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The Madras High Court on Monday held a Full Court reference to mourn the recent demise of Justice AC Agarwal, its 17th Indian Chief Justice.
Justice Agarwal was born in August 1937. He obtained his law degree from the Indian Law Society, Pune in 1960. He then proceeded to join the chambers of HR Gokhale, who went on to become a Bombay High Court judge, and thereafter, a Union Law Minister.
Justice Agarwal’s years of practice involved about 15 years worth of practice in the subordinate courts of Bombay. In the Bombay High Court, he primarily practised on the appellate side.
He was elevated as an additional judge of the Bombay High Court in November 1986. His post was made permanent the following year in June. He went on to serve as the High Court’s Acting Chief Justice from November 1998 to January 1999.
In May 1999, Justice Agarwal was appointed the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. On the occasion of joining the High Court, Justice Agarwal is said to have recalled the words of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, “that the Madras High Court has yielded to none in the essential judicial qualities of detachment and impartiality, profundity of learning, and clear and crisp enunciation of doctrines.”
At the Full Court reference, Chief Justice VK Tahilramani, who herself hails from the Bombay High Court, spoke briefly on the life and career of Justice Agarwal. She informed the audience,
“Justice Agarwal firmly believed that the role of lawyers and judges is not conflicting, but is complementary to each other… each having an equal role to play in the justice delivery system.”
“He possessed a sharp, exacting consciousness which had a touch of subtle humour…a simple, yet unassuming manner… [which] enhanced his stature. He gave equal courtesies to every lawyer, senior or junior, [he] did not lose his cool at any point of time, and his patient hearing quality gave a lot of confidence to lawyers to put forth their submissions with ease. Even the juniormost lawyers were comfortable in his court.“
Among the various contributions made by Justice Agarwal to the Madras High Court, is the choice of location for the Madurai Bench of the Court. His tenure as Chief Justice also witnessed the construction of chambers for Law Officers at Puducherry, a guest house of visiting Law Officers at Egmore, and identification of a site to establish the Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy.
Justice Agarwal retired from office in August 1999, a little over three months after he took charge as the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. After his retirement, he took over as Chairman of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), Delhi in October 1999. He is also said to have prevented the dismantling of the CAT after he presented a case for its continuance before the Parliament. On his contributions to the development of the CAT, Chief Justice Tahilramani said,
“When he took over as Chairman, the Central Administrative Tribunal was housed in a rented premises at New Delhi. With his efforts, Justice Agarwal got constructed the present headquarter building…and shifted the headquarters in a record time during his tenure…Justice Agarwal also saw to it that the Jodhpur Central Administrative Tribunal got a new building…The Cochin Bench was located in a new building…During his tenure, the Central Administrative Tribunal was revamped and major pending cases stood disposed.“
He vacated the office of CAT Chairman in August 2002. This, however, did not mark the end of his career. Among the various roles he donned thereafter was that of an arbitrator. Speaking on his impeccable sense of duty, Chief Justice Tahalramani recounted,
“It so happened that late last year, when he was sick and hospitalised for a couple of months, an arbitration was pending before him. As soon as he got home, and he was recovering, he held meetings at his residence, passed the award, and after signing it said,
‘I have completed all my work. Now, no more.'”
After an illustrious career spanning decades, Justice Agarwal passed away in the early hours of February 23, 2019. Chief Justice Tahilramani informed the gathering,
“On 23rd February this year, he woke up at 2 am, freshened up, and said to his wife… ‘I am feeling good.’
He walked to his sofa and asked to switch on the TV for him. He rested his head on his wife’s shoulder, and was gone in a second.”
As she concluded her speech, Chief Justice Tahilramani said,
“I personally have many fond memories of Justice Agarwal and I will always miss his ever smiling face and jovial nature.“
Justice Agarwal is survived by his wife and two sons, all of whom are Advocates practising in Bombay.