In Conversation with Milind Sathe senior counsel and Bombay Bar Association’s President
Interviews

In Conversation with Milind Sathe senior counsel and Bombay Bar Association’s President

Anuj Agrawal

One of those rare people who is equally liked amongst the various factions of the Bombay Bar, senior counsel Milind Sathe is a rather soft-spoken man. Which is a bit hard to digest, given the fact that he is the President of the Bombay Bar Association.

In this hour-long interview with Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal, Sathe talks about his early years, teaching at GLC, and much more.

(Edited excerpts)

Anuj Agrawal: There is very little information about your early years. You used to teach at Government Law College, Mumbai.

Milind Sathe: I actually did my BSc in science from Chiplun under the Bombay University, and then came to Mumbai to do my law. My first year was in New Law College, and the last two were from Government Law College.

I graduated in law in 1983. Then I did my LLM, and stood first in the University – that is how I joined GLC as faculty. I was there from 1986 to 1991.

AA: What got you into the study of law?

Milind Sathe: Well, I did not get admission in any engineering college (laughs) so then the only option was graduation. So I did my BSc.

I actually wanted to join the civil services; two of my uncles were in the civil services, one of whom was Chief Secretary of Maharashtra. The other was the Foreign Secretary during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s time.

But when I passed my graduation I was 18 years old because of two double promotions. And when I graduated in law I was 21, but still underage for the civil services exam. So then I started legal practice.

AA: You were 21 years old when you joined the chambers of Justice DR Dhanuka.

Milind Sathe: Yes, it was a lot of fun. And thereafter, despite the fact that I passed the civil services exam, I did not pursue that because I was really enjoying legal practice. My father was a teacher, so I wouldn’t say that we were from an affluent family, but I knew that my family would support me for a few years at least during the gestation years in law.

It was not necessary that I had to earn money for sustenance. Which is what happened with me for the first few years. But it was a fascinating field, and I was enjoying it immensely.

AA: How were the files marked in those times?

Milind Sathe: In the Chambers of Mr. Dhanuka (later Justice DR Dhanuka), I was with him till he became a judge. He was a counsel so he had his own set of briefs, and did not have clients as such. So there was nothing to be marked as such.

He had briefs from solicitors in which we would help him. Mr. Kamdar was with me at that time in Dhanuka’s chambers, we would work in all the matters. Some solicitor would send a little work, or some small matter, and we would get briefed.

That is how we started getting work. Of course, I would get technical appearances where I would be appearing with Mr. Dhanuka, but I did not get to address the court as such. I only started getting actual appearances after two or three years.

AA: Do you think this is a fair system?

Milind Sathe: That is how it works. I think it is a fair system. See, there would be some payment in small matters and your learning process is on. In those days, in one of the civil trials ,I was asked to do research. The trial went on for six months and I got paid fifteen hundred rupees for it. That was my first earning and it was a good amount.

The trial went on for six months and I got paid fifteen hundred rupees for it. That was my first earning and it was a good amount.

AA: And why the decision to teach?

Milind Sathe: That was my fascination. I taught for five years and I enjoyed it tremendously. In fact, I always tell people that I enjoyed my college life more as a teacher than as a student.

I graduated at the age of 18, and with BSc lectures and practicals there was no chance to have any fun as a student!

AA: Any big matters that you remember in particular?

Milind Sathe: So many. One was the NRC case, a company law trial – the judgment by Justice Bharucha is considered to be a Bible on company law. Of course, I was only a spectator watching and listening to the arguments of Mr. Nariman on our side and Mr. Cooper on the other side. Mr. Cooper was assisted by four seniors and two juniors and Mr. Nariman was assisted by five seniors and two juniors. Mind you, the junior counsel in that matter were Rafique Dada and Goolam Vahanvati (smiles).

It was fun watching these stalwarts do a trial. So that was the first one. Then of course, the takeover of the textile mills, LIC v. Escorts, and several big constitutional cases.

One was Bennett Coleman’s challenge against an MRTP Commission order on preventing them from starting a new edition of Jan Sakta in Lucknow. They challenged the MRTP Act and its inclusion into the 9th Schedule of the Constitution as damaging the Basic Structure. Mr. Dhanuka and I were appearing for the Union government, defending it. We lost the case.

AA: What were the learnings from such high-pressure cases?

Milind Sathe: There are three qualities which a lawyer must have. These are in-depth study of facts, study of applicable law, and doing research and formulating the propositions arising in the case on the basis of law and facts. These days people do it on the basis of search engines but that is not how we used to do research.

And the third is to observe how things are done. This will come with experience in court. I always cite examples of Mr. Ashok Desai for this, who was my other senior, in the sense I would get briefed with him until he shifted to Delhi in 1989.

I regard him as a person with amazing dexterity. You can prepare twenty points with detailed judgments and research but when you go to court, you find the judge asking a different question that you have not thought of. But he could handle such a situation with alarming ease – that is called dexterity in court. It was amazing to watch him and learn from him.

You can prepare twenty points with detailed judgments and research but when you go to court, you find the judge asking a different question that you have not thought of.

AA: Was it odd to appear in Dhanuka J’s court after he was elevated to the Bench?

Milind Sathe: I did not appear in his court. That is a tradition that some judges have followed – a junior does not appear before the senior, and vice-versa too, because sometimes the junior becomes a judge. 

Now what is generally done is to have a cooling off period where you don’t appear before that judge for a few years. In Bombay, judges are socially detached unlike, say, north India (smiles).

AA: In 2005, you were designated.

Milind Sathe: In Bombay, generally what happens is that you know which generation [of lawyers] you belong to. When the lawyers in the generation above you become seniors, then you know that you are next. I have seen those senior to me becoming seniors, or becoming judges. So you can see that gradual process taking place.

AA: Thoughts on joining the Bench?

Milind Sathe: Well I was asked, but my senior did not have a good experience of his judicial tenure (laughs).

AA: That is quite diplomatic.

Milind Sathe: Well the reason for his experience was that he took judgeship at a very late age. He was 56 at that time, meaning he had just six years of tenure. In the first six years as a judge you get to do the work which is basically miscellaneous work. You don’t get cases where you can lay down the law.

Even if you are 56 years old, you still are a junior judge. So you get that work. You don’t head a Bench, you may not even sit on a Division Bench. I had that experience before me, so I didn’t accept it.

AA: The High Court has become dominated by interlocutory work, and final decisions are rare.

Milind Sathe: That is not true for all courts. But in the current scenario, where you have over 20,000 cases filed in a year, a new case will always have some urgency. That needs to be given priority.

You cannot say that a suit filed in 1990 will be taken up first if, for example, your house may be demolished tomorrow. That urgent application is an essential part of the justice delivery system.

AA: But it will never end the pendency.

Milind Sathe: It will not end it at the current rate of disposal because there is a complete mismatch in the inflow and outflow. So that needs to be tackled. Something is being done by way of case management in the sense that there are some benches that are dedicated for old work.

There are some benches which take up final hearing matters on a daily basis. So judges are doing their bit. The solution is case management and more judges.

AA: Why did you join the Bombay Bar Association (BBA)?

Milind Sathe: My senior was practicing on the original side. In fact, I had a fascination for the original side ever since I was a college student when I would watch court proceedings. I had seen both sides as a student as well, and of course I heard about it during college lectures.

When I was at GLC, the BBA celebrated 125 years of GLC. For that celebration, Mr. Seervai, Mr. Palkhiwala and others came for lectures and I wanted to go the Bar that they came from! (smiles) So that is why I chose to join the original side, and hence the Bombay Bar Association.

AA: Membership at the BBA is quite difficult.

Milind Sathe: No, it is not difficult, only we don’t give membership on the day you apply. The reason is because there is too much pressure. Last year, when I became President, we cleared all the pending membership applications.

The new members are the ones who need the facilities the most. But it can become quite crowded, and we need some order in the system. It is not as if there is any discrimination or we don’t allow people to come.

The new members are the ones who need the facilities the most. But it can become quite crowded, and we need some order in the system. It is not as if there is any discrimination or we don’t allow people to come.

AA: But the infrastructure for the lawyers is not enough.

Milind Sathe: Yes, the infrastructure is not enough for the court either. Which is why the shifting has been proposed. The practical reality is that we cannot continue to function in the current courtrooms. So either we have augmented facilities around this building or we have a complete self-sustaining building.

If shifting is inevitable, then we must have adequate facilities not only for the judges, but for the bar associations as well.

AA: What about the argument that it is a heritage structure?

Milind Sathe: Of course it is! But nothing is going to happen to this structure. It will be preserved and maintained. Perhaps some benches could continue to work out of here. There is a thought that the commercial benches could continue over here. Of course, it will be difficult but (pauses) it is not like this is going to happen in the next ten years (smiles).

AA: Bar politics can be quite divisive. Yet, you seem to be on the good side of most. Is it because you stay away, that you are aloof?

Milind Sathe: I am not aloof. I am friendly with everybody. See I have nothing to gain from being in the Association. I am only there to do something if I can. See, some people accuse you of joining Bar associations in order to gain something. I don’t have to become a senior, or a judge or anything like that. So therefore I can only do something to the best of my ability, and can be impartial and objective.

See some people accuse you of joining Bar associations in order to gain something – I don’t have to become a senior, or a judge or anything like that.

AA: Why aren’t leaders of the Bar involved in bar councils?

Milind Sathe:  Before 1960, there were reservations [for senior lawyers] in Bar Councils. Today, reservation, even as a thought, does not appeal to anybody. But at the same time, the people who can and should devote time to bar councils don’t want to go through that election process. And bar council elections have become like political elections.

So if someone says, ‘Go work for the bar council’, I will do it. But if they ask me to stand for elections for the bar council, I wont do that. It is a messy, dirty election – this is unfortunate.

AA: Any advice for young lawyers?

Milind Sathe: It is a fascinating profession, with a tremendous amount of fierce independence. And if you have the possibility of surviving for a few years without financial difficulty, then it is a fabulous field. There are so many opportunities and you can do good for the society.

(Views expressed in this interview are of Senior Advocate Milind Sathe. Bar & Bench neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news
www.barandbench.com