Anup Bhambhani
Anup Bhambhani

“I think there are only two things worth fighting for legally – free speech and personal liberty” Senior Advocate Anup Bhambhani

Pallavi Saluja

Anup Bhambhani, who is known as Media Law expert was recently designated Senior Advocate by the Delhi High Court along with Amit Sibal and Dayan Krishnan. The science graduate from St. Stephens College always had a fascination with law as a subject and joined the profession in the early ‘90s.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, he talks about his decision to take up law, his initial years, his thoughts on censorship of media and the changing legal profession.

Bar & Bench: What made you take up law?

Anup Bhambhani: I was always a science student. I did a B.Sc Hons in Physics and a master in Nuclear Physics at St. Stephens College at Delhi University. During this time, some eminent lawyers came to our college for lectures. On another occasion, I was awarded a book by Nani Palkhivala. So hearing these people and reading books like that got me extremely interested in law as a subject. That was the beginning of my interest in the subject.

I thought that law was a very topical subject. If you do pure sciences, what you learn, what you know, what you are doing may not be relevant to the next morning’s newspaper. But if you are doing something like law, whether it is the politics or the legislative action, it is all so topical and relevant. It is something that you are living through on a day-to-day basis. So, it all connects very well.

B&B: Going back to your initial years, whom did you start with?

AB:  When I was a law student, I started attending the chambers of RP Dave. Whatever free time I had, I used to spend time with him. I used to spend time in conferences and in the Courts. After graduating in 1992, I continued with him. Rahul Dave then went on to take over a very old Calcutta law firm, which was called Orr Digman & Co. So, I went with him for a while but then I realized that I wanted to do litigation. I didn’t want to do just advising or deskwork. So in 1994, I left Orr, Digman & Co and went to another law firm called New Delhi Law Offices. I was there barely for a week or so and then just set out on my own in 1994.

B&B: How was it working on your own?

AB: I started working from a portion of my parents’ house. I carved out a little office space but people have been very kind to me because law firms which I had worked for and which I had left entrusted me with the same briefs that I was doing while I was working for them.

That was the beginning of my law practice and then, of course, it was fortuitous that something like Outlook magazine came along as a client. Outlook was started in 1995 and I did the best I could and it appeared to be good enough for them. That is how I got into media law and then one thing led to another. I soon got branded as a media lawyer because I was doing a lot of media work. So I went from one media client to another because they kept coming.

At that stage, as far as I can remember, [print] media was not as big in terms of television media and there were certainly no lawyers who could call themselves media lawyers per se. I was lucky to get into a field and media as a field is very dynamic, there is never a dull moment. They keep getting into controversies and doing all sorts of things. That is one main part of my practice and the other fair chunk of my practice is hard-core criminal law, which came much later.

B&B: What got you interested in criminal law?

AB: I was always extremely interested in criminal law as a subject because I think there are only two things worth fighting for legally – one is free speech and the other is personal liberty. So as a subject I was always interested [in criminal law] but you can’t go looking for work.

And hard-core criminal matters never came my way because my profile was different; I was a media lawyer. But way back in 1992-93, when I had just started, I was part of a team of lawyers that was defending Win Chadha in the Bofors matter. So we had a very eminent judge and a whole a lot of senior people guiding us and we got to learn a lot about criminal law. But after that I didn’t do much work in criminal law. Then, I volunteered for legal aid work and I was empanelled in 2009 in the Delhi High Court Legal Services Committee. One doesn’t do that work for money, it is not well paying that way but it gives you a lot of exposure and you do cases for people who deserve to be represented – they may be convicts or accused of heinous offences but that is where the true test of law really lies. Does a man who is being accused of the most heinous offense get proper representation, does he get a proper hearing, even if he is a convicted, is he convicted in a fair and a proper way?

B&B: You were representing the juvenile involved in the Delhi gang rape case. Should the Juvenile Justice Act be amended to reduce the age of juvenility?

AB: I represented [the juvenile] in two matters that came up in the Supreme Court – one was the petition filed by Dr. Subramanian Swamy and the connected matter was the petition filed by parents of the rape victim. The issue was whether any change is required in the Juvenile Justice Act, particularly the age of juvenility, in view of episodes such as the Nirbhaya case.

My professional view is that before we consign the existing provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act to the dustbin, we must first try them out fully. I do believe that the Juvenile Justice Act is not fully implemented in all its aspects and facets. It it were, we would find that there are enough provisions and enough safeguards to take care of the sense of outrage, which arose after the Nirbhaya episode.

My view is that nothing need be changed in the Juvenile Justice Act. It is said that hard cases make bad law; so just because there have been a handful of outrageous episodes, it should not mean that we should start overhauling the law by way of a knee jerk reaction. The obverse side will be that many juveniles who are products of our own society – good, bad or indifferent – will be put through a lot of harshness and suffering that they do not deserve.

B&B: How do you think that censorship of media can effectively take place?

AB: I think there can be only one form of censorship, which is self-censorship.  I believe strictly in self-regulation of the media. There is a view that self-regulation is an oxymoron. However, I think it is jumping to conclusions because self-regulation has not been around for long. I myself having been counsel to the News Broadcasters Association and News Broadcaster Standards Authority and in my capacity as counsel I have seen several complaints. I have seen the reaction of media, I have seen how media is changing.

This whole concept of a responsible media didn’t exist for a long time. It has been around now for a few years and it is extremely important that media is responsible. But any external influences on the media goes far beyond making media responsible; it makes media subservient and the subservience of media is not in the interest of a democracy in any case.

B&B: What advice would you give to young lawyers?

AB: It is a mix of factors that makes something work for you and there is an element of luck involved. As someone else once said, “Luck is a matter of being ready for a chance”; so you can’t do much about luck but what you can do is to be ready when the chance comes along. It is a lot of hard work, you have to be focused and not look left and right and find easier ways out. Do not chase money, look for work that you are interested in, do the work well and money will come. If you chase money, there is imminent possibility of losing your way because there are easier ways of making money but if you are interested in the profession just stick to the intrinsic value of the work that you are doing.

The other thing is don’t be in a hurry. Patience is a big virtue at least in this profession. I think patience is a requirement. Overnight success comes after 20 years; I think that is true about most lawyers that you can name, those who are really worthy and who have created a name for themselves in the profession. So, if you are in a hurry then you are in the wrong place; then do not join the profession.

B&B: How much do you think a junior lawyer should be paid?

AB: It depends on the capacity of the lawyer he is working for or the firm he is working for. But as I said that it should not be central to the decision as to whether to join lawyer A or firm B. Money should not be the deciding factor. The deciding factor should be the ‘learning’. I can’t even tell you how little I used to get when I began as a lawyer but those times were different. Today people get paid much more. So, if you are going to build yourself as a professional, money is just to take care of the needs. But your growth comes from the learning. And there is no monetary value you can attach to learning.

B&B: You have been in the practice for more than two decades – so what are the changes you have seen at the Bar and the Bench?

AB: As far as the Bar is concerned, I have seen a lot more professionalism. Law as a profession has become a lot more appealing to people although some people are approaching law as a source of money and as a source of fame; but those are the wrong reasons. Even otherwise I think MBA used to be a fad at some stage, engineering used to be the fad before that and today law is an extremely appealing proposition as a profession. Therefore, the kind of people who are joining the profession are better educated, and more driven than we used to be at our time.

As far as the Bench is concerned, I have worked essentially in the Delhi High Court and of course in the Supreme Court but my home base is the Delhi High Court. The entire functioning of the court has changed. We have gone electronic and the Delhi High Court is one of the most efficient High Courts in the country. The disposal rate is much higher and things are being streamlined from time to time, so there are many changes that have happened. The resources available today to the High Court are much greater than they used to be.

B&B: What do you enjoy about litigation?

AB: It is the thrill of litigation. A lot of hard work goes into litigation for, say 15 minutes of action. But those 15 minutes of action actually makes the entire exercise extremely worthwhile. So it is just the thrill of being in the court, of making a good legal point, of persuading the judge to think the way you think. You just have to do it to know it.  It is like somebody who just sits and reads about the game of cricket or someone sits and watches the game of cricket versus a person who actually goes and plays the game of cricket. Being on the field and actually fielding those questions from the bench – either you are winning or losing. You just have to be there, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

B&B: Who has been your mentor?

AB: I have not had the fortune of being in the chambers of a lot of senior counsels who I revere or I look up to but I have learnt a lot by just observing them at the Bar – like Soli Sorabjee, Ram Jethmalani or Fali Nariman and Anil Diwan. One of the persons I really looked up to was Justice JS Verma because I interacted with him very closely over last the few years (2008 onwards) when he accepted the chairmanship of the News Broadcasting Standard Authorities. I was counsel to that body.

Of course it was only a few years that I was with him but I learnt a lot from him not just about law but about integrity, ethics, about how he lived his life without any temptations, without doing things which are otherwise routine.

The other person who has taught me when I was a law student was HD Shorie. He was a director of the NGO Common Cause and he used to do a lot of public litigation. So he gave me that orientation – law is a tool for public justice, law is not a tool for self-aggrandizement or for profiteering. He always used to draft himself and argue himself and I was fortunate that he entrusted me with briefs because I helped him in various ways.  Then he realized that this is a kid whom he can trust with some work! So he used to give me opportunities to appear in court because we were just appearing in person for Common Cause. He was true to the purpose.

B&B: What interests you other than law?

AB: Theater and the performing arts. In college and after college I did lots of theater so I am passionate about it. Today, I don’t do it but I certainly watch a lot of plays.

B&B: You have got the senior gown now. How much of a change will it bring in your practice?

AB: In the last 2 to 3 years, I was being completely briefed externally. So I did not know the client. In the last 2 to 3 years, there has been a change in the nature of my practice in any case and for even longer I wasn’t doing drafting work. But now things have to be completely different. One has to re-invent one’s practice and that was what I am looking forward to.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news