Some of the earliest memories of my childhood are of going to the courts with my father, Shiv Kumar Suri. He had humble beginnings, and was a self-made man who made his way up with little mentorship or guidance in his early days.
His initial years in the profession were spent initially as legal advisor at a pharmaceutical firm and then as a litigation lawyer. His practice and clients took him to district courts, various High Courts, and numerous tribunals.
He had a multi-faceted practice, new facets of which I would discover every day as I would accompany him to court. He moved to the Supreme Court after a few years, where he distinguished himself by topping the Advocate-on-Record exam. Over a career that spanned over four and a half decades, he committed his life to the cause of countless litigants.
The law – and the courts - was his life. The courts were the stage upon which his life played out, the pole around which his life revolved. He taught me many a thing – too many to list out here, really – but one of the key things I learnt from him was a deep, innate respect for the courts and the law, and an unwavering commitment to the process of getting justice for your clients.
His contribution in the legal field is vast, but I’d like to specifically point out and emphasize his commitment to ensuring access to justice for the underprivileged. He tirelessly championed the cause of those in need, like a true advocate. Over the course of his long, distinguished career, he appeared in several hundred cases as an amicus curiae and for legal aid clients, out of his deep conviction that access to justice is a basic, fundamental right for everyone in the country. He was instrumental in a legal aid case where the Supreme Court made it mandatory for convicts in jail to have access to video-conferencing.
During the last year and a half of lockdown, he used to sorely miss the energy and the dynamism of the courts. But he took to online hearings with the same energy, passion and zeal. During the lockdown, instead of slowing down, he took his commitment to criminal justice reforms even further. We worked together for the release of many convicts whose appeals were pending and had undergone more than 10 years of imprisonment. He understood better than most that justice would not be served for this particular class of litigants easily and in a timely manner, unless effort and energy was put towards it by those like him.
The courts were not just his profession. They were also his family, his community, and his fraternity. He successful served as an Office Bearer and Member of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) Executive Committee for three terms. When I returned from the United States after practicing there for a few years, he took it upon himself to make sure that the courts became my family, my community, my fraternity as well.
When I would walk in to the Supreme Court compound with him, I would see that everyone knew him. He would greet everyone with a beaming smile. He would speak to everyone - from the Court staff to junior lawyers to senior lawyers and judges - with the same smile, enthusiasm, kindness and generosity.
From the countless messages I received in the last few days from his colleagues, it seems that his kindness, generosity, ready smile and gentleness stood out in a fast-paced, fast-moving, relentless court system where you are expected to always be on the move. His willingness to take a moment, pause, and talk to his friends, lawyers (both young and senior ones), offer a friendly piece of advice where he could, and genuinely ask about you and your family and your career, was a testament to how much he treated the legal fraternity as his family.
He had built up so much goodwill through the years, and it is this goodwill that will live on, and be the biggest treasure that I hold on to. He was a well-wisher of people. His contribution was not just through legal work, but also through encouraging young lawyers, promoting and mentoring a lot of AORs, encouraging a lot of seniors and juniors. He always felt that the knowledge that you have gained had to be shared and passed on to future generations. At the back of his mind were the early days of struggle he had undergone, and he was, therefore, always willing to guide and mentor lawyers.
He was always cordial with everyone inside the courtroom too, whether it be the judges on the bench, or the opposing lawyers. I remember an incident when the Court was imposing costs on the opposing lawyer, but dad intervened. He told the Court that the opposing lawyer was a junior and upcoming member of the Bar and needed our support and encouragement, and went on to personally request the Court to not impose costs on him.
He was large-hearted, generous, and giving. Along with music, his other deep passion was books. Not only was he always a willing buyer of legal books when booksellers would make the rounds in the Supreme Court chambers, he was a prolific builder of a diverse collection of books, buying books wherever he would travel.
For me, he was my teacher, my best friend, my mentor and my rock, all rolled into one. We spent whole days together, working, chatting, de-briefing, drinking many cups of tea and sometimes just sitting with each other. From the time he dropped me off at Government Law College in Mumbai to making me join the late DM Popat, Senior Partner and Bhavesh Panjuani, Partner at Mulla & Mulla, to now, he has been to me a mentor and role model.
We wrote books together on How the Supreme Court Works, and we had another one in the works. He was an encyclopaedia on the Supreme Court, having not missed a day in Court. And he was as young and energetic in the courts now, as he probably was in his early days.
At his tribute meeting, Justice (Retd.) Arijit Pasayat remarked that while he was an excellent lawyer who distinguished himself inside the court, human beings like him are few and far between now. Justice (Retd.) Sujata Manohar remarked that he was a genuine friend to so many over the decades, and had selflessly served the cause of litigants with unwavering dedication throughout.
On behalf of the Bar and the legal fraternity, learned Attorney General for India, KK Venugopal highlighted his contribution in promoting the younger members of the Bar, while SCBA President Vikas Singh expressed the loss of a friend who had been there with him through many moments of loss and celebration alike.
With his passing away, I have lost my best friend, my senior, my mentor my cheerleader. He was my inspiration, and always will be. We have all lost a well-wisher, and in my case, my biggest well-wisher. It’s a loss not only for me and our family, but also for the courts, the justice system, and personally for many of us in the legal fraternity. For the many who loved him dearly, for whom he was a true friend, he has left us with many lovely memories that we will cherish and life lessons that we will hold dear. As he would often sing:
Aati rahengi bahaarein, jaati rahengi baharein,
Dil ki nazar se duniya ko dekho, duniya sada hi haseen hai.
The author is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India.