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Saturday, Nov 16, 2019

Arun Jaitley: A distinctive lawyer, a fine human being

What set him apart was his polite, yet firm, manner; he was logical and persuasive; and he rarely raised his voice

analysis Updated: Sep 04, 2019 19:07 IST
Sidharth Luthra
Sidharth Luthra
Hindustan Times
Arun Jaitley was a great strategist in legal matters, and would meticulously make handwritten notes during briefings. He was always thorough
Arun Jaitley was a great strategist in legal matters, and would meticulously make handwritten notes during briefings. He was always thorough(Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times)

My first interaction with Arun Jaitley was in 1991, when I joined the Bar. He had just stepped down as the additional solicitor general. I would see him running from court to court. He was a rising star among senior counsels and sought-after. What set him apart was his polite, yet firm manner; he was logical and extremely persuasive, rarely raising his voice.

In 1995, Jaitley and my late father, KK Luthra, opposed each other in a highly contentious criminal matter relating to sexual offences in the Delhi High Court (Jakhu case). It was a pro bono case, and I saw his hard work and dedication first hand. The legal points he raised to expand the definition of rape formed the basis for amendments to the Penal Code in 2013, by which time he was the leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

After losing my father in 1997, I often briefed and assisted him in court, and worked closely with him till he became a minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1999-2004). After his return to law practice in 2004, I assisted him in court quite regularly. Every interaction in his chambers at Kailash Colony was a learning experience.

He was a great strategist in legal matters, and would meticulously make handwritten notes during briefings; he was always thorough. Assisting him for (Ebay) in 2007, in a prosecution for sale of offensive videos, was a memorable instance for me. We were at our wits’ end as to how to explain to the judge the workings of an e-commerce website. He began with the example of the classifieds section of the Hindustan Times, and told the judge it would be absurd to prosecute the directors of a newspaper because a third-party placed an advertisement for an offensive product. Needless to say, we won the case.

Another instance came during the impeachment proceedings of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court. I appeared as the government advocate before the Committee of Inquiry in 2009-10. Jaitley had originally moved the motion in Parliament. While the committee proceedings were underway, whenever we met socially, he would inquire about its progress.

The Committee eventually recommended removal of the judge. When the motion came up in the Rajya Sabha in 2011, on the first day, the judge seemed to have won the day. It was left to Jaitley to support the resolution and the report of the Committee of Inquiry which had indicted the judge.

A day prior to the debate in the Rajya Sabha, while I was in court, I got a message to call him once I was free. When we spoke, he asked me if we could meet that evening. At about 9:30 pm I, along with my colleagues, Sidharth Agarwal and other juniors who had assisted him, visited his home.

In an hour-long discussion, he focused on crucial facts such as of the personal use of funds by the judge (which had taken us weeks and months to analyse). The next day, armed with cheques used by the judge, his credit card vouchers, bank statements, purchase bills of books, and details of gifts to the judge’s friends from funds to be held in trust, he convinced Rajya Sabha members — and the motion for removal of a judge was approved for the first time in Indian history.

My last professional interaction was representing him in the criminal defamation against Arvind Kejriwal and others before a magistrate. It ended with an unconditional apology to him. He was hurt by the false allegations that had been made. Yet, in his characteristic large-hearted manner, he accepted the apology.

On the personal front, his generosity to his staff was unparalleled among lawyers. When I was designated as a senior advocate in 2007, I learnt of his model of distribution of clerkage (10% of his fee), and have tried to emulate it.

Gracious and sensitive, he was the first to host a grand lunch for me when I was appointed additional solicitor general in July 2012. He got a common friend to do the invitations as I had been appointed by the United Progressive Alliance government, and, I believe, he did not want to embarrass me.

Over the years, he would often ask about how my career was progressing, and would fondly tell me that I should try and emulate my late father, who was very stylish. As a parting gift, he sent me his brand of spectacles — which I was wearing that fateful Saturday, when I learnt that we had lost him.

Sidharth Luthra is senior advocate, Supreme Court
The views expressed are personal