
The Kuensel’s monthly bulletin of October, 1967 reported on the appointment of the first Four Justices to the High Court that:
“His Majesty the King has been pleased to appoint Dasho Tsangtsa (previously Ha Thrimpon), Dasho Nidup Namgyal (previously Wangdiphodrang Thrimpon), Dasho Kelzang (previously Gyaldung) and Gup Serdo (National Assembly member from Paro), as the Judges in the first High Court to be established in the country. The seat of the High Court will be at Tashi chhodzong. The High Court is expected to start functioning from 1st of the 10th month of Fire-Sheep year corresponding to November 3, 1967.”
The High Court initially operated from Tashichhodzong which was later shifted and started functioning from where the present day Agriculture Minister’s office is hosted in the vicinity of the magnificent Tashichhodzong.
This article is intended to feature some of the key momentous and historic journey of the last five decades in providing not only judicial services, but also the High Court as an institution that played a major role in strengthening our sovereignty, security, unity, peace and tranquility, and maintaining the rule of law through the delivery of both judicial as well initiating justice sector reforms in the country. It also highlights some of the unique features of the courtroom settings of the High Court, which provided historical and legal basis of our courtroom designs in all the courts and law making (both procedural and substantive laws) based on Buddhist Philosophy.
Inauguration of the High Court
An official weekly bulletin published by the Royal Government on 5th November, 1967 has extensive coverage of the historic occasion of the inauguration of the High Court Building. The coverage is reproduced below:
“A WEEKLY OFFICIAL BULLETIN OF THE ROYAL GOVERNMENT OF BHUTAN
November 5, 1967
Thimphu High Court Inaugurated”
“Thimphu:- The newly constructed Rs. 6,80,000 High Court Building, situated in the enclosure that contains the Thimphu Golf Course and at a distance of some 400 yards from TashiChho Dzong was inaugurated at 8.30 A.M. on October 27, by His Excellency the Minister for Home Affairs, Lyonpo Tamji Jagar, in the Royal Presence of His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo.
Also attendant upon the occasion were : Their Excellencies the Ministers for Finance and Development, Lyonpos Chhogyal and Dawa Tsering respectively: the Honourable Deputy Home Minister: Dasho Shinkhar Lam-Private Secretary to His Majesty and Speaker of the National Assembly; Maktsi Lam Dorji; senior officers of the Royal Government; Royal Advisory Councillors and Assembly Members.
His Holiness the Jey Khempo, accompanied by several Venerable Lamas of the Monk Body, arrived early and carried out the blessing ceremony of the various halls and rooms of the High Court (Thrimkhang Gongma) while the guest mentioned above assembled in the colourfully encircled courtyard.
It was a warm bright morning with a soft breeze fluttering the flags that formed an enchanting avenue of colour from the neatly constructed gate to the building. The assembled guest created a dazzling array of splendour with their traditional dress and orange, blue and red scarves of rank. The building gleamed proudly as His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo arrived, accompanied by Gyalpoi Zimpon Dasho Sangey Tenzin, at 8.20 A.M.
On His Majesty’s arrival, His Holiness performed the Rabney (opening) ceremony with the sprinkling of holy water and scattering of scared rice, accompanied by the chanting of sacred words from the holy scriptures. After this important ceremony, His Excellency the Home Minister ascended the steps and united the ribbon thus declaring the High Court opened.
After the opening ceremony, tea and refreshments were served by the junior staff of the High Court, following which His Majesty departed, putting an end to a quiet, simple and yet dignified and important ceremony, adding yet another milestone to the history of development in Bhutan.
A few words about the building itself which presents a monumental structure built with concrete hollow blocks. It covers a floor area of 7,486 square feet adorned with fine Bhutanese architecture executed supremely well and decorated with traditional paintings. Two side wings of rectangular shape fan out from the double storied central portion which is poised on massive ashlar plinths 8 feet high. The building has a spacious gallery for the public and retiring rooms for the four Judges of the Bench who deal with the civil and criminal cases as well as with appeals from all over Bhutan. (The Thimphu High Court is the centre of all executive processes in Bhutanese Law). The building was constructed by Contractor Tan Dorji under the supervision of Dasho R.N. Dikshit, Superintending Engineer, Civil Engineering Services.”
The Institutional Independency: the seat of High Court
The main courtroom of the High Court was improved in early 1980’s by the Former Chief Justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, the then Judge of the High Court under the Royal Command of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
The crescent shaped pedestal to support the seats of nine justice in the full Bench signifies the shape of a 8th day rising moon (Yar-ngyoi Dawa). It embodies the accomplished and full hope of justice from the court like that of the 15th day full moon (Chai-ngyeai Dawa) of the Lunar Calendar. In the centre of the crescent shaped pedestal, the painting of the golden double bolt Vajara or Dorji Jadram (Skt. Vishvavajra) is engraved which is the quintessential symbol embodying the indestructible legal system of a sovereign and independent nation. It also signifies the permanence of the legal system and the independent judiciary with the generations of judges who have served and will continue to serve for the cause of Tsa-Wa-Sum and the delivery of justice in the Kingdom.
To the right and left flanks of the crescent shaped pedestal, there are the paintings of mythical snow white lions with turquoise green mane (Eurel). The lions have their one hand upholding the sky while the other hand touches the earth or the ground. Upholding the sky signifies the vast and unfathomable wisdom and knowledge of the judges like the vastness of the sky while the other hand that touches the ground depicts that the judges should not be devoid of ground reality and the truth while dispensing justice. The turquoise green mane of the lions is the colour of justice, wherein in Buddhist philosophy, it is believed that the green colour brings harmony and balance in nature (with the wisdom of accomplishment). Hence the green colour Kabney or the scarf of the judges in Bhutan is thus derived. The white colour of the lions stands for the purity of justice.
The central Chodrom (table) with five direction Gods (Gyalwa Rig-nga) namely, Vairochana or Nampar Nangzi in the centre; Vajrasattava-Akshobhya or Dorji Sempa in the east; Ratnasambhava or Rinchen Jungney in the south; Amitabha or Nangwa Thayey in the west; and Amoghasiddhi or Doeyen Duba in the north are depicted in the carvings of the centre Chodrom of the seat of the Chief Justice of the High Court-who serves as the first among the equals. The Rig-nga symbolizes the wisdom of dharmadatu (realization of absolute truth), wisdom of mirror, wisdom of equality, wisdom of discernment and all accomplishing wisdom. The five direction Gods also dispel delusion or arrogance, anger, pride, desire and jealousy or ill intended forces against the institution or person of a judge.
The nine seats on the pedestal are decoratively embossed with Royal Court of Justice Crest or Court Seal which constantly reminds oneself of a duty to uphold justice. The Crest encompasses the ocean symbolizing the vastness and in-depth meanings of our laws; the mountain represents the due procedure that the courts need to follow; a white lotus or padma symbolizes luminosity of justice; on the base of the lotus is the Golden Yoke and the Silken Knot. The golden yoke signifies the temporal laws and the silken knot of the ecclesiastical law. The purity of the golden yoke and its heaviness depicts the proportionality of crime and punishment. The white scarf silken knot that becomes tight to the extent that it is tightened symbolizes the stricter disciplines of our monks based on 250 Duel Thrim (Vinayana or rules governing Sangha), however, the easy unknotability of the silken knot signifies the law of compassion.
The Khorlo or Chakra or the Wheel with eight spokes of equal length in the centre of the crest signifies eight fold path and four noble truths in the centre. The spokes also symbolizes the rules of pure conduct. The Wheel is pivoted in the mirror of truth, transparency, and clarity with three types of calculating pebbles of adjudication based on the principles of ‘proved, disproved and not proved’ (Due Kar, ngag, and thra Sum). The Wheel which is constantly in motion in the universe symbolizes the power and wisdom of His Majesty’s qualities of Tong Khorlo Gyurwai Gyalpo or Chakaravertin with victories over inner, outer and secret adversaries. A male dragon on the right embodies Thab (method) and is poised to defend from external aggressions while a female dragon on the left embodies Sherab (wisdom) that ensures domestic tranquility. On the top of the crest is the parasol or Dug (Skt. Chattra) symbolizing the administration of equal justice, protection, and dignity. Finally the crest is encircled by sixteen Vajaras or Dorji Rawa (Skt. vajraprakara) symbolizing Michhoe Tshangma Chudrug (sixteen pious acts). As Dorji being the symbol of permanence and indestructibility, Dorji Rawa depicts the finality of judgment or the principle of res-judicata.
The Law Givers
Above the finely curved Kachens or pillars in the centre of the courtroom signifying the impartiality and truthfulness of witnesses hung the mask of Drenagchung on the right side overlooking the prosecution Bench and the Lhakarpo overlooking the defense counsel Bench on its left. In the middle is the mask of Shinjey Choki Gyalpo or Lord Purgatory. The 14th century text of Tertoen Karma Lingpa’s ‘Bardo Thodrel’ is one of the main sources of Bhutanese Criminal and Civil Procedure. The presence of Drenagchung (which is compared to modern day State Prosecution) Lha Karpo (defense counsel) in the trial of the sinner or the virtuous one in the text enshrines the legal doctrine and philosophy involved in all time modern day criminology and criminal procedure. Between the middle of two Kachens in the centre of the courtroom ground floor has finely curved Tazi or fence symbolizing the seats that separates the Bar and the Bench.
On the wall above the seats of judges hung the Kuthangs of Guru Padmasambhava who gave the laws of four elements –sources of civil justice, Zhiwa, and criminal justice, Dragpo (represented with Guru Dorji Drolo Kuthang). It depicts the source of Zhighay Wang Drag Gi Thrim. The other Kuthangs are that of Zhabdrung Namgyal who gave the 1652 legal code and that of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo Kuthang which was gifted to Judiciary by His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Other portraits hung on the wall are the generations of our great monarchs who were the law givers during each of their Glorious Reign which invariably ushered peace, tranquility, unity and justice in the Kingdom.
Overlooking the main courtroom is the precious old Thangka of Lord Buddha which is hung between the two Kachens at the entrance of the courtroom. The Thangka of Buddha is in the form of witness mudra or insignia is the constant reminder of self liberation and seeking ultimate truth. It is said that when Lord Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath in Varanasi, India, he was questioned about its veracity by the heretics wherein the Goddess of Earth (Sai Lhamo) testified and affirmed the truth of Buddha as an enlightened being.
High Court Judges, cases and strengthening of legal system
In its last Fifty Years (since 1967 till 2017), there were 40 judges who served as the justices of the High Court and currently there are 7 presiding justices. Over the past five decades, the High Court has resolved more than 6,712 appealed including original jurisdiction cases. In the history of the establishment of the High Court, the least number of cases decided was in 1987 with 23 and the highest were in the year 2014 with 502 cases. Besides dealing with many important cases by the High Court, the first historic constitutional case between the Ruling Government and Opposition Party was decided in 2011 and the first constitutional writ was issued in the case concerning Mangdechhu Hydro Project in 2012.
The High Court, prior to the adoption of Constitution on 18th July 2008, played its pivotal role not only in the dispensation of justice as the highest formal court of appeal, but, also spearheaded many legislative reforms in drafting major procedural and other substantive laws and also provided other justice related services in the Kingdom.
His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Commanded the High Court in 1987 for the overall development and improvement of the existing justice and judicial system interalia, re-structural or institutional design, staffing pattern and overhauling of the judicial process. His Majesty was concerned about the justice system’s need to respond to the rapidly modernizing state. He envisioned that a good justice system is the foundation of peace, stability and progress of a nation. Therefore, His Majesty introduced a separate Drungkhag Court in 1978 in Samdrup Choling, which used to be then known as Bangtar under Samdrupjongkhar followed by one each in Phuntsholing, Gelephu and Wamrong; gradually delineating the quasi-judicial powers of the Drungpas to independent Drungkhag Drangpons. His Majesty also introduced a separate post of Dzongdag as the administrative head of the district, which was originally vested with Thrimpons thereby distinctively separating the post of a judge from that of administrative post
After the creation of a three-tier system of courts (Drungkhag Court, Dzongkhag Court, and the High Court) until the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of the Supreme Court, His Majesty was the final appellate authority in the administration of justice assisted by the six-member Royal Advisory Council and a Zhung Kalyon as the Chairman in the matters related to appealed cases who used to pass decision as joint decision of the High Court and Royal Advisory Council under the seal of the High Court. To strengthen the independence of the judiciary, His Majesty appointed Dasho Peljore Jigme Dorji from 1973 to 1985 as the first Chief Justice of Bhutan, Lyonpo Sangay Penjore from 1987-1989, and Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye from 1991 to 2009 as the Chief Justices of the High Court of Bhutan.
With the official establishment of the High Court of Bhutan on 3rd November, 1967 corresponding to Fire Sheep Year and the inauguration of the current day High Court Building on 5th November 1967, the judiciary as one of the most important arms of the Government marks its successful completion of fifty years of glorious service during its Golden Jubilee in the first week of November 2017.
His Majesty the King in 2013 commanded to the Judges that:
“It was in 1967 that His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck has established an independent Judiciary. Thereafter, my father, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck while, persistently working towards further strengthening and building strong legal system, several legal reforms and amendments were effected as per the needs of the society, based on our age old profound values that benefits our citizens. This served as a strong foundation for our legal system and the end result is that we have a very strong legal system at present.
“I would like to remind you that my father, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo has once commanded that fair trial and justice were of paramount importance for the people, and that the Judiciary is the most important organ of the government followed by health services. Judges must keep in mind that access to justice must be easy, prompt and convenient for our poor citizens.”
Our country is blessed with deep rooted history and the repository of legal system and its legal legacies based on Buddhist Philosophy. Our proud tradition and uniquely rich culture continues to mould our destiny and our future well being of a nation that is firmly pivoted on the foundation of justice, the rule of law, and democracy. The Golden Jubilee of the High Court reminds the people of Bhutan of the collective efforts and wisdom of our forbearers; an accomplished merits of our present generation; and the virtuous beings of our Bodhisattva Kings. May our Kingdom further progress in peace, tranquility and justice under the glorious reign of His Majesty the King.
Royal Court of Justice,
High Court, Bhutan