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Bechu Kurian Thomas is one of the youngest Senior Advocates at the Kerala High Court. Having joined the Bar in 1992, Kurian’s father, former Supreme Court judge, Justice KT Thomas (then a Kerala High Court judge) advised him against practicing in the High Court since he was a sitting judge of the High Court. He, therefore, started his practice in lower courts in Kottayam before shifting base to Kerala High Court when his father was elevated to the Supreme Court.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Murali Krishnan, Kurian talks about his initial days at the Bar, his views on nepotism in the profession, judgeship, and the institution of Senior Advocate.
You grew up in an atmosphere of law. Was choosing law a conscious decision?
Yes, it certainly was a conscious decision. It was against my father’s wish. People have an impression that every judge’s or lawyer’s son becomes a lawyer. That is not true. My father was not in favour of my becoming a lawyer. He said that ‘law requires hard work and I don’t think you would fit into it. This was because I was always into sports. My entire life, even today, revolves around sports.
Then, how did law happen?
From my fifth standard, I used to have lunch with my father in his chamber where he was a judge. My schools were always close to the court where my father used to work. While leaving the court premises after lunch, I used to take a peek into the court hall. Something about it fascinated me. By the time I was in my tenth and eleventh standard, I felt that I am fit only for law and I decided that I will go for law. My father opposed but I was adamant.
Where did you start your practice?
Since my father was a judge at the Kerala High Court when I graduated, he made it clear that I should not practice in the High Court. I was asked to go to Kottayam. Though, I was initially hesitant about that, in retrospect I think that was the best thing that could have happened to me.
The finer nuances of law – civil or criminal – which form the basis in every modern legal field, are dealt with and handled in the lower courts. So, if one gets a good grounding in basics, it is like a tree with strong roots. Then, the tree can grow well. Having a solid foundation is always advantageous. I can really feel and experience the difference of having had a good background in the mofussil side. Of course, it was only for four years, but I can feel its positive impact even today.
If a junior comes to your chamber, would you recommend her to practice in lower courts before coming to the High Court?
I will and I do. In fact, I have told all my junior lawyers to practice in the trial court at least for two years before coming to High Court. Some of them have done that while some of them have refused to do so and joined my office.
What is your take on the recent Supreme Court judgment on the system of Senior designations?
While agreeing with most aspects set out in that judgment, I am not in agreement with the absence of age criterion. The judgment has prescribed ten years practice at the Bar but does not prescribe any minimum age.
I do not fully subscribe to that. In Kerala, we used to have 45 years as the minimum age. Perhaps forty would be an ideal age. Senior Designation requires some maturity. As wine ages for the better, a lawyer too matures with age and experience. One is able to understand and adapt with age. So, age should also be a criterion for conferring the gown.
There was another suggestion to completely abolish the system though the Court did not accept the same. What do you have to say about that?
I think Senior designation must be there. Every profession needs a higher pedestal which one can look up to and aim to achieve. In legal profession, Senior gown is one such incentive. It is something which every advocate can dream for or aspire to be thereby continuously improving one’s expertise and competence as a lawyer. It certainly adds some glamour also to the profession.
What is your opinion about nepotism in legal profession? Don’t many lawyers get a huge advantage because of the fact that he/ she is related to a lawyer or judge?
I can speak about this with respect to Kerala. There is a certain amount of integrity which most Keralites have built into themselves.
As a Keralite lawyer, and as judge’s son, I would say that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. When my father left Kerala and moved to the Supreme Court, I shifted my practice to the High Court.
I have heard people say, “You are a fool. Why are you not coming over to Delhi when your father is in Delhi.” I said, “No, I don’t want to take any advantage of that.”
Such advantages are only for a limited period. I said that I prefer building my career slowly and steadily. I have always felt that as a judge’s son, I was in a disadvantageous position. Whenever a ‘fifty-fifty case’ in which I am appearing, comes before a judge, a judge might tend to lean against me. This is because they would prefer not to give an order which is favourable to a judge’s son lest somebody questions their integrity tomorrow.
I don’t want to blame them for that because it is quite human. My point is that these allegations of nepotism are actually not true. Many times, lawyers who lose cases tell the client that it is because the opposite side knows the judge or has paid money. However, I have not come across a single instance in my twenty-five-year long career of any judge being corrupt.
What is your opinion on the recent decision of the Supreme Court Collegium to publish its resolutions on the website.
My view as far as Collegium is concerned, is that, it is the best system in the world [for appointing judges]. Regarding publication of the Collegium resolutions, it is good as it helps in bringing about transparency.
However, when it comes to candidates who have been rejected, it is desirable not to publish their details. This is because it will create a stigma throughout his/ her life. It will remain as a written record which could be used against them by their adversaries for the rest of their life.
The rejection by the Collegium might have been a one-off situation but if the same is published, it will be a slur on his entire career, his generations to come and his family. Nothing can wipe off that damage. I think the resolutions accepting a candidature can be published but rejection need not be published on the website. Rather, it can be intimated to the concerned judge personally.
Coming back to your career, after you decided to do law, what happened next?
I did my law from Government Law College, Ernakulam and I started my practice at Kottayam. Then I went to England for a short scholarship course. Subsequently, I returned and resumed my practice in Cochin.
Tell us about the shift you made from the lower courts to the High Court. What are the changes that struck you?
That is a good question. As far as I am concerned, I had great satisfaction as a trial court lawyer. In trial courts, one gets to mingle and interact with litigants on one-on-one basis. It helps a lawyer to understand their concerns, their agonies and their joys. This is actually what gives lawyers great satisfaction. As we move up the hierarchy of courts, I think that satisfaction decreases.
What are the other differences you have observed between lower courts and High Court?
The workload in trial court has come down with the increase in the number of tribunals. However, certain practices in trial courts need reform. Judges writing down depositions by hand is actually an exercise which I would say is not just pre-historic but also a harassment to the judges. Expecting a judge to write for three to four hours is a lot and it needs to be changed. With technology that is available now, it is a practice that can definitely be done away with. Moreover, our country now has the financial wherewithal to bring in this reform.
Workload in the High Court is, however, on the rise and there is certainly a docket explosion in the High Court. Judges are also feeling the pressure with very little time to write judgments or spend with family.
There is criticism about courts being allowed to have vacation. I would say that if courts are not given vacation, judges will go crazy. The work of a lawyer or a judge is not from 10 am to 5 pm. Most of the work happens outside that time frame. If judges are not given holidays, they will be under great stress and might also suffer from medical ailments.
What do you have to say about the quality of judges in lower courts?
In my opinion, the Shetty Commission report has had a negative impact as far as this aspect is concerned. After the report, one is now eligible to become a Munsiff immediately after enrollment. The requirement of a minimum experience at the Bar has been done away with. That is not good for the system.
Practice at the Bar makes a difference in the approach when one is called upon to become a judge. If judges have to deliver real and substantial justice which is expected of them, mere academic knowledge is not sufficient. Practical knowledge of how the system works, what a litigant feels, the ethos and the cravings of a litigant are all aspects which a judge has to gauge, if he/ she has to do justice. Otherwise a computer could have done the job of a judge.
When one completes law degree, he/she possesses only academic knowledge. However, a strong academic grounding does not make one a good judge. To become a good judge, one needs to identify the situation and its peculiarities. Each case differs from the other as far as facts and circumstances are concerned and law has to be applied depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. That can be appreciated only by practicing as a lawyer.
Justice must not only be done but also seen to be done.
Coming to the remuneration of judges, don’t you think the judges in India are underpaid?
When my father became a judge, his income reduced by at least ten or twenty times. Initially, it was very difficult for us to make both ends meet. But over a period of time, we managed to adjust to that change and to live with the limited means. When he became a High Court judge, my father’s salary was around Rs. 3,500 a month.
And unfortunately, a judge cannot lower his standard of living. He has to dress well, travel well. So, it is difficult. On a comparative scale, judges are better paid these days. But if the comparison is with lawyers, judges are certainly underpaid. What a lawyer earns in one case maybe the salary of a judge for a month or a year.
But there is another side to it. When one accepts judgeship, it is a sacrifice, a call for duty. There are various sacrifices that you make in the process and money is one of the sacrifices. However, various benefits also accrue to a judge. Judges gain tremendous respect and identity in the society which is invaluable. A judge remains in the annals of history through his judgments. We still remember the judges who penned the judgments in AK Gopalan’s case or Keshavananda Bharati’s case. But how many lawyers do we speak about? Very few. Judges live on, not the lawyers.
Do you think the Constitutional Courts in our country, the Supreme Court and High Courts, have done justice to their roles?
Certainly. Indian Supreme Court and High Courts have done justice to the object for which they were created. In fact, our Courts are being looked upon with awe all over the world. I recently heard Mr. KK Venugopal say that the judges of Supreme Court of England want to emulate the judges of Supreme Court of India with respect to rendering judgments as far as delivering justice is concerned. There are aberrations, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that our courts are not doing justice.
They have made the Constitution a living document.
Right to life was interpreted as an animal existence in AK Gopalan’s case. Thirty years down the line, the [Supreme] Court said that right to life means right to live with all the splendours of human life. This is one example.
Dealing with clients/ litigants – advice for juniors?
When a client comes to a lawyer for relief, there must be some genuine grievance that must be bothering him/ her. Otherwise, the litigant will not be shelling out money, time and energy to come all the way from his place to meet the lawyer.
So, my advice to junior lawyers is to try and help the litigant as much as possible.
Of course, many a time it also happens that the grievance is not genuine in which case I advise the client against initiating litigation.
What are your hobbies?
I love sports, particularly adventure sports. I play badminton every day and try to keep myself fit.
“He has also done scuba diving, bungee jumping etc.” (his junior seated in the room adds).
Bar & Bench would like to thank advocate Enoch David Simon Joel for his assistance in arranging this interview.