Madras HC challenge to online rummy: Abhishek Singhvi continues with submissions, matter listed for 7 July

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Tuesday’s hearing in the Madras High Court in petition challenging Tamil Nadu government’s online rummy ban saw Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Learned Senior Counsel, continue with his submissions for two more hours, mainly on constitutional principles of proportionality and manifest arbitrariness citing plethora of Supreme Court cases. He also mentioned briefly about how fantasy sports company Dream11 has become a unicorn.

The matter, listed for tomorrow at 2:15 pm, will see Singhvi argue for one more hour before others get their turn. The Bench indicated that after tomorrow, it will continue hearings on next Wednesday and allot 2-3 days per week to the matter with the aim of completing all arguments by the 3rd week of July.

Monday’s hearing saw an interesting exchange with between Singhvi and Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee over a State’s paternalistic authority.

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Banning online games for persons above 18 years is a form of unreasonable, external, paternalistic value judgment that cannot be permitted, and violates Articles 14, 19 (1)(g) and 21 of the Indian constitution, argued Singhvi according to a report on Bar and Bench.

“Not only can, but should interfere. Otherwise, paternalism will take over liberalism,” Singhvi replied.

He pointed out that Article 21 (personal liberty) and free choice would be in danger should a such paternalistic approach be adopted, citing various forms of addiction including caffeine consumption.

During his arguments, Singhvi also pointed about there was no prohibition on smoking and alcohol consumption, activities which are far more addictive and dangerous than online gaming.

“There are any number of bettings. Can you say it is per se noxious? Have you banned liquor? Other noxious activities, smoking?”, he argued.

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Singhvi further pointed out that State-sponsored lotteries are permitted in Tamil Nadu. He then stated that adding stakes to a game of skill cannot make it a game of chance or attract a ban.

Previous arguments describing online rummy a predominantly game of skill and thus not liable to be banned were also revisited.

“There can be no game of cards that is completely skill. How you deal out the cards is chance. That in life is called destiny. In cards, it’s called chance,” he said, highlighting that just this won’t make a card game a game of chance.

The Dream11 Reference

During his arguments, Singhvi touched upon how Harsh Jain-founded Dream11 had become a unicorn. Interestingly, the Supreme Court, on 28 June, adjourned a hearing on Dream11 legality by two weeks.

The Special Leave Petition, filed by social activist Avinash Mehrotra, challenges a Rajasthan High Court division bench (Jaipur Bench) judgment in Chandresh Shankla v. State of Rajasthan dated 14th February, 2020 which relying upon judgments of the Punjab & Haryana and Bombay High Courts, ruled that Dream11 is a game of skill and dismissed allegations of gambling and betting against it.

Mehrotra in his SLP noted has alleged that the Rajasthan High Court has not properly applied legal tests to ascertain whether fantasy sports fall within the realm of game of skill. He has further alleged that the order of the Bombay High Court relied upon in the Rajasthan judgment has been stayed by the Supreme Court on 6th March, 2020 and is slated to be heard further, thereby meriting the fresh SLP to be also heard and conclusively determined.

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However, before the hearing, Mehrotra’s lawyers circulated a letter seeking adjournment and time to file certain additional material in support of their contentions. While granting the request, the 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court adjourned the matter for 2 weeks. According to the automatic next tentative hearing date generated on the Supreme Court website, the matter is now slated to come up for hearing on 16 July 2021.

The pending SLPs against orders of the Rajasthan and Bombay High Court judgments will decide the legality of fantasy sports and other online skill-based games conclusively. It remains to be seen whether in the next hearing, the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Nariman will show inclination to issue notice and hear the current appeal preferred by Mehrotra in detail or summarily dismiss the matter.