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In the third interview of lawyers in Andhra Pradesh, Bar & Bench speaks to Senior Advocate SR Ashok. In this interview, this tax expert talks about his career that has spanned nearly four decades, the changes in both the Bar and the Bench and what it takes to be a good litigating lawyer.
Bar & Bench: Could you tell us how you ended up joining the legal profession?
SR Ashok: I always wanted to be a lawyer. My father’s brother was a lawyer who later became a judge in the AP High Court. I always had a liking for the legal profession. I joined the Bar in 1973 after studying L.L.B in Hyderabad.
B&B: And what were the initial years like?
SRA: I worked in the chambers of my uncle. About three to four hundred lawyers were regular practitioners in the High Court. Due to the scarce enrollment of lawyers in those days, junior lawyers were less in number.
B&B: Why was this so?
SRA: Most of the graduates in law were not opting for the legal profession in those days say for about a decade and half between 1960 and 1970 – maybe due to the various vagaries in the legal profession. There were very few juniors, with each office having only one or two juniors. There were perhaps five or six offices in all which had eight to nine juniors.
B&B: Being the sole junior in the chambers, what was the kind of work expected from you?
SRA: We used to do everything: filing, preparation, assisting the senior, corresponding with the client etc.
B&B: And what are the changes that you have seen with respect to the relationship between seniors and juniors?
SRA: Nowadays there are quite a good number of people who are opting for the profession so the competition has increased. But one unfortunate thing is that people who have graduated from prestigious colleges are not joining the Bar.
B&B: And why do you think that is happening?
SRA: The profession is less attractive in the initial years and the people who are successful form a small percentage, the rest of them have to fend for themselves – maybe that is a discouraging factor.
B&B: You are known to an expert in tax laws. How did you get into this field of litigation?
SRA: The office I worked for was essentially a tax office. My senior was into taxation so naturally whatever office work was there we used to do and that is how I got interested in tax
B&B: What do you think about the perception that taxation law is a very dry, uninteresting subject?
SRA: Well if you develop interest in something, it ceases to be dry. The only thing is that you have to develop a taste for it –
B&B: And how did you develop this taste?
SRA: If you are forced to do certain things, you have no other option than to find interest in it.
B&B: What is the most appealing or interesting aspect in tax law according to you?
SRA: If somebody is good in civil law, then the principle is that he can be comfortable with any other branch of law. If you are good in civil law, you are bound to succeed in all other branches because that is the basic law. So I used to do both civil and taxation work.
B&B: What was your initial reaction to the Vodafone judgment delivered by the Supreme Court?
SRA: The Vodafone case is yet another experiment made by the revenue in pursuit of mobilization of revenue in virgin area. The Supreme Court has taken note of the legal position as enumerated by the parliament. The subsequent amendments to the Finance Act would have to be tested in future litigation.
B&B: Have you noticed any changes in the Bench from the days you joined the Bar to the present?
SRA: In the 1970’s and 80’s there was no docket explosion – the judges had a lot of time to give considered judgments taking into account less conflicting judgments and the impact of the judgment on the potential future litigation. But unfortunately now the docket explosion is telling upon the system. Quick disposal requires a certain pace so naturally the quality of judgment depends on the time the judges are allowed to spare for the case.
B&B: So do you think we need more judges or better management of cases…?
SRA: Litigation must be cut down. This can be achieved if there are policy decisions [taken] at the Executive level. As you know, the government is the biggest litigant. If the government evolves a policy to decide in which matters litigation will be allowed to continue and in what matters it shall not, then this substantially answers the question.
The modalities of cutting down the litigation should be left to the Executive, and the Executive must take into account the State interest and then evolve its’ policy.
B&B: Do you think the judiciary can also play a role in this? Say by imposing greater costs?
SRA: After all costs are paid by the citizen again. When costs are imposed on the government, it does not pay from its own pocket. The government pays from the public exchequer. So if the Executive formulates its’ policies which are consistent with societal requirements and keeping the national interest in mind, it will be an effective solution.
B&B: What is your opinion on the collegium system of appointments of judges? Do you think it requires a rethink?
SRA: Prior to the collegium system, the Chief Justice used to recommend a judge for appointment. Nowadays, instead of that being restricted to one, two senior [judges] are being consulted. After all there is nothing wrong with the system. It has stood the test for 20- 25 years.
B&B: Do you think it is fair to say that sometimes judges are appointed on criteria other than merit?
SRA: See merit is again a relative term. Unworthy people should not be appointed but by and large, the system takes care of itself.
B&B: In the course of your practice, you must have appeared before a diverse range of judges. How do you manage to persuade judges to see your point of view?
SRA: The principle is that the personal philosophy of a judge should not influence the judgment. They should be committed to the Constitution and Law, in which case the scope for fallibility is less.
B&B: You are known to be an extremely persuasive speaker. How do you convince a judge who might not share your opinion?
SRA: One has to inevitably keep the philosophy and the pace of thinking of the judge in mind before attempting to persuade the judge to your view point
B&B: Handling so many tax matters, you must have interacted with the government a fair deal. How has that experience been?
SRA: I appeared against the government and also for the government. It’s a mixed feeling. But the bottom line is there is always an internecine battle between the tax payer and tax collector. It is a challenging task for both.
B&B: As a legal counsel to the government, did you have the chance to advise the government not to follow a certain litigation which you thought would be wasteful?
SRA: Yes I did in my own way. The government has its own difficulties. A decision taken by a bureaucrat has to stand the test of a possible future review. Somebody reviewing at a later point of time should not get the feeling that [someone] was allowed to go scot-free. So may be in 10 % of the case, the bureaucrat would rather err on the safe side by keeping the issue alive.
B&B: So you are saying that they might be worried about getting adverse remarks or their reviews being affected?
SRA: Yes. Any decision is likely to be scrutinized at a later point of time. So as a matter of abundant caution, they would rather err on the safe side. This is possibly so keeping in view the possible change of use in the judiciary. There being no assurance that the principle held out by the courts would be eternal, it is quite natural for executive as well as the citizen to keep the issue alive.
This factor is also contributing to the docket explosion. Consistency in judicial functioning will reduce litigation to a great extent, at least in taxation.
B&B: And do you think this inconsistency is related to the roster system of judges?
SRA: No, not the roster system. The stare decisis principle must be observed. If a Constitutional Bench or a larger bench takes a particular view, it should not be allowed to be disturbed unless basically judgment suffers from basic infirmity. Consistency at the Supreme Court’s level would go a long way in ensuring stability to the legal evolution.
B&B: And how can this consistency be maintained?
SRA: There is a need to maintain a judicial index at the Supreme Court level: and it should be checked with reference to the pre-existing decisions. A survey of pre-existing decisions on the subject – if this can be provided to the judges of the Supreme Court then there will be less inconsistency.
B&B: When you look back at your career, were there any defining moments?
SRA: In taxation there cannot be any momentous occasions.
B&B: But there must have been some moments which you particularly enjoyed in the course of your career?
SRA: Taxation being what it is, it does not create a cause of action for momentous events.
B&B: You were a lawyer during the time ADM Jabalpur came out and Emergency was imposed. How were you affected by these developments?
SRA: I was not personally affected. Andhra Pradesh, as you know, was an exception to the general scenario – the popular government was in power during Emergency and the government was concentrating on welfare measures. That is the reason why immediately after Emergency, elections were held and Indira Gandhi came back with a resounding success. So Emergency was actually a contributing factor towards the economic growth and stabilization of Andhra Pradesh. Though politically it had its disturbing trends elsewhere, the same was not that seriously felt in Andhra Pradesh fortunately.
B&B: What is your opinion on the entry of foreign law firms?
SRA: I am of the personal view that legislature, executive and judiciary apart from press must be kept free from foreign interference.
B&B: What motivates you in this profession?
SRA: Interesting questions of law, which involve interpretations of statutes. The citizen is interested in avoiding tax while the exchequer is interested in collecting tax. So this constant friction between the citizen and the exchequer keeps the debate alive and interesting. While stressing the need for consistency in order to enable the citizen to arrange his affairs, I cannot undermine relevancy of legal growth based on new visions of thinking. This factor keeps motivation in the legal profession.
B&B: Now when you get a positive order, do you enjoy the feeling?
SRA: In my younger days, I did. Nowadays, after three and a half decades of joining, it is all part of the game.
B&B: What do you think makes a good lawyer?
SRA: Industry and intelligence.
B&B: Any advice for people interested in studying law?
SRA: Studying law for the purpose of gaining knowledge is most welcome. After all the legal equipment in any citizen would be a contributing factor to the stability of the society. Studying law is always good for the system. It develops sound thinking in a man.
B&B: Finally, what advice would you give to those interested in joining the legal profession?
SRA: People must have an interest in the profession otherwise they are not cut out for this profession. They must slog for at least 7-8 years. People who succeed are those who are intelligent and industrious. If one is not industrious then there is no point in joining the profession.
Bar & Bench would like to thank Adv. S. Rao for his invaluable assistance in arranging this interview.