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A much-respected member of the Bar himself, Narayan comes from a family of illustrious lawyers. His grandfather was legendary lawyer MK Nambyar, and his uncle happens to be Attorney General for India, KK Venugopal.
In this interview, Narayan, who is also the President of the Madras Bar Association, talks about starting off in the profession, judicial appointments and a lot more.
You come from a family of illustrious lawyers. Did that influence your decision to take up law?
When I was in school, I really did not realise how illustrious they were. It was only when I entered the profession that I realised that they were so eminent in their field. There are times when you come at a crossroads in life to decide what you want to do, and at this time, a lot of friends and family suggested that I do law. And that’s how I got into law.
What sort of mentorship did you receive from them?
By the time I joined the profession in 1982, my grandfather had already passed away, and my uncle Mr. Venugopal had moved to Delhi as an Assistant Solicitor General. What he did was put me under his junior, who was Mr. P Chidambaram. So, neither of them had any role in mentoring me as such.
But, over the course of the next 15-20 years, I did engage my uncle in a lot of cases in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court. One learns a lot by observing other lawyers. So, during those days, I got the opportunity to learn a lot from him.
What was it like working with Mr. Chidambaram?
You need to have the right Senior when you start off, because sometimes you can down a wrong path. Now, Mr. Chidambaram was a lawyer whose standards of ethics were very, very high. In fact, he is one of the most ethical persons I have ever met. I was able to learn a lot from him, because had he been otherwise, I might have followed that path instead. I am so grateful to have learnt so much about the ethics of the practice from him.
The Madras High Court recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. Over the recent past, what changes have you seen in the Madras Bar as well as the Bench?
In the last 20 years, there have been a lot of changes at the Bar. I have noticed that the youngsters coming into the profession are very intelligent and committed. It is not like the old days, where you tried to get into every other profession, and finally landed up in law. That bodes very well for the future, and I believe that when this generation goes for judgeship, there will be a sea change in the quality of the courts.
The Madras Bar has developed a notorious reputation for holding strikes and boycotts. What do you think are the reasons for that?
It’s not like it is confined to the Madras Bar alone; in fact, some of the incidents at the Delhi Bar have been far worse. I think somebody should do a proper study and find out what the real reasons are.
The High Court last year came out with amendments to the Advocates Act to enforce new disciplinary rules. Do you think that is the answer?
I don’t think that is the answer. It is very difficult for a lawyer to argue before a judge if the judge has disciplinary powers over him. It is one thing to say that the judge has the power of contempt, but if he can issue a disciplinary notice to the lawyer on the ground that he raised his voice or persisted with an argument, then he will be arguing in fear. Lawyers should have the freedom to represent their clients in the best way possible. If he feels that the judge can take action against him, he will feel constrained.
The Madras Bar Association had a unique style of election this year, with the candidates having debates. Could you elaborate on that?
That was an innovation tried by the previous President of the Madras Bar Association, which is the oldest bar association in the country. He [the previous President] felt that we should remove the politics of canvassing, because that creates a lot of problems. So, we made an amendment to the by-laws of our association, prohibiting canvassing for votes.
There had to be some other method by which the candidates could inform the General Body of their intentions and aspirations for the association. So, the previous President had this idea of having a presentation of ideas, and each of the candidates was given time to present their ideas so that the General Body could make up their minds and take an informed decision on which candidate they deemed suitable for the particular post.
What is your opinion on the system of senior designations?
In those days, we had to make an application, along with a proposal made by one Senior Advocate and seconded by another. The candidate also had to give details of his income tax etc. Now, a committee of judges of the High Court identifies the candidates and seek their consent. I think the present system is much better than the previous one, and it should be implemented in other high courts as well.
It should be done purely on merit, without considering factors like what community the candidate belongs to.
There seems to be a perception that there is a lack of transparency in the procedure for appointment of judges. Would you agree?
Yes, I would agree with that. The government did try to make it more transparent, but could not succeed. I feel that within the existing collegium system, things could be improved; there could be a wider process of consultation. I have always maintained that advocates are the best judges of judges. Not only do they know their peers who are likely to be considered for judgeship in the future, but they also know everything about the performance of a judge. Therefore, the collegium could consult Senior Advocates or advocates of some standing to find out the right persons to be chosen.
The Madras Bar Association had made a representation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on judicial appointments in this regard.
Our suggestions were on the topic of delay in appointment of judges. In most high courts, at least 20% of the posts are lying vacant at any point of time. According to me, that is an abdication by the constitutional authorities. There is absolutely no reason why a post should be vacant for more than 3-4 days. The date of retirement of a judge is known before hand, so the process can be started well in advance, and therefore on the day a judge retires, a replacement is there to be sworn in.
Vacancies usually arise one or two at a time. But the tendency of the courts has been to bunch up vacancies and fill them up with 10-12 judges at a time. There is no reason why you should wait till there are 10 or 12 vacancies to start the process.
What is your take on the Supreme Court’s handling of the Justice Karnan issue?
I would not like to comment on that, because they did what they felt they had to do. I think we should just leave it at that. It is very difficult to say whether it was right or wrong without affecting somebody’s sentiment. If you look at the case objectively, you may be able to say that they were justified to some extent.
The High Court recently saw its first all-woman bench in 125 years. Isn’t that a reflection of the dire lack of representation of women at the Bench?
We have to appoint a lot more women as judges, there is no doubt about that. But at the same time, the right people have to be identified. There is a lot of talent in the women at the Bar, but for some reason, not enough is being done to find the right people.
How does that reflect on the legal profession as being one that is not very conducive to women?
A lawyer has to very often work for long hours. From 9:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening, we are not allowed to do anything but court work. In the evening, we have to meet clients and prepare for cases. Women lawyers perhaps find this difficult, because their husbands expect them to pitch in for the house.
Despite their difficulties, a lot of women have come up and been very successful. So, there is scope for women in the profession, and there is certainly a need for more women in the judiciary, because they are better equipped to deal with certain types of problems.
How did you develop your skills as a lawyer? Who was your mentor?
I did not have a particular mentor but there were two people I observed very closely: Mr. Venugopal and Mr. Chidambaram. I did not get the opportunity to work with Mr. Chidambaram for too long, as he went on to become a Member of Parliament and then a Minister. But I learnt a lot in those two and a half years.
He was a perfectionist, so I learned from him that one has to be thoroughly prepared for a case. I also learnt that one must advise a client with utmost sincerity and honesty. In fact, when there was no case, he used to tell the client as much. He also used to tell the client, ‘Don’t be misled by someone else into thinking that you have a case!’
I also learnt a lot from Mr. Venugopal, who has a very persuasive style of argument. Even if the judge is against him, he will retreat a little bit, come from another angle and try to persuade the judge on the same argument, but from a totally different perspective. I owe a big debt of gratitude to both of them.
What were your most memorable cases?
There have been so many cases, and I don’t remember any one particular case. But I guess the first case is always the most memorable. I represented a driver who worked for Indian Oil Corporation and had been dismissed from service. I argued for him in the labour court and then in the High Court, and got him reinstated with full back-wages. I still can’t forget the look on his face when I told he had succeeded.
Any advice for young lawyers in the profession?
A lot of court craft is more psychology than law. You have to know the psychology of both your opponent, as well as the judge. If you are able to figure that out, and if you have the knowledge of the law behind you, success will not be too far away.
Note: This interview was taken before Mr. Narayan was appointed Advocate General for Tamil Nadu.
Image of P Chidambaram taken from here.