Altaf Haqani is one of the few designated Senior Advocates practicing at the Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh High Court. He joined the Bar in 1975 and has since majorly practiced on the civil side, having appeared in a vast number of cases pertaining to service disputes..Despite having joined the field of law by coincidence, and that too at a time when no institute in the Valley offered any law course, Haqani has made a name for himself in the region’s legal arena.In this interview with Bar and Bench’s Sofi Ahsan, Haqani speaks about his career spanning nearly 50 years, legal practice in Kashmir and how the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution has affected lawyers and civil society.Edited excerpts follow..Sofi Ahsan (SA): Tell us about the beginning of your journey in the legal field..Altaf Haqani (AH): I was interested in admission in Botany after graduation, but I was getting admission in Zoology. Nobody could guide me. There was not much scope for Zoology. I decided to go to Jammu by coincidence. There, I met UK Jalali (Senior Advocate at present), who was our neighbour in Srinagar. He was already doing the LL.B. course. He somehow managed and got me admission for the LL.B. course at Jammu University’s Faculty of Law. This was somewhere in the end of 1973, 1974. Those days, law faculty used to be only in Jammu and not Srinagar. After the first semester, the examination could not be conducted because of some disturbance. Ultimately, we were shifted to Kashmir University and the Faculty of Law was set up. I completed law in 1975 with distinction.I was then admitted to the roll of lawyers. Those days, enrolment of lawyers used to be done under the Legal Practitioners Act and only after some more period, one would be designated as an advocate. The licenses were issued by J&K High Court. For a lawyer who does not have any family in the legal profession, the first 4-5 years are very challenging. Either he does not get the business or if he gets the business, he does not have as much legal experience. He is also known to the litigant public. I faced the same situation. For some time, I would not get cases and it was very traumatic.However, I was slightly fortunate that after some time, I joined the firm of Mirza Afzal Beigh, who was then a leading lawyer. I could work there only for some time, because he then became Deputy Chief Minister. I had the benefit of working with his associates as well. I worked as a junior with the late Mohammad Yaseen Siddiqui for about six years and used to handle all his cases. He was an expert in service law; I have also picked up a lot of knowledge from him and that is why my maximum practice was there..SA: What changes have you witnessed in Kashmir’s legal landscape over these 40+ years?.AH: The legal profession in Kashmir has evolved a lot. In the good old days, generally in the High Court, we would only get service matters. Only few would pertain to the criminal side and that too criminal appeals. There were property disputes and compensation cases as well. Now there has been complete change - people have awakened to their rights. Earlier, nobody would think to approach the court in case salary would be stopped. People would remain suspended for days and nobody would go to court. Today, it is not so. This is the awakening of the people.The evolution of the system has been very positive. The cases have also risen. We used to have only a few cases, now there are hundreds of cases listed everyday before judges..SA: After the abrogation of Article 370, service-related cases were moved to the Central Administrative Tribunal. How has the change been?.AH: We have faced serious difficulties because the tribunal is not properly equipped. There is no sufficient staff, there are no adequate members available for deciding the cases. Generally, the members of the tribunal are from outside. A few months back, it was only online. For the last few months, physical hearings have started.It requires a lot of improvement. The quality of work is not that satisfactory at tribunals. The administrative member usually has a bureaucratic mind. There is no 100 per cent judicial dispensation. How the two members balance, that is required to be improved..SA: Many lawyers from Kashmir haven’t been able to establish a mark outside the region. What could be the reasons for that?.AH: There may be historical reasons for that. So far as J&K is concerned, almost all the judges who have come from outside, their opinion has been that lawyers at Srinagar are the best lawyers. With a caveat, they don’t have the exposure to other laws. In J&K, we have a very limited and traditional nature of litigation.It is an admitted fact that J&K has been a zero-industry area. The industrial sector has been very slow for many reasons. Outside, the industrial sector has grown manifold. Naturally, it has brought with it disputes. Those disputes are being dealt with by lawyers at different forums. It is not that the J&K lawyers lag behind, but there are not as many opportunities..SA: Many from the Bar, particular in Kashmir, have not been elevated to the Bench in recent years. What do you think are the reasons?.AH: I think it is ultimately and basically the decision of the government. They may like somebody’s face, they may not like somebody’s face. It does not involve the process of assessment of anybody’s merit. There are certain positions like High Court judge, Governor, member of the Public Service Commission, where the government has been given the power and discretion to select their own. The government is supposed to be fair in discretion. It is for them to decide if anyone from Kashmir is capable enough to be a judge of the High Court. Otherwise, I remember we have produced very good judges in the past..SA: The J&K High Court hasn’t been as welcoming of technology as other High Courts have. Why is it so?.AH: The High Court has tried to do that. During the COVID-19 period, a lot of work was done through an online system. But the difficulty also is that internet technology is not as developed as it is outside. It is generally very slow. Our Chief Justice has been holding court from Jammu and he takes cases from Srinagar and vice-versa, but in that process, technology does not properly work. Sometimes, he does not receive our voice and we do not receive his..SA: How has life changed for lawyers since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019?.AH: Apart from the political consequences, people in certain areas have been exposed to serious difficulties. There is this aspect related to the SARFAESI Act. It has brought a lot of mental agony. There is a huge backlog of loans here and when people default, the SARFAESI Act has a very tricky procedure for recovery. It includes in the process very harsh steps to be taken by the banks. People have faced difficulties here, there used to be strikes for months. The business community would suffer. Law provides for appeal before the Debts Recovery Tribunal. Now, that Tribunal is located in Chandigarh. If a person is bankrupt, how is he expected to go to Chandigarh? It is a three day travel from Srinagar and that too, when the road is workable. He has to stay in a hotel and engage a lawyer at a different place. There are a lot of difficulties. In this process, this remedy becomes inefficacious.Section 17A of SARFAESI Act had been introduced to allow filing of appeals before district judges in J&K. After the abrogation, Section 17A has been taken away. It was a very easy method. The question is the availability of the forum. The entire power is now with the Debts Recovery Tribunal. We are contesting this. It is before a division bench, which has been kind enough to examine the case on the principality of accessibility of justice.Somebody has to realize that Kashmir has not been a normal place..SA: What is the general feeling among the Bar over the Supreme Court's judgment on Article 370?.AH: People are dejected. I have not seen the judgment, but the ultimate result is that they have held that abrogation was valid. But in my own heart of hearts, I feel it was not so; it was not valid..SA: Any message for young advocates?.AH: This profession requires hard-working lawyers. This profession in J&K does not belong to wise people, it belongs to hard-working people. The wisdom will come later on, with the passage of time.It is easy today for a young lawyer to find the law. When we were young, it would take us days together, months together to find out the law which would help our client. But today it is very easy. We have digests, internet and other facilities. Young lawyers are only required to work hard.But my personal experience has been that young lawyers are lawyers only because they get the degree. They don’t know the basics. Now it is true they may not fully be exposed to the basics of law, but they can improve it after joining the profession. I have seen most of the lawyers don’t know the drafting, English language, or how to plead the case. There used to be a Legal Practitioners Act, which would provide that a lawyer after enrolment would be registered as a pleader first. He would not be permitted to appear before the High Court for two years. The most important aspect of this profession is respect for the judge, the system. If you don’t have respect for the system, you cannot effectively argue the case, and you are not a bona fide lawyer. Now that Act provided that you should have two years experience as a pleader, then you would be designated as a vakeel and then only you could appear before the High Court on the original side. This period of two years would mean that a lawyer would get as much experience. This deficiency could have been removed by the law colleges. The students or young lawyers are not learning much. Working as a junior or a new lawyer is different from something that happens in a moot court. You have a responsibility as a junior.