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Balaji Srinivasan is an affable person to chat with. I walk into his office in C Block, Vasant Kunj and am almost immediately ushered into Srinivasan’s chamber. There is a small setup for idols and framed pictures of deities adorn the space. It is Diwali week and the staff has just finished the office pooja.
Balaji Srinivasan walks in, and immediately offers me green tea. ‘The weather has changed suddenly’, he remarks after seeing me cough intermittently. We sit down to talk about his early days and he begins by telling me what made him switch over from the hospitality industry to the legal field.
Unconventional beginnings: From hotel management to law
Balaji Srinivasan did not always intend to be a lawyer. The ‘accidental lawyering’ seems to have happened after a chance meeting with the Chief Justice of the Simla High Court.
“My father was a lawyer but I wanted to be away from any kind of fatherly influence and did not want to get into practice. I went away to do hotel management, worked in a hotel for a few years and then did law, which I think was a self-realization because I did not want to stay in the hotel industry for long.”
Even after graduating from law, I did not want to be with my father. From 1995-1998, I was working in a hotel while juggling my legal studies. I worked in the hotel industry first and then a courier company so that period saw me jugging different roles in the service industry.”
He may have resolved to stay away from any influence that his father held in the profession but on a personal level, Balaji Srinivasan calls him his “best friend”.
“He influenced me in so many ways. I was not a good student in school so even when I got less marks, his only comment was that if the marks were a reflection of my hard work then I needed to decide where was I headed in life. I used to be the first one to get my report card signed at home because there was never a fuss!”
Having a lawyer as a father meant the law bug had to bite one day. And it did when Balaji Srinivasan went to meet his father’s friend in Simla. A friend who just happened to be the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh at that point of time.
“He showed me the mirror and asked me as to how long did I want to stay away? He told me that I would find law to be very rewarding and now I could be the prodigal son who comes back!”
Bengaluru Vs Delhi- Litigation experiences
Balaji Srinivasan started his career in the trial courts of Bengaluru (then, Bangalore). Working with Pramila Nesargi who was also a lawmaker in the Karnataka legislature and is now a senior advocate, moulded his career in the right direction.
“I started off in a Bangalore’s trial court where my senior cultivated a unique culture of ‘swimming on your own’. She was always around to render her assistance for facing a particular court or what research had to be done but she would never tell you to argue your case and which point to press and which not to press.
She had an able colleague, Geeta Menon, who were the two people who taught me how to navigate through trial work in Bangalore. They told me the best way to learn is not to follow the clerk but do it on your own.”
The same was the case when Balaji Srinivasan finally joined the Supreme Court; for the first six months he was instructed by his father to do only the ‘ground work.’
“Be it serving copies to the other side, filing SLPs, curing defects and making affidavits/applications, I did it all. My father used to say that unless you do it on your own without depending on the clerk, you will never learn. And you will also learn as to how much running around a clerk does for you.”
He has kept this tradition alive in his office. “My colleagues will tell you that boss never turns up. At least I give them advance notice that I wont be coming!,” he laughs before explaining as to why such freedom helps the junior to grow.
“Life is much less complicated when the junior knows you are not looking over their shoulder and they can come tell you that this is what they’re trying to do. This actually makes the lawyer more creative because the responsibility falls on their shoulders and helps them when they go independent.”
Talking about litigating in Bangalore, he says that there exists a vast difference in the way trial courts and the High Courts functions.
“Points pressed in trial court will never be argued in the High Court so the entire orientation of the case changes. and that is where the Supreme Court also becomes very unique.
Here, as AORs, you bring in a very different perspective to the case, which the briefing lawyer will say that he never thought was important in the court below. Usually, the case gets decided on that point.”
Advocates on Record- To be or not to be?
Seeing how he feels about the unique task entrusted to an AoR, I feel apprehensive asking him about the increasing criticism against the institution of AoRs. But I put the question to him anyway, and am met with a candid response.
“While I was arguing, a judge once told me that what you say depends on where you stand. So being an AoR, you will not hear anything against the system from me! I have a vested interest there.”
“The people who are complaining about the system do not offer another viable alternative. It is one thing to be anti-establishment and say abolish it! But then what next? There is no credible alternative which you can think of.”
However he admits to the aberrations existing in the system and points out ways in which the SCAORA can do better.
“One thing which the Association has tried to do and should continue to do is the education that they have been giving. For instance, we do not use the e-filing at all. That is one area we can focus on where the institution will benefit immensely.”
The state of Nagaland
Balaji Srinivasan has served as the standing counsel for Nagaland and in his own words, dealt with unique matters from the state. This he feels is because of the different value system that the state brings with itself. Elaborating further he says,
“Nagaland is a very different state; a state where the IPC or CrPC do not apply and the judiciary continues to be fused with the executive. In fact, it is a surprising fact that the State Govt does not own any land there so they have to purchase land! The land is already owned by various people and that is where the govt starts from.”
Of memorable cases
I want to know about the cases that he holds closest to his heart and he immediately has a response to that.
“The Swami Nithyananda case was challenging on both professional as well as personal level. Personally it was taxing because the allegations were serious in nature with young girls being involved etc.”
“If you see the records, these girls have given statements on how they were tortured in order to make them say certain things. Sadly, the Supreme Court said that such methods were used by the police only to bring out the truth. That, I think was a serious legal flaw.”
For a lawyer who has dealt with cases facing considerable media attention (he was also the counsel in the Black Money case), I am curious to know as to how difficult is it to convince Bench for them to view a case bereft of any emotions.
Balaji Srinivasan has a measured response to that.
“In the Supreme Court, the judges have gone through the wringer and they know what they are doing. So most of them will decide 99% cases dispassionately.
“At the same time, just like we bring our own value system to the case that we are conducting, judges do the same. It happens. Judging is a very difficult job and you have to have a neutral mind before you decide.”
On a lighter vein he recalls,
“Of course at this stage, I can afford to say this. But as a young lawyer it can be very devastating. In fact the judge (in the Swami Nithyananda case) continued to think that I was an accomplice to the crime! Every time I used to appear before him, he will tell me that I know you only from that case.”
Yet another case which he describes as a ‘wonderful experience’ is the Black money case.
“You will be surprised to know that the writ petition has been framed on the basis of two press articles! The SIT constituted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court stems from the submissions and enormous efforts of Mr. Anil Divan, who was the counsel for the Petitioner Mr.Ram Jethmalani’
“It is good judgment and speaks immensely of the Court in their stand to stick together and say that this (amendment) is unconstitutional. It would have been very different story if it was 3-2 much like the Kesavananda Bharti verdict. Even the dissenting opinion does not say that the Act does not violate the basic structure. All that it says is that here was an alternative system and it could have been given a fair chance.”
Srinivasan’s voice is one among the many who agree that the current collegium system has major pitfalls and speaking against NJAC does not mean that they speak pro-collegium.
“Nobody is happy with the current system. I think the collegium system was started with a highly laudable object but somewhere down the line it lost its way. Which is why the Court has now taken the unprecedented step of inviting suggestions from the public at large as to how judges should be appointed. Nothing can be more transparent than this and this will have a serious impact on how the appointments will be made in the future.”
Judicial appointments aside, I ask him as to what changes can the Supreme Court usher in to ensure that it becomes litigant friendly and lawyer friendly.
“SC needs to devise a way to get rid of its pendency and start deciding constitutional issues. The Supreme Court is also doing its best to cut down on arrears. With one Bench hearing a particular category of cases, case management has become fantastic. It also allows for the case law to emerge and become well known.”
However, he does not mince his words when it comes to to the apathy exhibited by lawyers and staff alike to the needs of the physically challenged.
“Have you noticed that there is a pathway made for visually impaired people at every gate? Everyday there will be cars parked on that.”
Balaji Srinivasan is also a regular in various tribunals such as the NCDRC, APTEL etc. The conversation then veers to his experiences in these forums and I want to know, what in his opinions, are the foremost positives and negatives about the tribunals.
“So far as the positives are concerned, these bodies are specialized on certain areas of law. These spheres of law are so well settled that the rules of the game in these tribunals do not change much, unless the law changes.which is good for the players!
Commenting on the combination of technical and judicial members sharing the Bench in most tribunals, he says that such a combination is fantastic as the decisions given are far more ‘structured’.
On the other side, he says that these institutions should not get bogged down too much by paperwork and focus on justice dispensation alone.
“When these tribunals began functioning, they proceeded in an informal way and all they wanted was to get to the crux of the issue. Today the practice in some tribunals is to say that they will condone delay on one hearing, put the matter for admission hearing on another day and thereafter issue notice on a third day. ”
‘Play to win!’- Professional lessons
Wrapping up the interview, I ask him to describe the profession that became his final calling after dabbling with various spheres. ‘I play to win,’ is his immediate response before he hastens to add that this strategy works well for him when he adheres to the parameters of ethics and rules.
“If you can turn around a seemingly hopeless case by looking for that one clinching point, it makes a huge impact. That is what I try to teach my colleagues and according to me, that is what makes a difference.”
Bar & Bench would like to thank Advocate Srishti Govil for her assistance in arranging this interview.