A dark, funny picture of the Indian legal system

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 16, 2016 12:05 IST
Legal Confidential: Adventures of An Indian Lawyer by Ranjeev C Dubey (Penguin Rs 499; PP 299)

Ranjeev C Dubey’s entertaining and enlightening memoir presents a darkly funny picture of the Indian legal system. An excerpt:

…Back in the 1980s, before the monopolies of the superstar senior counsels was broken and true competition appeared on the scene, top-flight court counsels treated both law firms and paidal lawyers like trash. In turn, since the client saw the law firm as a low-end service provider, they got the same treatment from the client… When I’d had it up to my neck, Deo patiently explained to me that I must not lament my fate which surely even I knew was about the same as the one befalling a prostitute in GB Road when hung up to dry between a disgruntled hypersexual customer and a greedy sadistic pimp!

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I remember feeling this way when we represented a senior British journalist of a global news agency. He had hired an attractive secretary and was rewarded with the kind of soulsatisfying flirtation that only those with great ambition but limited performance can experience. He failed to see that the lady’s close attentiveness was mere courtesy to the boss... He claimed that over a period of time, she demanded more and more perks, benefits, days off and pay hikes. When he couldn’t deal with her demands any more, they had a terrible row in the office at which point he sacked her. That was a big mistake. Whatever their relationship was, she never claimed it was sexual, because in no time she had slapped a case of wrongful termination on him.

Author Ranjeev C Dubey.

She made a simple case. The man was pursuing her for sexual gratification and when she failed to succumb, he sacked her. She now wanted damages, big fat damages.

For those with an abiding interest in illicit sex in office cabins, here is a bit of gratuitous advice. If you are compromised and unable to deliver on the quid pro quo you promised your amorous interest, project yourself as powerless, professionally diminished and unable to meet the lady’s demands. Take the humiliation, grovel and roll about in the slime. Encourage the lady to leave for greener pastures, even help her with contacts, but never — repeat never — end it in a row. Hell hath no fury like a lady seduced and then ripped off.

As far as I know, this was the first sexual harassment case in the Delhi High Court and the judge’s principal response was embarrassment. The lady wanted immediate reinstatement pending adjudication of her money claim. What’s more, she wanted the English journalist’s passport seized to prevent him from skipping the country. He wet his pants in horror. Deo thought we should hire Ashok Sen, undoubtedly one of India’s top lawyers, because there really were no budgetary constraints. Sen accepted the brief.

Ashok Sen was quite a personality. My favourite Sen story is the time he showed up at a trial court to argue a case while it was in session. The poor magistrate took one look at him and jumped to his feet. Sen was sardonic as sin as he addressed the judge in his most clipped Oxbridge accent: ‘It is not the custom of the law for the Bench to rise for the Bar, my lord.’ Trust Sen to chuck a wicked ‘my lord’ at the bottom of the pecking order of judges! The judge shifted from foot to foot for a moment, and then sat down in confusion. In time, his confusion changed to pleasure. I mean, here was the great Ashok Sen, appearing in his court. When Sen’s case was called for hearing, the judge extended a friendly welcome and told him he was happy to hear his arguments. Sen was unmoved. ‘We are but lawyers, my lord, and appear everywhere. For the price of my professional fees, I will address a lamp post,’ he said. The guy who told me this story was convinced the judge never quite cut through the Queen’s English or the case would not have been won.

Naturally, I made my first trip to Sen’s chamber with great apprehension. I had never been in the presence of such eminence, let alone briefed such a senior lawyer. I knew neither the game, nor its rules and pitfalls… Sen was charming to a fault. He ‘settled’ the brief, meaning he read the written statement of defence I had made and meticulously corrected it with a red pencil. It was a typical British-era, UK educated top lawyer’s draft: restrained, minimal, limited to the hard facts without flourishes. I then went to my office, typed it up and sent it back to the client. This is where things started to go wrong. The client went and obtained another opinion from another paidal lawyer who hacked Sen’s draft to bits. He then sent this hatchet job back to me. This ‘client version’ wasn’t so much legal draft as a propaganda pamphlet, complete with extensive quotations from communications between boss and amorous interest, emotional excess and simulated tantrums. Clearly, the two drafts represented the mother of all cultural clashes. The client started to pressure me to file this Bollywood-screenplay version. I tried to contact Ashok Sen but he was out of the country. On the principle that the client was king, I filed the client’s extended edition... and invited myself to my own funeral.

When Sen heard I had changed his ‘settled draft’, he refused to appear. I called up the journalist and was told it had to be Sen or nothing. Sen sat on his ego, the journalist sat on his ‘client’s prerogative’ and I got it from both ends. This was my first experience of independently briefing a truly all-time-great counsel and as the great sages who meditated in the Himalayas for a thousand years would have put it, it was a case of Pratham Chumbanaan, Danth Bhajnam, translated from the Sanskrit roughly as ‘First kiss, broke teeth’! Ultimately, it came down to how low I would bend and how much humiliation I would take from Sen before his anger subsided and he agreed to appear. Running litigation for a law firm was a brutal life. And this was no isolated case...

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