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Senior Advocate S Sreekumar is one of the leading lawyers in Kerala. He started his career as a civil lawyer and is currently one of the top trial lawyers in the State. He was the Standing Counsel for the CBI for 5 years and was part of many landmark cases including the ‘Abhaya Case’. In this interview with Bar & Bench, he speaks about his experience with the CBI, his views on the Judicial Appointment Commission and the differences he finds in the lower and higher judiciary.
Bar & Bench: Could you recount your early days at the Bar?
S Sreekumar: I had a humble beginning. I started my career with Advocate V Sankara Menon in the year 1980. By the time I joined him, he was already very old and was about to stop his practice. I was with him for about two years. Then I joined C K Aravindaksha Menon. I continued there for about 6 years. In the meanwhile, I had the occasion to join Mr. Dandapani who is now the Advocate General of Kerala. I was there for about one year. At the same time I continued with Aravindaksha Menon also.
Bar & Bench: When did you start your independent practice?
S Sreekumar: I started my independent practice in 1987. I was the Standing Counsel for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for 5 years and I was the Standing Counsel for various PSUs, banks and Panchayats.
Bar & Bench: Could you tell us something about your stint with the CBI?
S Sreekumar: It was the CBI who sought my consent [to be appointed] in 2003. Initially it was for a period of one year which was then extended twice. After 5 years, I stopped as it was too long a period. During that time I had my independent practice as well and I was also managing the CBI work at the High Court. I had a good experience dealing with the criminal matters of the CBI. I was able to complete many pending matters. As per their records, the number of disposals at the Kerala High Court during my tenure was the highest in India. The maximum positive results were also from the Kerala High Court. Out of the criminal appeals that were pending, around 99 per cent ended in conviction and only 1 per cent ended in acquittal. As far as the CBI was concerned, it was a national record for them!
Bar & Bench: When were you designated a Senior Advocate? How has it affected your practice?
S Sreekumar: I was designated as a Senior Advocate in November, 2010. It has certainly improved my practice. Even though I was being engaged by other lawyers before my elevation as a Senior Advocate, after I became a Senior Advocate I am being engaged by corporate lawyers as well. Also, I am now finding it easier to deal with the matters. Before becoming a Senior, I had to deal with clients, collect details and go through the papers and documents. However, after the elevation, advocates-on-record assist me and it has helped me save a lot of time.
Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on the proposed Judicial Appointment Commission?
S Sreekumar: I am of the firm opinion that there should be a Judicial Commission for the appointment of judges. The procedure that is being currently adopted is, to me, not fair at all. Appointments are not based on merit; selection is being made on the basis of favouritism and nepotism. If the Judicial Commission comes, it will adopt an independent procedure, and the appointments will become more transparent.
Bar & Bench: Do you think that lawyers should be given representation in the Judicial Commission as the BCI is now demanding?
S Sreekumar: No, I don’t think that the lawyers’ body should be a part of the Judicial Commission. Lawyers should not have a say in the matter because many times it is the lawyers who are appointed as judges. So it is not fair on the part of the lawyers to say that they should also be given representation.
Bar & Bench: You have been part of the ‘Abhaya Case’. Could you tell us about that experience?
S Sreekumar: When I was the Standing Counsel for the CBI, the Abhaya case reached its peak. During that time, the accused were arrested. I think the CBI has done some excellent work. The matter had been pending for 20 years and nothing could be unearthed. And then there was the intitiatve of the High Court to find out the truth which led to the arrest of the accused. We have to wait for the completion of the trial, but I think the CBI had done a fair job in that case.
Bar & Bench: Do you see the face of litigation changing in Kerala, particularly Cochin, considering the fact that there has been an increase in private investments etc. in the last decade or so?
S Sreekumar: There has been no great change in the kind of litigation. What I feel is that because of mediation, Lok Adalats etc., many matters are now being settled outside the courts. Since the pendency has been on the rise and the courts have been taking time to dispose cases, particularly the High Court, people feel that they can settle matters through other means. Hence, many are now bent upon or compelled to settle matters outside the court. People are now going directly to the police or the Lok Adalats and getting the matters resolved. So a good number of matters are being settled outside the courts these days and litigation is decreasing.
Bar & Bench: What is your opinion on lawyers’ indulging in advertising?
S Sreekumar: My opinion is that advocacy does not need any kind of advertisement. It is the standard of the work, the sincerity and the honesty of the lawyer that should attract the client and not advertisements. Therefore, I am against making advertisements for canvassing clients as is being done by a doctor. It is the efficiency, sincerity, steadfastness and how a lawyer performs in the court which has to be transmitted from client to client. Only then can a client find out who a suitable advocate is.
Bar & Bench: What is your opinion on increasing tribunalisation of cases? Has it affected the quality of justice dispensation?
S Sreekumar: I don’t think so. Even though the tribunals are manned by bureaucrats it has not affected the quality of the work as it usually has a judicial member also. However, it has not contributed much because the decisions of the tribunals are subject to judicial review by the High Courts and the Supreme Court. So, ultimately the matter comes up before the higher courts. So I think not much purpose is served by setting up tribunals and dividing the work. The work load of the higher courts has not come down.
Bar & Bench: You have worked in the lower courts and the High Court. What differences have you found in terms of the infrastructure?
S Sreekumar: All the basic and fundamental work happens in the trial courts. However, the infrastructure in the trial courts is very limited; the court rooms are very small. Witnesses and clients come there apart from advocates and because of the deficiency in space and infrastructure, even the presiding officers are finding it difficult to manage things.
What I feel is that maximum work is being done by the trial courts apart from the High Courts. The High Courts have been supervising the trial courts and the trial courts have been expediting matters. For example, if a matter is pending before the trial court, at the most it will be disposed of in 2 years. But when that matter comes to the High court, it usually takes 10 to 12 years to dispose the matter. So the trial courts are also under pressure from the High Courts in disposing of the matter but such pressure cannot be exerted on the judges of the High Court which causes delay.
Bar & Bench: Currently, there is a lot of judicial activism taking place. Do you think it has reached a stage of judicial over – activism?
S Sreekumar: I don’t think it is judicial over-activism. But, the Judiciary has been crossing the limits in that they are going beyond what has been circumscribed by the Constitution and the statutes. They have been violating the “lakshman rekha”. Even with respect to administrative matters, executive matters and legislation, the courts have been legislating and they think they are competent to legislate even though one of the basic concepts envisaged in our Constitution is division of work between executive, legislature and judiciary. But that is being over stepped. Even the Supreme Court has at times cautioned the High Courts that they shall not exceed the limits. Merely because the High Court has powers does not mean that it can be misused or they can overstep what has been conferred upon them.
Bar & Bench: You started as a civil lawyer and subsequently began your criminal practice. Currently, you are one of the leading trial lawyers in the State. Any advice to upcoming lawyers?
S Sreekumar: My advice to the members of the profession and the upcoming lawyers and students is that you must start as a civil lawyer in the Moffusil Courts. There you will study the fundamentals of law; how to draft a plaint, how to conduct a trial, how to cross examine a witness, what are the deficiencies on your side and what kind of defence the opposite side may adopt. So at least for 6 to 7 years, a budding lawyer should go to the Moffusil Courts and deal with civil cases.
Once you attain mastery over civil cases and you are comfortable with civil cases, it is easy to handle criminal cases. As far as criminal case is concerned, the most important aspect is cross examination. You will learn the art of cross examination by studying civil law. Once you are a civil lawyer, it will be easy to take up any matter including criminal matters. Even though I was a civil lawyer for about 15 years, subsequently I could easily digest criminal law. I could demonstrate that I am a good criminal lawyer also. My suggestion or advice to all budding lawyers and students is that if they are interested in practising law, they should not straightaway rush to the High Court or to the Supreme Court. That is what I have learnt from my practice in the High Court.
Bar & Bench: We have heard that you are a weightlifter? What are your other interests?
S Sreekumar: When I was a student, I was a weightlifter and bodybuilder. Now my hobby is travelling. I travel extensively and am very interested in exploring and trekking. My other hobby is reading.