During his rather short tenure at the Supreme Court, Justice Deepak Gupta made a huge impact on the justice delivery system, as evident from the principles he espoused while conducting his court.
These principles include access to justice to the underprivileged, the partnership between the Bar and the Bench, and informal apprenticeship of junior members of the Bar.
A more accessible criminal justice system and timely delivery of justice
We learnt from him that it is the poor and the underprivileged who need the maximum legal aid. Access to justice for these people, delivered in a timely manner, was an important principle he espoused.
He constantly discouraged adjournments as he considered them to be a key factor in the delay of justice. Furthermore, he would be pointed in his questions, so that he could deal with maximum number of matters in a given day.
In one of my Criminal Appeal matters listed before his Court as matter no. 113 on that day, it was not surprising that the matter reached. Further, he encouraged us to go ahead with the final hearing. Though we had been intimated about the matter being listed only the day before, I could gather from his tone that Justice Gupta was encouraging me to seize the opportunity to argue the matter. In that moment, he was not only ensuring swift delivery of justice, but also encouraging junior members of the Bar to argue matters – both principles that I observed frequently in his Court.
Education and training of junior lawyers
Junior lawyers learn as much from the way judges conduct their courts, adjudicate cases and analyse questions of law, as they do from senior lawyers they work with. Justice Gupta’s court was especially a great training ground for junior lawyers. After finishing my work for a particular day, I would go and observe his court. Not only did we learn lessons in law, we also got insights into his thinking as a jurist, and as a human.
While many judges make it a point to encourage junior lawyers, Justice Gupta went a step further. He would patiently explain to advocates why he agreed or disagreed with a particular view. More importantly, if it was a junior advocate, he would guide them on how they needed to structure and present their arguments while addressing the Court.
Further, he would keep guiding junior lawyers on how we could better present a case. For example, in criminal appeals, he would often suggest not to start with the high court judgment, as that would prejudice the mind of the judge. Rather, he would emphasize that it would be better to start from the root of the matter like the FIR, the post mortem, the evidence, and then proceed to show how the trial court and the high court might have erred in dealing with the matter. These would be invaluable lessons for junior lawyers arguing the matter as well as those present in court.
A sense of justice
Justice Gupta would constantly demonstrate an innate sense of justice. His judgments, especially in criminal matters, are testament to the same. In fact, I would recommend junior members of the Bar to keep his judgments in matters such as Imrat Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh, and Mohammed Fasrin v. State by their side while preparing the defence in criminal matters.
In Mohammed Fasrin’s case, the Court reversed the conviction in a case related to confession of a co-accused. It was held that a confession recorded when the accused is in custody, even when admissible, is a weak piece of evidence that needs to be corroborated. It further held that even if the confession is admissible, the court has to be satisfied that it is a voluntary statement, and free from any pressure.
In Imrat Singh’s case, while acquitting the accused, the Court discarded eye witness testimonies due to material contradictions, and statements of eye witnesses being at some much variance with each other.
In the latter matter, incidentally, Justice Gupta appointed me as an amicus curiae. His conduct of the Court in that matter again demonstrated his commitment to timely delivery of justice, especially to the needy. In this given appeal against a conviction under Section 302 IPC, the lawyer for the appellant, after having missed appearing on several dates, again sought an adjournment. Justice Gupta in fairness told the lawyer that even though an amicus has been appointed, the lawyer could argue, but that no adjournment would be granted. I prompted the lawyer appearing that I would happily assist. During the course of the hearing, Justice Gupta graciously took my assistance, and credited my assistance in the final judgment that he pronounced.
The personal touch
Justice Gupta believed in ensuring that lawyers appearing in his court don't feel that the Court is inaccessible. He would often cite examples from his own practice as an advocate in the lower courts to show not just that the fundamentals were important, but also that he was no different than members of the Bar. Such anecdotes and references to his time as a lawyer would make those present in his court feel connected and heard.
He treated all of us as family. On his retirement day, I was delighted to receive a personal note thanking me for the assistance rendered in the various cases argued, and wishing me success. Such is his magnanimity and connection to members of the Bar.
The Supreme Court often sees relatively short tenures for judges. But the short tenures do not prevent learned judges like Justice Gupta from incrementally improving the system and functioning of the Court, and leaving an indelible imprint on the lawyers that appear before them. Litigation practice is a commitment to lifetime of learning, and I can proudly say that Justice Gupta has really helped us move further along our respective learning curves.
With his impending retirement, for the last couple of months, I have been getting that feeling that come May 6, we would lose a guiding force. While we will not have Justice Gupta’s court to drop in and learn new things every day, I am quite certain that the best of Justice Gupta’s contribution to the legal system and fraternity is yet to come.
We do hope that we will continue to receive his guidance, love, and affection.
The author is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India.