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Standing Counsel before Sitting Judges – Part III: Anitha Shenoy

Standing Counsel before Sitting Judges – Part III: Anitha Shenoy

Murali Krishnan

The third profile in the series is of Anitha Shenoy – Standing Counsel for the State of Karnataka.

“There are no lawyers in my family”

A graduate of the 1995 batch of National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU), Anitha Shenoy is very candid. “I agreed to speak to you because you wanted to know about my role as Standing Counsel. Otherwise, I am not very keen on giving interviews.”

A first generation lawyer, Shenoy speaks about how she came to join law. “There are no lawyers in my family. Professor Babu Mathew, who contested Lok Sabha polls as AAP candidate, was a good friend of my father. He happened to mention to my father about NLSIU. Back then, many people didn’t know about NLSIU, and I was also unsure about what I wanted to do after completing plus two. So, I wrote the entrance and cleared it.”

However, she is quite clear that it was the right choice. “After joining NLSIU, I have never ever regretted choosing law. Being a day scholar, I missed many fun elements in the college. But still, I thoroughly enjoyed my five years in law school.”

A four-line letter to Indira Jaising

From her internship stints during college, Shenoy realised that she wanted to focus on Public Interest Litigation. And the obvious choice was Indira Jaising. She recounts how she got the opportunity to work with Jaising. “I wrote a four-line letter to her stating that I am a graduate of NLSIU and wanted to work with her. She replied, ‘Great, I am in Italy, you can come and join me when I return.’ I negotiated my salary, came to Delhi and started working with her for Rs. 5,000. I graduated in the beginning of June and I joined the profession in July; I did not take any break.”

Shenoy worked under Jaising for five years. “Apart from doing her litigation work, I was also the head of her legal aid cell. In that capacity, I primarily had to deal with cases of domestic violence. That gave me some trial court exposure. Apart from doing her work in the Supreme Court as her junior, I attended conferences and assisted her in drafting the new Domestic Violence Act. I also did a lot of work relating to sexual harassment and HIV AIDS. The work was very interesting and exciting.”

Jaising’s ‘ethical practice’

From our conversation, it is quite clear that Shenoy shares belongingness to an older generation. “I maybe ‘old school’ but I feel that a lawyer should train under someone for at least five years to gain a foot hold in the profession.”

She also has a lot to say about Jaising and the office culture.

“The good thing about Jaising was that though she was very strict, she was very ethical in her practice. I think I have imbibed that to some extent in that I have strived to be ethical. She is, however, extremely bold and courageous and would ‘tell off’ judges which I cannot. She would never file any false pleading and there was no corrupt practice in anyway. I think it is very important that apart from teaching the nuances of advocacy, you should be ethical. I am very indebted to her for the training I received.”

Working with Jaising had other advantages as well. “I never faced any unwanted advances from male lawyers though I was living alone in Delhi. It used to be like ‘ye toh Jaising ki junior hai (she is Jaising’s junior), stay away from her.’ So, I was shielded unlike a lot of my other female colleagues.”

Life after Jaising

After leaving Jaising’s office, it was not easy for Shenoy. She recounts those days: “Normally, a Supreme Court lawyer has a feeder area from where he gets work; not all people get briefs from Delhi. If you see the mix in the Supreme Court, people coming from other States have a few contacts in their home State who send them work regularly. Having never practiced in Bangalore and being a first generation lawyer, I did not have that luxury. And the fact that I was not a very social person did not help the cause.”

She slowly started getting some matrimonial matters. “Since, I had done a few domestic violence cases when I was with Jaising, a lot of divorce matters started coming in, strangely from Mayur Vihar area. A woman litigant prefers a woman lawyer. Many south Indian women litigants came to me from the east Delhi area.”

She did not particularly enjoy doing those cases. “It was very hard and taxing because they would call me anytime or walk into the office sobbing inconsolably. There was no distinction between a lawyer, a friend or a counselor. I also had to reduce my fees many times as they did not have the means to pay.”

A year after setting up independent practice, Shenoy cleared the Advocate on Record exam. Subsequently, she began to file cases for Advocate Sanjay Parikh and her appearances in the Supreme Court increased. “Thereafter, another opportunity came my way when Justice Ravindra Bhat offered me Partnership at his office. He had been offered judgeship and chose to make the shift to the Bench.” Shenoy accepted the offer and worked there for two years handling arbitration, criminal and real estate related work.

Standing Counsel of Karnataka

In 2006, Shenoy was appointed Standing Counsel of Karnataka. “I never lobbied for the post. Many people told me that it is not a good idea to be a Standing Counsel as the work would be limited to cases from one State and that my private practice would suffer. However, I was assured by the State that I would be part of a panel of lawyers and only a few cases would be marked to me. So, I gave my consent and though, eventually, there were only two lawyers [in the Panel], I have never regretted the decision.”

Briefs to the Standing Counsel of Karnataka are marked directly from the government departments. Agitating a matter in the Supreme Court is a prerogative of the Karnataka government and the Standing Counsel cannot object to the decision of the State. “However, we do write to the government constantly saying that, ‘The money involved is very little and the delay is a lot; please don’t file these cases.’ However, the government takes the final call.”

One interesting aspect is that all the drafting work is done in Karnataka and sent to Delhi. “So, I have to file and cure all the defects and see that it is listed and then argue the case. And I also have to brief Senior Advocates.”

Usually, it is the Standing Counsel who chooses which senior counsel to engage though sometimes, it is done as per the directions of the State. In fact, routine matters are argued by the Standing Counsel and it is only in high profile matters that Seniors are engaged.

Low fees and Other Difficulties

Shenoy left her lucrative law firm practice after becoming Karnataka Standing Counsel. She does not hide the fact that the fees of Standing Counsel is “abysmally low”. “Earlier it was Rs. 800 for the whole case which may involve ten to fifteen hearings. Currently, it is Rs. 2000 per case. Besides, there are many Registrar hearings for which we are not paid anything. Now there is a proposal to increase the fee to Rs. 2000 per hearing; but even that would be very low. And with the current fee structure, it is difficult to maintain a fully staffed office.”

“The other unfortunate part of being a government advocate is that you get very few bouquets”, says Shenoy. “The day you have done extremely well in court, nobody watches you. You don’t have your client there and it is of no concern to anyone. But the day you make a mistake, there are lots of brick bats. So, they expect “corporate type” efficiency from you.  However, I have not compromised on quality. I am very particular that standards should not fall.”

She is also very clear that she does not approve of senior lawyers calling her up in a bid to influence her.

“The other problem I have faced, which I find very unfortunate, is that Seniors sometimes call me and try to influence me the day before a case is heard. This happens mostly in bail matters. I cannot be discourteous to them and have to deal with them tactfully.”

“That apart, another difficulty I have faced is that I am given documents and papers by the opposite counsel at the very last moment. Being a government advocate, you are taken for granted. ‘Arre woh toh government advocate hai, usko chor do’ (she is a government advocate, forget about her) is the attitude that people generally have.”

‘Government’s work is God’s work’

Shenoy is, however, equally enthusiastic about the plus points of being a Standing Counsel. “The exposure is tremendous. I get the opportunity to argue before every court. Judges will know a Standing Counsel personally and since Standing Counsel appear in court everyday, all lawyers will know them.

Then, of course, there is a wide range of subjects that I get to deal with. Unless one works in a very good private office, it is not possible to get such good variety. One learns so much as a Standing Counsel that it makes one a better all round lawyer.”

Standing Counsel before Sitting Judges – Part III: Anitha Shenoy

She also shares another fascinating thought when she says that “as a government advocate, you are many times espousing the cause of a person who is injured or dead. So there is a person without a voice, a person who is dead or not present in court and their cause is very important. You can’t just barter away their rights just because they are not present in the court. I have always remembered that I many times speak for such people.”

Bracketing herself once again in the previous generation, she remarks:

“I know it might sound very funny but I have felt that ‘Government’s work is God’s work’. For someone who belongs to today’s generation, it might sound really funny. But I am not of this generation, I am a generation behind.”

Three governments, five Chief Ministers

Shenoy has survived through three governments in Karnataka. “I have survived three changes in governments. So that makes me fairly ‘apolitical’. Standing Counsel usually come and go with the government. But I have been through the tenure of five Chief Ministers – Kumaraswami, Yedyurappa, Jagadish Shettar, Sadananda Gowda and Siddaramaiah. So, credit goes to the Karnataka governments for not changing the Standing Counsel.

Interestingly, Shenoy is not very certain about the exact term of appointment of Standing Counsel. “I think, normally it is a two year term which they extend, I don’t even know”, she remarks.

Being a woman lawyer and attitude of judges

Shenoy speaks about the increase in the number of women lawyers. “When I joined the profession there were not many women, now I find that the Ladies Bar room in the Supreme Court is filled with women. Also, when I started, women used to leave the profession once they had babies; or they used to go for long sabbatical and found it difficult to come back to the profession later. But that is not the case now.”

“As a woman lawyer you have to face a lot of difficulties. Women of my age group who are mothers are handicapped because our mind and attention are divided. When one is young, one does not have many responsibilities. It is women in the age group of 35 to 45 who face problems because your children would be growing up and would require you a lot more and at the same time you are at your peak in the profession as well. So you have to put in a lot of hard work.”

Shenoy also shares another interesting thought when she says that,

“A woman lawyer needs to have integrity and virtue unlike male counterparts who require only integrity. Nobody looks at a man’s virtue – except now with all these sexual harassment cases. However, with a lady there is always a lot of talk about her virtue which is always a disadvantage for a woman lawyer.”

I interrupt her. “Hasn’t that changed now”, I enquire. “I am not sure, I would be very happy if it has”, she replies.

Regarding the attitude of the Bench towards lady lawyers, she is of the opinion that it has always been a mixed bag. “I have not had many problems from judges; there are some who are condescending while some are very appreciative of women.”

Shenoy also speaks enthusiastically about two judges – Justice SB Majmudar and Justice KS Radhakrishnan. “Justice Majmudar was one of the finest judges. He would not send away anybody without giving some relief in one way or the other. Justice Radhakrishnan was a very compassionate judge. He used to hear everybody and never discriminated between juniors and seniors; everybody used to be comfortable in his court.”

“There are lots of lows in this profession, lot of dishonesty and wrongs that makes one disillusioned. But when you look at these judges, you feel that you should continue”, she signs off.

(The first two articles in this series covered Asha Gopalan Nair, the Standing Counsel for Maharashtra and Liz Mathew, Standing Counsel for Kerala.