Mr Amit Pai is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India. He graduated from ILS Law College, Pune in 2010. In this conversation with Mr Nihar Chitre, he opens up about his experiences as a Law Clerk, his internships and the various cases, he argued and appeared.
- Hello Amit, thank you so much for agreeing to the interview, it is a pleasure having you on the SCC Online Blog. I request you to kindly introduce yourself to our readers.
I graduated from the ILS Law College, Pune in 2010. I enrolled in the Karnataka State Bar Council and came to Delhi soon thereafter to take up an assignment as a Law Clerk-cum-Research Assistant. Thereafter, for a brief period, I worked in Government with the office of a Union Minister. I have been in active practice at the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court since 2014. In 2018, I became an Advocate-on-Record, and am practising thus ever since.
- Tell us about your experiences at the ILS Law College, in particular the book Basic Structure Constitutionalism –Revisiting Kesavananda Bharati.
College was a fantastic experience for me and gave me a tremendous opportunity to work on a variety of thing with friends, colleagues and particularly some of the faculty. Of course, there was also the fun part of college. But I think one must take college as a passage between schooling (where one always has a fallback of the family) and life (where very often one is on one’s own), and therefore what one does in college goes a long way. I was involved in several activities in college, in particular moot courts, the Centre for Public Law and the college magazine and journal, very actively.
The whole Kesavananda Bharati idea came in a general discussion with Dr Sanjay Jain about amending powers of Parliament, and we thought it would be lovely to have a conference and subsequently a book. It fructified into a conference on the various nuances of the judgment attended by eminent former Judges, senior counsels and academicians. The book itself was more laborious – one had to read the 11 opinions more than once, apart from the general reading. But with an extraordinarily hardworking team headed by Dr Jain and Mrs Narayan, we were able to bring out this book. Ever since then, the judgment in Kesavananda Bharati has been a fascination for me.
- How was your experience while interning while still in college?
I had the good fortune to intern with late Mr Soli Sorabjee and Dr Rajeev Dhavan in the Supreme Court. With a senior counsel like Mr Sorabjee or Dr Dhavan, there is a variety of work in different branches of law, and there is a lot of learning. It was a very good introduction to the world of litigation at the Supreme Court. The individual styles of both these persons were very different. Both of them had very different styles of advocacy and mannerisms – but there was one thing common – the hard work. When, as a youngster, one sees the hard work being put in by these eminent persons, one is no doubt inspired to put in the same. With both of them, the questions they asked in conferences would invariably be asked by the Court – that is how well they read the Court. For those who are desirous of practising law, the real taste of court is quintessential.
Apart from the Supreme Court, I also worked with Dr Aditya Sondhi (now Senior Counsel) in the Karnataka High Court in 2006, which was my first internship, and while I soon realised I did not know much of the law, I certainly was trained by Dr Sondhi and his juniors how to try and learn the law. Of course, the learning of the law is a continuous process, and will not stop till one dies. But my initial understanding of how to read briefs, what to say and what not to say to a client, etc. were inculcated seeing Dr Sondhi. I also worked in the leading solicitor firm Kanga and Co. in the Bombay High Court and closely worked with Mr Ashish Bhakta, then a partner at Kanga.
While interning, I did watch the manner of advocacy of different counsel appearing, and the different Judges. And this profession is a “watch and learn” profession, so in the initial days, when I understood very little, I think some of these aspects are subconsciously picked up.
- How was your experience working as a Law Clerk?
After graduation, I was appointed as Law Clerk to Justice H.L. Dattu. This was way before he became Chief Justice. We did not have an exam those days, only an interview by the Judge in Charge of the Committee – for me it was Justice Dalveer Bhandari.
I worked with Justice Dattu from August 2010 to May 2012, and it was a particularly educative experience. He was a very hard taskmaster – perhaps because he worked doubly hard. There was no concept of Sundays or holidays (unless one really needed one). But having said that it was very educative. Justice Dattu was very paternal with my colleague and me and was more a teacher than a boss. He would not only assign to us research work but also discuss propositions of law that were up for consideration. On days when we attended oral argument, he would make sure to tell us the style and manner of advocacy of most lawyers who argued on that day – and what to imbibe and what to consciously avoid. These small things made us better professionally. The one lesson I learnt from Justice Dattu about the law, apart from the industry associated with the profession, is the need to master the first principles. It was great learning for me as an entry into the profession.
- Tell us about the Advocate-on Record-exams. What the preparation process like? Who guided/trained you?
Well, if one wants to practise in the Supreme Court, becoming an Advocate-on-Record (AOR) is perhaps a natural course. It is not a very difficult set of papers, but one needs to adequately prepare. I think the real challenge with the AOR papers is the writing part – one is out of touch, as one does not handwrite at a good speed much after law school. Of course, that is not to undermine the actual studying part. As is true for every exam, one has to read and understand the topics that form the syllabus. One must make sure to attend the very informative lectures by senior advocates so that one knows which direction to take. Amongst the four papers, I thought the most interesting was one of the leading cases – where we get to read/refresh on the seminal cases that have shaped our constitutional jurisprudence.
I trained under Mr Rajesh Mahale, AOR, who also gave me very valuable inputs as to how to crack the papers. Apart from Mr Mahale, Mr Raghavendra Srivatsa was also very helpful to me and guided me as to how to go about taking the papers. I think one of the most important things is to discuss with other friends and colleagues who have/are taking the papers – this really helps one assess one’s own understanding. Of course, I would fail in my duty if I did not mention the immense support given to me by my wife Pankhuri – who made sure to discuss different topics with me in the little personal time we had, despite her busy schedule.
- You appeared in Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma. Can you tell us about the experience?
The matter was heard in the initial days of virtual hearings, and I was unsure whether I would be allowed to argue. But to my good fortune, the Bench was very patient and allowed all counsels to argue. The principal argument I made was on the construction of the amended Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and how the words used in it had to be given full meaning, and how Prakash v.Phulavati had been incorrectly decided. As we know the argument to include all daughters of coparceners was accepted and the scope of Section 6 was widened, and as a result, Prakash was overruled in Vineeta Sharma.
- You recently appeared in Nilesh Navlakha case before the Bombay High Court. Do you think restricting the free speech of the news channels is a good idea?
The issue was very simple – about violations of the Programme Code by news channels. We have seen daily that the electronic media indulges in a media trial of sensational cases. This happened last year when the actor Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide. The media began targeting certain people as having been responsible for his death. While free speech is a hallmark of a democracy, it cannot be in breach of the Programme Code. Mr Navlakha made a complaint to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting about these breaches by some of the channels, and instead of dealing with the complaints, the complaints were referred to a private body i.e. the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA).
This abdication by the Government was what came to be challenged by Mr Navlakha in the Bombay High Court. We were led by Mr Devadatt Kamat, Senior Advocate. We argued that the exercise of free speech by the television media cannot be in breach of the Uplinking/Downlinking Guidelines and the Programme Code and that this was a breach of the undertaking by the media channels who had to face consequences of the breach. We also pointed out that the Government could not abdicate this responsibility to a private body. After hearing arguments over several days, and several counsels including Mr Aspi Chinoy, Mr Arvind Datar and Mr Anil Singh, Additional Solicitor General (ASG), the High Court allowed Mr Navlakha’s writ petition along with others, and directed the Government to take action. Further, the High Court noted that a private body could not take over core governmental functions. In fact, the High Court noted that the telecast was contemptuous in nature.
Working on this matter with Mr Kamat and my colleague Mr Rajesh Inamdar was a fabulous experience in this matter. The amount of research and industry put in for this matter was considerable. We looked at the law across the world and the jurisprudence on free speech to prepare our arguments. It was very educative.
Certainly, I am not for the restriction of the free speech of the media. What I am against is the whipping up of public sentiment against people making them guilty in the eyes of the public. Of course, I am completely against threadbare discussing the evidence, etc. on television, with debates on certain things. This may be sensational and may draw TRPs, but in the long run, I honestly think it is contrary to the due process guaranteed to the accused. Declaring some people to be guilty and some to be innocent is the job of the courts after following due process. It cannot be short-circuited by the television channels for personal gains or with a personal agenda – for the power of television is immense.
- Can you tell us about the BCCI case? Should the Court have entered into this arena?
I was involved with the BCCI case soon after the Justice Lodha Committee gave its recommendations. I appeared for Bishan Singh Bedi, Kirti Azad, Hemant Angle, etc. in support of the recommendations. I also appeared for the Cricket Association of Pondicherry and UT Cricket Association, Chandigarh. It was in 2016 that the Court heard it on a day-to-day basis in May. I had to brief various counsels including Ms Indu Malhotra (later Judge of the Supreme Court), Ms Nalini Chidambaram, Mr Basant R., Mr Manish Tewari, etc. during the matter. It was a terrific learning experience on endurance. Over the last five years, I am happy to have had two of my clients begin playing Ranji Cricket – Pondicherry and Chandigarh. The Supreme Court, the Committee of Administrators by Mr Vinod Rai, has done a fabulous job in streamlining accountability in cricket administration. I was also appearing for Mr Azad in the cases against the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA), in which Justice Vikramajit Sen was appointed as an Administrator.
I suppose the principal purpose of the Court entering into these matters was the lack of transparency and the financial lacunae in the management in some of the cricket associations. After all, they do enjoy considerable government patronage and largesse. In fact, the Court has over the last few years taken steps in respect of several other sports bodies, including football. Mr Rahul Mehra has been at the forefront of this, and I have had the good fortune to work with him in some matters in the High Court.
- Are there any specific types of matters you enjoy more than others?
I am too junior in the profession to say I like this or I like that. I do every type of matter that comes my way. Whether civil or criminal or commercial. But I do enjoy a matter involving the interpretation of the law – I am sure everybody does enjoy such matters more than others. There is some takeaway from each matter one does, irrespective of the topic involved.
For example, recently I drafted and filed a matter relating to the Arbitration Act, which essentially was to reconcile various judgments of the Court. Another matter I did was from Mumbai, which involved the improper appreciation of electronic evidence in a Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 matter. I also did a matter relating to the freedom of the minority educational institutions to fix their own fees. These three matters are pending consideration. A couple of weeks ago, I argued a matter relating to the reduction of sentence for two convicts, where the sentence was reduced from 22 years to 14 years. I was also involved recently in an anti-arbitration injunction suit in the Delhi High Court. Each matter is characteristically a different matter. It has been great learning in each matter.
- Is there any advice you would like to give to law students, especially aspiring first-generation lawyers?
I am not sure I can give advice. But there are a couple of things I did and I still do. One, watch senior counsel and other counsel argue their cases. That helps you imbibe the skills of advocacy. And secondly, learn to read the court – watch different Judges in different matters, and see what the disposition of the Judges in those matters are. Being observant will help one understand how different Judges react to different types of matters – and one can then accordingly mould one’s manner. One remains a student throughout. In Mr Fali Nariman’s autobiography, he has spoken of a nonagenarian Sir Jamshedji Kanga saying he was still learning by watching proceedings. Do not be in a hurry to argue cases on the very first day you join the profession. One must be patient.
Of course, this is apart from one basic fundamental rule – read. As Justice Frankfurter once said, the best way to be prepared for the law is to be a well-read person. Not just the law, but history, literature, politics, religion, etc.
I love reading history, politics, philosophy and most of all biographies and autobiographies of those who have made a difference to the world. I would strongly recommend autobiographies of M.C. Chagla, Justice Hidayatullah and Fali Nariman to all students of law. Apart from that Lord Denning’s books are a wonderful read. Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges by Justice Scalia and Bryan A. Garner is a wonderful book. I read a lot about the American Supreme Court and its Judges. I also love reading Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan. I am currently reading a book on Jeremy Hutchinson – the legendary QC who practised on the criminal side in England. I do not read the newspaper or watch the news though. I am not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. I watch interviews/talks of the prominent people in law and politics on YouTube. For example, there are some lovely talks by Judges of the American Court, which give you a perspective different from our own.