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G Shivadass was one of the lawyers designated as Senior Advocate by the Karnataka High Court in November last year. He was previously the Principal Equity Partner at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan (L&S), and was head of the firm’s Bangalore office, where he spent more than two decades.
In this interview, he talks about how he found himself in the legal profession, the effect of the GST regime on lawyers, and more.
You have an interesting background, in that you worked in the Customs and Central Excise department before becoming a lawyer.
I joined the Customs and Excise department as a clerk in 1981, when I was about 19 years old. It was more of a necessity back then. Initially, my work was that of a typist. I was fortunate to have an extremely good officer who saw that I would be able to study law and process files, and she took me out of the typist job and put me in charge of processing files.
Thereafter, it was an extremely interesting job. In 1985, I became an Inspector of Central Excise. In 1990, I was selected as an Intelligence Officer in the Excise wing of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI). We used to do search operations and investigate matters; it was a completely different experience.
Then, in 1993, I left the services to be part of a law firm.
What prompted the switch to law? Was it always part of the plan?
Studying law and practicing it was not part of the plan. When I was in the DRI, I thought that knowledge of law would equip me better to understand things. So, I joined the evening classes at Madras Law College and cleared the course. I started realising that life outside the government would be more challenging.
That was the time I became a part of L&S, and I went on to work there for about 25 years.
Were there any difficulties you faced in switching careers?
Yes, there were. The way you look at law when you are part of the government is completely different from the way you look at it when you practice it. I found that I was required to be more incisive, detailed, and careful with clients and courts. So, it did take time for me to adjust. I found that my 13 years of experience in the department were slightly inadequate to really match up to the expectations required. The first 2 – 3 years was a difficult phase. Thereafter, I settled down.
You had been part of L&S for about 25 years. How has the firm evolved over the years?
Initially, when I joined, it was a small firm of about 10-12 people; we had an office only in Delhi. Thereafter, we opened an office in Mumbai, and spread to other cities. With the opening of offices in different places, the number of people also grew.
I have seen it grow from a small firm to a large firm. There are around 400+ professionals working for the firm today.
When did you decide to apply to become a Senior Advocate?
The ambition of any lawyer is either to become a judge or a Senior Counsel. I was quite fascinated to see some Senior Counsel argue in Courts. After spending 20-22 years as a lawyer, it was suggested to me that I should apply for ‘Seniorship’.
I decided to apply in the year 2017. That was when the Supreme Court was hearing a PIL on whether the system of Senior Designations should exist. Once the Supreme Court laid down a detailed procedure, the High Courts followed it. I am happy to be part of the first batch of designations in the country after the revised process came in.
There is definitely a sense of achievement, because the Court has seen in us some qualities which they think should be recognised. This is an institutional recognition which is more important and significant than any other recognition by anyone either within your firm or outside.
How have things changed for you after the designation?
I had been in charge of the Bangalore office of L&S since 2001. I watched it grow from about 3-4 people to around 55-60 and had been administering it all these years. There is a shift in terms of working. Now, I don’t have the responsibility of administering and managing an office with so many people.
As a Senior Counsel, I can’t be part of a law firm, so I had to open my own chambers. It has been an interesting experience, because I never thought about it.
But equally, there has been an increase in responsibility in terms of expanding my horizons and doing more reading of different subjects. My only job essentially is to read the law and argue. Of course, my primary duty as a Senior Counsel is to assist and aid the Court.
How has the GST regime changed things for lawyers?
Tax practitioners who have been practicing the pre-GST laws will still be necessary to help companies undertake litigation. In that respect, there is more scope for work for lawyers in the GST regime.
Though the intention is to reduce tax-related litigation, I don’t see the litigation reducing drastically. At the end of the day, it is a question of the interpretation of the business activities of the companies, therefore there is always a possibility of different views being taken. There may not be that much litigation for the first two years or so, but it will pick up. Tax lawyers should prepare themselves for it.
The ostensible intention behind the government’s insistence on linking PAN with Aadhaar for Income Tax returns was to reduce tax evasion. Has this been achieved?
This step helps government to identify who is actually the beneficiary of a tax benefit, or whether returns are filed properly. To that extent, it serves the purpose. There are media reports showing that the numbers of assessees and IT filings have increased. I would say that it is a step in the right direction.
Tax litigation accounts for a substantial percentage of pending cases in Courts and tribunals. What can be done to reduce the pendency of tax matters?
You have to look at two aspects – one, the number of pending cases, and two, the way new cases are registered. As far as pending matters are concerned, my experience shows that at least 40% cases should not have been registered at all.
What otherwise bothers me is the time taken to dispose of matters. That is because of the inadequate strength of the tribunals. If there were regular sittings, the disposal would be much faster. Across the country, there is a shortage of regular members in tribunals.
To be fair to the present members of the tribunals, all of them are doing a great job. But if there is too much pendency, there will be pressure on the members. If all the vacancies are filled, it will save a lot of trouble.
Perhaps the legal advisors of the departments and agencies have a role to play?
The registering of cases happens across the country by various investigating agencies. I always say that it is for the heads of the organisations that are in charge of registering these cases to be more pragmatic, and always have a view of business scenarios.
How have you seen the Karnataka Tax Bar grow over the years?
I have always seen that the tax Bar here is qualitatively superior, which as a matter of fact has been acknowledged by many judges. The assistance that is rendered to the Court by the Tax Bar is extremely good.
What advice would you have for people who want to enter the legal profession at a later stage, like you did?
Firstly, law is a challenging profession on a daily basis. The first ten years of a lawyer are going to be very difficult. Thereafter, you start settling down. The fact that you have been practicing for several years does not mean you are going to have an easy walk. Every day, every matter is a challenge. Unless you are able to withstand that pressure, it is not a field for you.
Secondly, there is also a fair amount of preparation required while presenting matters. But you have to be patient, and make sure you do a meticulous job. This not only helps the Court to come to a correct conclusion, but also helps to build your credibility.
But what is more important is your behaviour both within your office and outside, especially in a Court. While your abrasive behaviour within your office maybe tolerated for a number of reasons – like your seniority etc – it would not be appreciated outside especially at the Bar and in a Court.
What is very important is that we have to be very truthful to the Court. It will take years of honest practice to gain credibility in a Court, but it will take very less time or even a single act of misdemeanour like holding back facts, orders etc., for such credibility to be destroyed. Once it is lost, the credibility can never be regained irrespective of how much your colleagues profess about your honesty.