Why was the young man repeatedly interrupting the thirteen well-dressed gentlemen? A case for courtroom humour
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Why was the young man repeatedly interrupting the thirteen well-dressed gentlemen? A case for courtroom humour

In times when there is a tendency for distrust to rupture the bond between the Bar and the Bench, we all need to remind ourselves of the rich folklore that has been spawned from these tales of courtroom humour and wit.

Sanjoy Ghose

Before Justice Darling, a witness, when confronted with inconsistences in his testimony, swore that “he was wedded to Truth”. The judge asked him: “So how long have you been a widower?”

To my mind, this courtroom exchange typifies the beauty of the English adversarial legal system that is a by–product of the co–operation between its two pillars - the Bar and the Bench.

When the English brought their legal system to the colony, they brought with them the tradition of courtroom wit and repartee.

Tej Bahadur Sapru and Shah Muhammad Sulaiman
Tej Bahadur Sapru and Shah Muhammad Sulaiman

Allahabad High Court lawyers can share mesmerizing anecdotes about the great Sir Tej Bahardur Sapru. Once, Sapru was arguing before Sir Shah Mohammed Sulaiman, who was known in the Bar as a “talking judge”. Chief Justice Sir Grimwood Mears, sitting in the next court, wanted the assistance of the great Sapru. He inquired from barrister Sir Charles Ross Alston, who was present in his Court, as to Sapru’s whereabouts. Alston replied,

“My Lord, he is listening to Sir Shah Mohammed Sulaiman in the adjoining court.”

In the Madras High Court, Sir Lionel Leech was holding court. In the middle of the counsel passionately making submissions, a donkey brayed. Leech was brutal when he said,

Gentleman, one at a time!”.

The story is not complete. The seething lawyer got his chance when Leech was finally dictating the order. The donkey brayed again. The counsel remarked with a dead pan expression,

Can my Lord repeat the words since it was echoing and was not clear?

The legends of the Indian Bar continued this tradition of courtroom humour over the ages and some of the exchanges have found their place of pride in legal history!

Justice Jeevanlal kapur
Justice Jeevanlal kapur

It is rumoured that when the legendary CK Daphtary (known as “Chandhu Bhai”) was defending the constitutional vires of the UP Gambling Act as Solicitor General, his friend outside court and the judge on the Bench, Justice Jeevanlal Kapoor, could not resist a dig. He said,

Mr Solicitor, the way you have portrayed the subtle manner used by these gamblers, you give us an impression that you are a professional gambler too.”

Daphtary, famed for his wit, did not take a second to respond. With a mock look of surprise on his face, he simply said,

My Lords, what else I am doing from morning to evening, before your Lordships, except gambling?”

Once, Daphtary was trying to hard sell a legal proposition to Justice Mohammed Hidayatullah, who had been recently elevated to the Apex Court. Ultimately, the judge explained,

But Mr Daphtary, have already taken a contradictory view when I was Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court!”

Tongue-in-cheek, Chandhu Bhai replied,

Now my Lord, is your chance to repent.”

Wit, humour and repartee have tied the Bar to the Bench in a fraternal bond, and in times when there is a tendency for distrust to rupture this bond, we all need to remind ourselves of the rich folklore that has been spawned from these tales of courtroom humour and wit.

Justice Kuldip Singh, G Ramaswamy
Justice Kuldip Singh, G Ramaswamy

Transpose the recently concluded unfortunate Bhushan episode in Justice Mishra’s Court - which has left the Bar and the Bench both bruised - to the courtroom of the inimitable Justice Kuldeep Singh, and try to imagine him upset with the submissions from the Bar. He thundered at another legendary lawyer, G Ramaswamy:

You think we are fools?”

GR pretended to be in a conundrum and responded with faux confusion,

My Lords have put me in a very difficult situation. If I agree, I am in contempt, if I disagree, I commit perjury.”

Justice Singh led the whole courtroom into laughter.

GR anecdotes can fill up a whole book! Once, a company was facing disconnection of its electricity connection. GR was pleading corporate penury on its part with,

My Lord, my client is poor and in hardship”.

Justice MN Venkatachaliah was unconvinced,

Look at the balance sheet at page 63, Mr Ramaswamy, your client’s turnover three years ago was over Rs 50 lakhs!

GR was unnerved. He said, matter of factly,

I know my Lord. That was before they engaged me!”.

So the great GR had made himself and his reputation for being particular about his his fees the object of his humour. After all, once, irritated with a client who had paid less fees, he had remarked,

How do you expect a petrol car to work when you put diesel in it?

GR, did not need a post to command respect and his sharp humour remained his companion even when he resigned from the post of Attorney General. Soon after his resignation, one day GR was struggling before a judge who decided to hit below the belt. He said,

Well you see, Mr Ramaswamy, till the other day you may have been able to find a patient listener to these arguments….”

GR did not betray his hurt and smiled back saying,

“I am glad your Lordship brings this up. Only yesterday, I got appointed to a post from which I can never be removed."

The judge looked perplexed. GR clarified,

“The post of former Attorney General.”

Let us recall when Chief Justice MC Chagla was hearing the challenge to the constitutional validity of the Bombay Prohibition Act. CK Dahptary may have said that “A Republic without a Pub is a relic”, however, in court, it was he who had to bat for the law. The packed courtroom heard the proceedings for two whole weeks. When Daphtary rose as the State’s Advocate General to ably defend the law, Chagla inquired as to the nature of intoxicants which had been prohibited under the law. Daphtary recounted for the Court and then, with a twinkle in his eye, said,

And then My Lords, there are substances, other than liquid refreshments, which also intoxicate – and power is one of them.”

Once CK came to the rescue of a junior lawyer facing the ire of the bench. He said:

My Lord, what the young man has done is the right thing in a wrong way. When he reaches your Lordship’s age and mine, he will learn how to do the wrong thing in a right way.”

Reverting to the subject of “talking judges”, Nani Palkhivala was having trouble making submission before the thirteen justices of the Kesavananda Court. He complained to Daphtary that he could barely get a proposition in without being interrupted by one judge or the other. Daphtary assured him, to his surprise, that he would not face the obstruction in future. That evening, he sought out an appointment with Chief Justice Sarva Mitra Sikri. After pleasantries, he complimented Sikri that his hearings had attracted attention from far and wide. In fact, a little girl had come to see the proceedings with her father and quizzically inquired from her guardian as to who that “young man was who was repeatedly interrupting the thirteen well-dressed gentlemen”! Sikri got the message and let Nani have his say. Humour gave India her basic structure.

Once, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru was arguing before Rachhpal Singh and Bajpai, JJ. He first referred to Comyn’s Digest ,which was printed in Olde English. After struggling with it, Singh passed it on to Bajpai who had an amazing knowledge of antiquated English. Sir Tej then cited Russel’s Law of Arbitration and Hogg on Arbitration, which again were wasted on Singh and relished by his brother on the bench. Finally, when Sapru wanted to cite Bacon’s Abridgment, Bajpai cattily remarked

This is surely meant for my brother Singh?”

Tej replied,

There are portions which both your Lordships will enjoy."

Thus, was decided Ganga Dhar v. Inder Singh.

Syed Mahmood
Syed Mahmood

Staying on with the Allahabad High Court, one of its sterling judges, Justice Mahmood, son of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, resumed practice before the Judicial Commissioner’s Court at Lucknow, after resigning from the High Court. Sadly, he had a drinking problem. Once, in a state of inebriation, he started arguing against his own client to the shock of his junior who promptly pointed out the error. Without betraying any embarrassment, Mahmood submitted:

Sir, I have said all that my learned friend on the other side could have said on behalf of his client. I would now proceed to demolish these arguments.”

Once, a British Justice in the Calcutta High Court witnessed the great Rashbehary Ghose struggling to bring in heavy law books into the courtroom. He remarked,

Mr Ghose, I see you have brought the entire library with you.”

Not one to be outdone, Ghose responded,

Yes my Lord, I have brought all these books so that I may teach you a little about the Law.”

Rash Behari Ghosh
Rash Behari Ghosh

Ashoke Sen and Siddharth Shankar Ray, also from Calcutta, were fabled for their courtroom wit and repartee as well. Once, Sen was asked by the Bench

Mr Sen, how can you be so confident about the legislative intent and interpretation?”.

Sen, who had served as India’s Law Minister, dryly replied,

"Cause My Lords, I was the one who drafted it.”

SS Ray, at the wrong end of the Court in one hearing, seemed distracted to the Bench, which was irritated to see him keep pulling at long sleeves of his senior gown. Apparently, this was a trait he exhibited when anxious. Finally, the Court could not hold back and asked

Mr Ray what exactly are you doing?”

Ray replied,

Trying to make both ends meet, My Lords.”

Ashoke Kumar Sen, Siddhartha Shankar Ray
Ashoke Kumar Sen, Siddhartha Shankar Ray

Justice PK Mishra, when sitting on the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, once inquired from a counsel, who was unendingly making submissions, whether the end was in sight.

I will finish your Lordship”, assured the lawyer.

The judge quipped,

Don’t finish me. Just your arguments.”

Another Madras High Court judge was patiently hearing a case, when the plaintiff got all agitated and was frantically searching for something. The judge asked the lawyer what was the matter and was told that the plaintiff had misplaced his jacket. The judge responded “remind your client that till now, he has lost only his jacket while many persons have lost their suit itself."

Even recently, while hearing the Karnataka government formation crises case, Justice AK Sikri instantly defused the tension palpably hanging in the courtroom by saying,

I just saw a message on social media that now the owner of the resort has written to the Governor demanding that he be invited to form the government as he had 117 MLAs!”

Even Chief Justice SA Bobde displayed wit when he quipped to a lawyer who was insisting that his client be given bail on a day that was Janmashtami. Bobde, CJ. said,

Today Lord Krishna was born in jail and you want to leave it?

When the lawyer pressed his case, the judge observed,

Good you are not attached to any religion in the extreme. Bail granted.

While there have been many a judge who have regaled the Court with their sharp wit and humour, few have ventured as boldly as Justice GS Patel to even reflect the wit in judicial orders. Sample this:

In 2016, GoAir Ltd (which flew Go Air) brought a cause to his Court against Interglobe Aviation Ltd (which flew Indigo) for using the prefix ‘Go” in its web booking address “goindigo.in”.

Patel wrote in his judicial order:

“GoAir believes that Indigo should not use the domain name GoIndigo.in. It has intellectual property issues with Indigo’s chosen prefix “Go” though apparently not with the trailing ‘go’, a small mercy as it happens, for that might be a demand that Indigo should be rechristened Indi.”

Noting that GoAir had not asked for a similar relief against another defendant to the suit, Google, which hosted Indigo’s website, the inimitable Patel, J noted,

That is all to the good, for the alternative is unthinkable – we might otherwise be forced to ogle the Web.

In conclusion, you have to concede that the assortment of anecdotes narrated makes out a compelling case for courtroom humour. Humour can achieve with little disruption, pain or offense what vexed arguments and mortal combat between the Bench and its mother - the Bar- would do at great cost. In present times, the Bar and the Bench are so estranged and egos so prickly that the bond of humour and wit itself is imperiled and endangered. Let us pull out all the stops to ensure that humour returns to our courts forthwith. Ordered accordingly.

The author is a Delhi-based advocate.

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