Spotlight is a series where we shine the, well, spotlight on lawyers, judges and legal experts who made news over the past week.
Members of the legal fraternity and observers of the courts received a jolt on Friday, when the Calcutta High Court’s Justice Shekhar B Saraf recused himself from hearing a case after revealing that he was approached by one of the parties for a favourable order.
Justice Saraf’s revelation, made in open court, exposed the brazenness with which a lawyer approached a sitting High Court judge. The judge stopped short of naming the person who approached him, but made it clear that such attempts at corruption would not be tolerated.
Who is Justice Saraf?
Justice Saraf was born on October 21, 1971 to Justice Sohan Lal Saraf and Sulochana Saraf. He went to St Xaviers Collegiate School, Calcutta and La Martiniere School for Boys, Calcutta. In 1996, he completed his BA LLB (Honours) from National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore.
Justice Saraf worked with Arthur Andersen & Co, a worldwide consulting firm, dealing in corporate law and indirect taxation matters between July 1996 and December 1997.
In January 1998, he joined the chambers of Senior Advocate RN Bajoria at the Calcutta High Court. On March 12, 1999, he enrolled as an advocate (seniority as an advocate from January 19, 1998) in the Bar Council of West Bengal.
In 2000, he obtained the Chevening Scholarship for The Young Indian Lawyers Program sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom. Under the program, he studied for six weeks at the College of Law, York on various subjects including international arbitration, competition law, European community law and mergers and acquisitions.
Starting 2001, he independently handled all sorts of cases, including company matters, arbitration, central excise, customs and income tax in the original and appellate side of the High Court, tax tribunals and civil courts at Calcutta.
In January 2001, Saraf qualified as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, and from 2004, he appeared as a counsel for the Union of India at the Calcutta High Court in relation to customs, excise and company matters.
From July 2010 onwards, he appeared as a Senior Counsel for the Government of India in relation to income tax matters, besides appearing as a Senior Standing Counsel in relation to central excise, customs and service tax matters from December 2011.
He was elevated as an additional judge of the Calcutta High Court on September 21, 2017 and appointed as a permanent judge of the Calcutta High Court on September 16, 2019.
Notable verdicts and remarks
In February 2021, Justice Saraf’s Bench held that the filing of a writ petition or an application under Article 226 of the Constitution on the wrong administrative side (original/ appellate) of the High Court would not by itself become a ground for dismissal.
The Bench found that the petition had been wrongly filed on the original side and the parties were residing and carrying on their business beyond the Calcutta High Court's original jurisdiction.
Justice Saraf, thus, directed case to be registered on the appellate side of the Court.
In his judgment in August 2021, Justice Saraf held that the liability of an insurer in reimbursing medical expenses through mediclaim is independent of the liability imposed on an insurance company to pay compensation as per the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.
During a webinar held in July 2020, Justice Saraf remarked that the media's truncated reportage of legal proceedings on social media can sometimes be misleading. He said,
“Frankly, the people who are covering this, even if they are legally trained, they would not be really aware of the circumstances as to why that communication took place. Such kind of reporting, in my view, should not happen. Simply because the people who receive the news may not be in a position to really understand why that particular interaction took place.”
He was also sceptical of the view that judges “play to the gallery” when they are aware that the media is reporting on the case before them.
“Frankly, it is more the reporters who want to sensationalise a particular piece… I don't think it is the case that any of the judges want to sensationalise and therefore make unnecessary comments in the court,” he said.
Interestingly, Justice Saraf also expressed reservations regarding the live-streaming of court proceedings, apprehending that the healthy banter between the Bench and the Bar would be reduced to a solemn affair.
Why is he in the Spotlight?
During a hearing on Friday, Justice Saraf shared concerns over the manner in which he was approached, expressing shock at how people are assuming judges to be.
“We are not saleable commodities. And if lawyers come and try and corrupt us, it becomes very difficult for us...It's very unfortunate that this is being done.”
The judge also turned to Senior Advocate Harish Salve, who was representing the petitioner in the case, and said,
"It would have been my great fortune to have heard you in the matter, but circumstances are such that I shall not be able to do so at least on this occasion. And I will tell you why. I have been approached directly by somebody I would believe was from your side because that person indicated to me that you will appear in the matter.”
For the judge, it was deeply disturbing that someone could walk into his chamber and approach him.
“That is the impression that people have of judges of this Court, or of judges across India. I was so shocked at that point that I didn't even say anything and just left it at that. I could have trapped that fellow later on; he wanted to meet me again on several occasions, but I chose not to and just kept away from him though he kept at it,” he added.
The one-line order that followed stated,
"Due to circumstances which are quite unfortunate, I release this matter on my personal ground."
Ending on a lighter note, Justice Saraf also candidly expressed his hope to hear Salve at another instance. Justice Saraf also recalled that as a law student, he had seen Salve argue a case in 1992-93. He said,
"I hope I get another opportunity. Because of this virtual connectivity, we get the opportunity to hear doyens of the Indian Bar. You should try and look for an opportunity to appear before me again!"