Justice Ujjal Bhuyan is a sitting judge of Bombay High Court. In this interview, he talks about his Judicial career and his journey from Bar to Bench. He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Stuti Dwivedy, who is currently pursuing law from NLUJAA.
1. First of all, the team EBC – SCC Online extends warm greetings and welcome you. It is indeed a great opportunity for me on behalf of the SCC-EBC team to interview you for our readers.
Before proceeding further with the interview would you please take a moment to tell our readers about yourself and your journey from the Bar to the Bench?
At the outset I must thank team EBC-SCC Online for having me for this interview. To talk about oneself is a bit embarrassing. Nevertheless since you have posed the question I have to give an answer. Of course, my bio-particulars are available on the Bombay High Court website. Those who are interested may visit the site. After completion of my education I joined the Bar at Guwahati in March, 1991 though I subsequently enrolled myself for my Masters Course (LLM) in Gauhati University. I was designated as Senior Advocate by the Gauhati High Court in August, 2010. I practiced as a lawyer for more than 20 years. On October 17, 2011 I was elevated as a Judge of Gauhati High Court. My stint as a lawyer was most challenging and rewarding as well. When I joined the Bar my father Shri Suchendra Nath Bhuyan, Senior Advocate was still around. I started my practice under his guidance. Soon thereafter in 1991 itself he was again appointed as Advocate General of Assam and I had to fend for myself. It was as you say baptism by fire. My appointment as Junior Standing Counsel of the Income Tax Department in 1995 and as Senior Standing Counsel in 2008 gave a broader dimension to my professional career. I was associated with the Income Tax Department for long 16 years. This was certainly a high point in my journey as a lawyer. I also served as Additional Advocate General for the State of Assam towards the end of my professional career.
However I must say that though I appeared for many departments and governments as their lawyer, my legal practice was basically petitioner oriented. In majority of the cases I appeared for the petitioners or the appellants. I could therefore understand the challenges and difficulties of young lawyers many of whom came from the districts struggling to establish a foothold in the legal profession.
2. So, before venturing into your journey in both the cases as a lawyer and a judge, what were your biggest fears and apprehensions and what was the drive that compelled you to overcome them?
Before becoming a lawyer, and I was quite young at that point of time, I was wondering as to whether I would be able to stick to the strict regimen which my father said was most essential to sustain oneself in the legal profession and whether any litigant would seek my professional assistance at all! Besides, I had a large group of friends too, many of whom were unrelated to the world of law. Some of them had relatively good income which I knew I would not be able to earn as a junior lawyer; but as I entered the profession and slowly but surely matured as a lawyer all such apprehensions receded into the background. As the years went by and as my standing at the Bar rose I became more and more confident.
On the eve of my swearing in as a judge many thoughts and questions criss-crossed my mind. Whether I would be able to discharge the onerous duties and responsibilities as judge of a constitutional court in the true sense of the term. But I will mention two incidents which impacted me the most and have always guided me: One on the eve of my swearing-in and the other shortly after I became a judge. On the first one, I had received a letter from Justice B. P. Saraf, a friend of my father and former Chief Justice of J & K High Court. He said most litigants approach the courts in distress; never be a negative judge. I must say it had a telling impact on me. In so far the second incident is concerned, after a few weeks into my judgeship I was given Single Bench roster. Being a new judge I had studied all the files the evening before and made necessary notings. One particular matter, I had noted deserved dismissal. Next day in court when the matter was called upon my good friend Nishitendu Choudhury then a lawyer argued for the petitioner. His short submission was so effective and persuasive that I ended up not only issuing notice but granted interim stay. This was a big lesson and eye-opener for me. I realised the effect and importance of open oral hearing. By the way Nishitendu went on to become a judge but as destiny would have it, just into his third year as a judge he left all of us for his heavenly abode.
3. Since you were the most senior judge in Gauhati High Court before you were transferred to Bombay High Court, how far do you think things are different at both the places?
Both the High Courts are different. Considering the volume of litigation and Bench strength, admittedly Gauhati High Court is much smaller. But Gauhati High Court is unique in as much as it exercises jurisdiction in a frontier region, earlier the whole of north-east and now four states. Please read the book Gauhati High Court : History and Heritage and you will have a glimpse of the vastness of jurisdiction exercised by the Gauhati High Court from constitutional law to customary law. Gauhati High Court has played a stellar role in the development of law in this country; the number of judgments of the Supreme Court arising out of decisions of the Gauhati High Court will bear testimony to it. So far I was concerned, being a comparatively smaller High Court having jurisdiction over seven states at the time of my elevation, I was stationed at Aizawl Bench, Mizoram State and thus by virtue of such stationing I became the Executive Chairman of Mizoram State Legal Services Authority; office of Executive Chairman of State Legal Services Authority is normally held by the senior-most judge of the High Court. This gave me an insight into the legal services movement in the country and took me to the interiors of Mizoram including the jails. It was a great learning experience. This would not have been possible in a bigger high court.
Bombay High Court is a premier High Court with great traditions. A chartered high court, it has produced outstanding judges and jurists. Litigation is huge and varied here. It has got a very strong and large Bar. I feel privileged to be a part of this great institution. What I have noticed is that the legal practice here in Bombay is more organized and professional. Unlike Guwahati, chambers here are not individual centric. Besides, solicitors play a significant role here. A word about my colleagues in Bombay. They have gone out of their way to embrace me and my family. The Bar here has treated me so well. From day one I never felt that I have come from a different High Court.
4. Do you think that the time of pandemic has made a substantial delay and declining transition in the court activities?
I do not think so. Despite the inevitable restrictions due to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown the courts have risen to the occasion. A large number of cases have been filed during the lockdown which are being regularly heard by the courts through video conferencing. Of course the pandemic has adversely affected our lives and all sectors of the country. It is a challenge to all of us to ensure that the justice delivery system comes out of this crisis with as minimum damage as possible; rather to convert this challenge into an opportunity.
5. This is the time for virtual hearings and webcasts, how far do you think courts have used this opportunity to balance the huge pendency rate of the cases over the last couple of months?
The fact that the courts could shift from physical hearings to virtual hearings so seamlessly at the onset of the lockdown is a testimony to the great work done by the Supreme Court E-Committee and by all the stakeholders. Speaking about the Bombay High Court I can say that we are having a number of Division Benches and Single Benches dealing with all kinds of cases. In fact roster for the entire month of September, 2020 has been notified with eight Division Benches and thirteen Singles Benches. Therefore a conscious effort has been made by the court as well as by the lawyers to hear and decide as many cases as possible, not limiting the hearing to only new cases.
6. As it’s been quite in news for some time regarding the substitution of an all India examination instead of state wise examinations for lower judiciary, in your personal opinion how fruitful and suitable that would be?
This is a live issue and therefore it would not be proper on my part being a sitting judge to express my personal opinion. However, I may add that while I was at Guwahati I was part of the committee which dealt with this issue. I understand views of the Gauhati High Court have been placed before the Supreme Court by way of an affidavit. However, for an academic study you may go through the report published by VIDHI, Centre for Legal Policy, titled A Primer on the All India Judicial Service : A solution in search of a problem?
7. How far do you believe that the institution of judiciary today is capable of resisting political and administrative pressures?
Question of political and administrative pressure influencing the institution of judiciary does not arise. India has a free, fair and independent judiciary built brick by brick by great men and women over the years. It will continue to remain so.
8. How much do you think legal education and legal awareness have evolved over past couple of decades? What do you find as the biggest loophole in the contemporary legal education system?
Legal education and legal awareness are two different concepts. Everyone will agree that quality of legal education has definitely improved in recent times. Setting up of National Law Universities in different parts of the country has certainly helped in improving the standard but there are critics too, questioning the direction these institutions have taken deviating from the original concept. Biggest challenge or loophole in contemporary legal education is the wide disparity in the quality of students and quality of teaching in different law colleges. This issue needs to be addressed as otherwise it will have a telling impact on the district judiciary where bulk of the litigation is fought.
9. Do you have any regrets in your career?
Ans. I do not have any regrets. God has been very kind to me. I consider it to be an absolute honour and privilege to serve this great country of ours through its judicial wing. However, in so far my professional career as a lawyer is concerned, if I am given an opportunity to rewind the same I would have devoted some more time in trial court advocacy. This is one area where I feel I could have done more as a lawyer.
10. So how would you be liked to be seen or known as?
I would be happy to be known as or remembered as a humble student of law.
11. On the other side of the coin, what does an idle day in your life looks like?
There is hardly an idle day in the life of a lawyer or judge. However, Saturdays and Sundays as well as holidays give me time to prepare my judgments besides spending time with my family.
12. What are your areas of interest other than law?1
I love music and acting. I also follow sporting activities.
13. Is there anything in your life, that you have always wanted to do, but couldn’t do it owing to your busy job schedule?
I would have loved playing the guitar and learn swimming which I could not do.
14. What would you recommend from your personal experience to a law student who has a desire to join either bar or bench in future?
I can only tell him / her to be sincere and methodical. There is no substitute for hard work. There may be initial setbacks but if you work hard and maintain regularity, success will be yours. Do not compare yourself with your friends, who may be in service or business or having a different profession. Each field is different. Stay positive and keep an open mind.
15. Lastly, any parting message to our readers?
Ans. I can only address my young friends. Your success must be built on the edifice of your hardwork, talent and merit. Your success must be yours and not at the expense of others. There is enough space for everybody in the legal profession to shine and make a mark.
Stay safe and God bless.