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In the final interview of lawyers in Hyderabad, Bar & Bench speaks to Senior Advocate Pratap Reddy. In this interview, Reddy discusses how he ended up in the legal profession, his advice to junior lawyers and why he thinks the Supreme Court ought to rethink the way it is currently functioning.
Bar & Bench: You have been a practicing lawyer for the nearly six decades. How did you end up in the legal profession?
Pratap Reddy: See, I always had a fascination for practicing law from the beginning. I was brought up by my maternal uncle. I lost my father when I was around eight years old. My maternal uncle was not a very famous lawyer but I used to see how the people would respect him. In those days, a lawyer was supposed to be a pivot of social life and more so in the taluk or district headquarters.
Both, my father’s elder brother and my maternal uncle were lawyers. And apart from that, by nature, I didn’t like to be in a job under any person or government or institution. I wanted an independent life.
I was selected for a tehsildar’s post, for police service and also as a gazetted officer. But I hated all of these jobs. I wanted to be independent. I did not like working under anybody.
B&B: And when did you start practicing?
PR: I started practicing quite late actually. I graduated in law in 1951-52 but I started practicing law from October 30, 1956. In those four years, I took service here and there but like I said, I did not really like those jobs.
B&B: So you must have seen some tremendous changes in the Bar?
PR: In 1956 when I joined the Bar [the profession] was very charismatic and very attractive. There was a very good relationship between the Bar and the Bench. Judges used to respect lawyers and vice versa. Those days, as it should be, the Bench and the Bar would function as one.
B&B: So you started practicing in the AP High Court in 1956. What was it like back then?
PR: I got myself enrolled on October 30, 1956, a day before the AP High Court formally started functioning. On November 1, 1956 I joined the chambers of MS Ramchandra Rao, who was one of the leading lawyers at that time. He was a great man and already had 17-18 juniors at that time. I was not even getting time to speak to him properly. But I had to make money. I had already gotten married and had a son; I had to maintain my family.
So what I used to do is I used to pick up small cases in the lower judiciary here and there. Secunderabad was a homogenous court in the sense that all the courts were at one location. I was living in that area so people used to come to me for drafting rent control eviction notices, notice for recovery for suit etc.
B&B: If you don’t mind us asking, how much were you making at that point of time?
PR: Twenty five rupees for one notice. That was very big money back then. If I gave an eviction notice, I would get twenty rupees. I used to make nearly three hundred rupees a month.
B&B: And from writing notices for twenty-five rupees, how did you build your practice?
PR: This is a point I share with everyone: You must first know the fundamentals of your case. Your facts must be perfect. If you don’t know your facts, you will lose the case. Then you must see which law is applicable.
When I joined the Bar, there was a national hockey tournament in Hyderabad. One of the sponsors provided accommodation for three or four teams in some of the most prestigious hotels in the city. But he did not pay the money.
About a year and a half after the tournament, the hotel owners filed a recovery suit against the sponsor; they hired the top lawyers of the country. The matter was given to a senior counsel who subsequently handed me the case and told me to handle it! I had absolutely no idea what I should do.
Now the suit was with respect to accommodation given in hotel. The limitation period for such a suit was one year but the other side’s lawyers thought it was three years. End of the matter!
I would discuss the matter with others and say that the suit was barred by limitation. Every evening, I would meet lawyers in the Bar Association and they would heckle me, “Look at this new fellow…There are people coming into the Bar who want to take any plea that they want”.
The matter came up before the court and all the suits were dismissed!
That is how I gained confidence in the profession. You have to take care of the facts and the law which is applicable to these facts. This will build up the confidence which judges entrust upon you. They will think, “This is a person who is knowledgeable about both the facts and the law”.
The second thing which I tell all juniors is, do not tell the judge a lie. Lawyers are not liars. As far as facts are concerned, you must be very frank. Never tell a fact which is not recorded by evidence. Even if there is something against you, you should admit it and try and beat it by law. That is how you gain the confidence of the judge. This will take you much higher than other advocates.
Once you build the confidence, the moment the judge hears you, he will think that “Here is a person I can trust.” You get the respect of the judge and your client will be satisfied that his lawyer has not done anything wrong.
B&B: But can such lawyers exist in today’s world?
PR: They can still exist. They can make a living. You are deceiving your client if you tell him that he has a winning case even when you know better. Then the other kind of cheating is saying “I know the judge.” This has become extremely common but I think a turning point has come…
B&B: What was your reaction when you were designated a senior?
PR: We had this one Chief Justice, PC Pratap who had been transferred from the Bombay High Court. By that time, I had already put in about 30-32 years in the profession. I appeared before the Chief several times. Perhaps he looked into the list of senior advocates. He called me to his chambers and asked me how it was that I had not become a senior advocate. I replied that no one had called me to become one. He was quite surprised. He told me that if he asked me to become a senior, would I accept? I answered in the affirmative. He spoke to a few of his brother judges, and that is how I was designated.
B&B: Do you think something like this would happen now?
PR: No. People nowadays have accepted that one has to file applications, get recommendations from various channels. How do you think [such appointments] can then be independent?
Take another example. Earlier, it was said that those who do not succeed at the Bar become government pleaders. In the days when it was still the High Court of Hyderabad, government pleaders were called nan-nafta advocates. This would roughly mean “roti-salt” lawyers, those who would basically get plain roti and salt. Now I don’t know how this practice of government pleaders becoming judges started, but it has started in the Andhra and Madras areas.
Perhaps this has to do with the increased litigation involving the government. I think in those days, there was not so much litigation against the government. But Article 226 [of the Constitution] invited far greater litigation against the government.
B&B: How do you think such litigation can be reduced?
PR: First of all, why should it be reduced?
B&B: It is clogging up the courts.
PR: No, you should not say that it should be reduced. It should be reduced provided the government does not violate the Rule of Law.
See the government today is not only a government maintaining law and order etc. but is also a distributor. A large number of commercial transactions are entered into by the government. Unless the government goes back to a laissez-faire system, it will be difficult to reduce litigation.
B&B: Being such an experienced lawyer, are you worried about pendency?
PR: Yes, I am worried. There is no doubt about that. I will begin with the Supreme Court. See, 90 per cent of the appeals to the Supreme Court are through special leave petitions. Now Article 136 is the problem provision where the Supreme Court can entertain an appeal in special cases. Are you saying that 90 per cent of the cases are special cases?
Why does the Supreme Court exercise the powers granted under [Article] 136 so freely? The [Supreme] Court is entertaining appeals with respect to local laws. Is that not a criminal injustice to normal people? Can a poor fellow afford to go all the way from Kanyakumari to Delhi? Isn’t this judicial cruelty?
First of all you should not entertain so many special leave petitions. It should be confined to important questions of law or situations where the High Court deems it fit for hearing before the Supreme Court.
Secondly, there are cases where the Supreme Court interferes at the interim stage; the High Court gives interim relief and one party approaches the Supreme Court. Isn’t that un-Constitutional and unconscionable?
Also, please note that the High Courts are not subordinate to the Supreme Court.
B&B: Why do you say that?
PR: Because there is no such subordination under the Constitution of India. See the [High Courts’] decisions can be appealed before the Supreme Court but administratively, [High Courts] are not subordinate. The Supreme Court cannot give any direction to the High Courts.
The lower courts are subordinate to the High Courts. That is under Article 227 of the Constitution. But there is no such corresponding provision which makes High Courts subordinate to the Supreme Court.
B&B: But indirectly, say in terms of pay-scale or tenure….
PR: At best you can rely on Article 141 which says that judgments of the Supreme Court are binding on all courts. But that is with respect to judgments.
B&B: Coming back to the issue of pendency. How can it be reduced?
PR: You cannot answer such questions with a blanket answer. You need to go into the depth of the matter, go into the working of the court. Part of the pendency problem is due to the indiscreet interference by the Supreme Court. They are not confining themselves to important questions of law.
Is it necessary for the Supreme Court to interpret a rent control law of Madras? That is not what The Supreme Court was intended to do.
B&B: You mentioned earlier there used to be a sense of mutual respect between the Bar and the Bench…
PR: Yes it is not as if this respect is no longer present. It is, but it is dwindling.
PR: One reason is that some unethical elements have entered the profession and the functioning of the judiciary. The judiciary is independent no doubt, functionally and institutionally as well. The judiciary is not subordinate to any other institution of the government but still….
It started in 1969 onwards and then went into the deepest abyss in 1976 during the Emergency. That was the darkest age of the institution of the judiciary. To paraphrase Macbeth, all the perfumes of the world cannot wash away the sins [of that era].
B&B: So do you think the change has come about because of the amount of money that is involved these days?
PR: See money was there [in the profession] back then as well. I am confining myself to the people I know personally. In 1966-67, there were 6 persons who were earning more than 50,000 rupees. They were persuaded to become judges with a salary of 3,000 rupees. And they accepted.
They were committed to the concept of the judiciary; they were committed to the concept of serving the society. It is not merely the honour, or the fame that they might earn. Rather it was their dedication that made them make the choice.
B&B: And why has that changed?
PR: You see in those days, people were persuaded to join the Bench by the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice would call them and request them to join the Bench. Now the judge’s appointment is not made by the invitation of the judges; the appointments are made on the basis of individual applications. Earlier, there was no concept of accepting a post-retirement position. It was a norm. I don’t know why it was so but that was the case.
About ten or eleven years back, our High Court was celebrating Republic Day or something like that. One day before the celebrations, there was a statement made by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Karunanidhi who was facing inquiries in charges of corruption. A judge has been appointed to head a commission which was to look into these charges. A few journalists had gone to Karunanidhi’s house to seek his response to the commission – “So Mr. Karunanidhi, what do you say about the judicial enquiry?” Karunanidhi said that he was unaware of the details and asked who was heading the commission. When he heard the name, he said “When I was the Chief Minister, this fellow came to me more than ten times to appoint him as Government Pleader. This fellow will make the enquiries?”
This was reported in the papers. Two sitting AP High Court judges were discussing this and they were quite perturbed by this incident. They called me and asked my opinion on this. I told them that although the language used was not correct but what if what Karunanidhi had said was true? If Karunanidhi had indeed been approached several times, how does this reflect on the independence of the judiciary?
B&B: Your career has spanned more than five decades. What do you think are the most important characteristics a lawyer should have?
PR: The basic characteristic is that a person needs to be independent.
B&B: Do you think such lawyers can survive?
PR: Yes. I have survived. I am surviving very well. When people ask me what my message is, I tell them my life is my message.
B&B: What advice would you give?
PR: The advice I would give is to have self confidence.
Work hard; there should be no compromise in hard work. My mother-in-law would often complain to me, “What is this life you live? It is eleven pm and you haven’t even eaten your dinner!” My juniors would say the same thing. This is the only way to survive. There cannot be any compromise.
The third thing is be independent. Don’t let anyone else force you to do something you don’t want to do.
Like I said earlier, never tell the Court a lie.
Let me give you an example. In the mid 1970’s there was a very famous judge Justice S. in the AP High Court. A very big matter came up before him and another judge who had been elevated from the Bar six months earlier. The minute I started speaking, the junior judge began asking me a lot of questions. I answered them one by one. A few minutes into my arguments, Justice S. whispered something to the junior judge. For the next forty minutes, the Bench did not ask a single question.
The next day, I had a chat with the junior judge since we had been quite close friends. The minute he saw me, he asked me what I had done to impress Justice S. so much. I asked him why he said that. It was then that the junior judge revealed that Justice S. had told him to quietly make note of all my arguments, Justice S. assured him that I would never mislead the Court.
I am narrating this incident just to give you an example of how a lawyer should build himself up. I don’t want to praise myself or anything like that. The reason why am I narrating this incident is because this is what you must earn – reputation.
The judge must believe whatever you say, except of course, in questions of law.
B&B: Looking back, what are the things you have enjoyed the most about the profession?
PR: The three things I enjoy the most are my independence, my reputation and the fact that I have built [my practice] on my own.
This interview was conducted in Hyderabad in August, 2012. Bar & Bench would like to thank Advocate S. Rao for his invaluable assistance in arranging this interview.