Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul was born on December 26, 1958 and hails from the distinguished Dattareya Kauls of Srinagar, whose ancestry can reliably be traced back to over 500 years. He graduated in Economics (Hons) from St Stephens College, Delhi University in 1979 and later obtained LLB from Campus Law Centre, Delhi University in 1982.
Justice Kaul enrolled as an Advocate with Bar Council of Delhi on July 15, 1982 and practiced law at the High Court of Delhi and the Supreme Court of India. Justice S.K. Kaul was elevated as Additional Judge of the High Court of Delhi on May 03, 2001 and was appointed as a permanent Judge on May 02, 2003. He was appointed as the Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court on June 01, 2013 before being sworn-in as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court on July 26, 2014. He was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court of India on February 02, 2017.
Please tell us about your journey as law student, a lawyer and now as a Judge.
My journey into the legal profession was never planned. After completing my graduation in Economics from St. Stephens College, I was on the verge of appearing for some interviews for admission into an MBA course, with the possible ultimate objective of appearing in the Civil Services Examination and to join the foreign services. My family sought the intervention of Justice B.N. Kirpal, then a member of the Bar, who persuaded me to change my path at the last moment.
The Delhi Law Faculty was the best known legal educational institution at the time with students from all over the country and a wide social milieu. It was not like the National Law Schools of today. However, there were some very eminent professors, and a number of them went on to become Vice Chancellors of different universities. Eminent professors like Prof. Tripathi, Prof. Upendra Baxi, Prof. Sarkar, and many others were visiting faculty in many prestigious institutions abroad.
A case method of study was the foundational basis of the legal course and its curriculum. However, those were times when educationists were not well supported. Resultantly, eminent people stopped going into the education field, including the legal education field.
Changes over a period of time have created an environment for many bright youngsters to join the education field. The National Law Schools have provided a platform for better education and facilities, along with greater opportunities for professors. The perceptible result has been that not many products of the 5-year law course join the litigation arena, as it has traditionally been far from being lucrative and poses a greater challenge. Instead, they got picked up by the corporates. Over a passage of time, many of these bright youngsters have however created a base for themselves by working in litigation firms before embarking upon their own journey in litigation.
I was very clear when I entered the Bar that I wanted to be in the litigation field. I did work with Khaitan & Co. for a year, but on the litigation side, and moved over to the chambers of the Justice Arun Kumar (later a Judge of the Delhi High Court and of the Supreme Court) for almost 4 years. It was a great opportunity as he would trust us with the briefs in Court, and there was opportunity to argue at a very early stage in the profession. The Judges were considerate to us as youngsters and that helped break our hesitation in court. I must say, my interest in theatre/dramatics from my early years helped me in this process.
On being elevated as a Judge, I always kept in mind the opportunities I got, and considered it a duty of the judiciary to encourage young lawyers – but then they equally have the responsibility to be ready with briefs and to utilise the opportunities. The relationship between the seniors was also different, as even when I left the chambers of Justice Arun Kumar after four years, I would keep meeting him for guidance. What I notice today is that young lawyers are moving from one chamber to another very quickly. I believe it takes some time for a young lawyer to become useful to their chambers and in turn to imbibe not just litigation techniques but also learn some etiquette, norms of this profession, and ethics. Thus, the reputation of the chambers where you work also has a great significance.
I practised for almost 17½ years before I was designated as senior advocate at the age of 41. I took what I believed was the appropriate step of releasing matters from my Chambers and endeavouring to follow the norms of a senior counsel. I have no regrets because work came back in larger numbers. However, within a year’s time I was invited to join the Bench in a manner which I believed was right and I thus joined the Bench of the Delhi High Court at 42+.
I do believe that in order to facilitate judicial appointments, the offer must come to young and bright lawyers at the right age, the right way, and the appointments must be done quickly as one cannot expect them to keep their life on hold for years together. The financial emoluments of Judges have considerably improved since then but the lawyers are nevertheless earning much more. One has to sacrifices to come on the Bench. The delay in the appointment process, the glare of the media, and many such other factors at times take the form of discouragements for bright youngsters in accepting judgeship. I would say that while I have been able to persuade many to join the Bench, there were others who were not persuaded. But I have always tried, and never thought of it as an affront if one declines the judgeship. Efforts should always be towards getting the best talent. After a long stint of 12 years as a Judge of the Delhi High Court with 4 years presiding the Bench, I was elevated as the Chief Justice of the Punjab & Haryana High Court where I worked for 14 months, and then shifted to the Madras High Court for 2 ½ years before I was elevated to the Supreme Court. The tasks of a Chief Justice are taxing but rewarding.
Many persons ask me whether I have enjoyed my days as a lawyer or as a Judge more. I would say that both periods of time have been satisfying and rewarding. My answer is given another opportunity, I would still live my life the same way.
You have written an article on mental health. What prompted you to write an article on such topic?
Mental health is an aspect of concern all over the world today. The challenges have been especially immense in the last two years as lives of people have been disturbed. It is prominent in the legal field as well where litigation methods have had to change. However, people have not necessarily acknowledged this, perhaps out of fear for the consequences. We normally acknowledge prosperous lawyers but at the same time there are many in the legal field who find it difficult to make their ends meet. It has been a challenging time for young lawyers. The legal field is such that there is a very small percentage at the top and very little in the middle.
I wrote the article as an attempt to initiate a conversation, to make people overcome their discomfort with the idea of at least talking about mental health. The harsh competitiveness of the legal profession which leads to the endeavour for survival is really the root cause of mental health issues.
In your early days as a law student and then as a lawyer was mental health spoken about?
No, no one used to talk about it freely. But in the old days, life was simpler. Television was hardly there and Colour TV came in even later. It was also far less competitive. People were satisfied with what they were able to achieve. There is more competitiveness in every field now, including the legal field.
Do you think there is something fundamentally amiss somewhere over here which has changed?
The society has many different perspectives and changes have been very rapid. Thinking processes have changed. The legal fraternity is always in a hurry and does not want to spend time learning the grassroots. Competitiveness to earn more money is also higher. The litigation field pays less, and at times needs family backing during the period when you are growing in the field. Everyone cannot afford it. The profession pays disproportionately lesser in the beginning but pays disproportionately more later. But that is how the litigation field works. With law firms coming in however, there is now some support to a section of the youngsters, giving them access to better emoluments even after if they don’t have financial backing.
It is a more commercial society now. From the concept of ‘need’, slowly there is a move to what can be called ‘greed’ till such time you realise it is of no use. The two years of Covid-19 should have taught us that. But the global scenario seems to say otherwise. Every generation sees the world change in their lifetimes, but I believe that my generation has seen a pace of change not witnessed before.
Do you think we have enough support system to tackle the situation and how important is support from the family in dealing with mental health issues and can there be a safety net?
I believe that the foremost and the most immediate support system is our family. Therefore, it is extremely important that the family accepts mental health as an issue, while also believing that it is something that can be tackled. I am sure most problems can be resolved, but there are families who would not like to get such issues to be disclosed in the first place. In any case, it is always encouraging to see families who offer support and ensure to provide a safe family net. Earlier a lot of cushioning used to be provided by the joint family system, which is not available anymore with the advent of nuclear families.
I strongly consider that society must evolve. It is common practice to take medicine if you have a cold. If you have a more serious issue, you take appropriate medication. Why is it so difficult to acknowledge that somebody may have higher sensitivities requiring special assistances?
You have mentioned at CAN-GNLU webinar that “Every society must have opinions and point of view. The debasement however is in the manner of dissent. These differences of views should be set forth in a manner which conveys it as a different.” Do you think that we have all become extremely fixed in our views and the extent that we go in countering dissent or even a different point of view, contributes to a worsening mental health?
Everybody is bound to have an opinion. There could be differences of opinion within the family as well. What is the problem?
The last few years have seen a very strong posturing of opinions to the extent where discussion of politics at the dinner table has become difficult. Persons across the political spectrum today express their opinion expecting reactions from others. And this issue is getting aggravated with newer technological methods of communication.
The divide occurs in the terms in which one expresses their opinion. I have always felt that we can differ. For example, I always say that a Judge renders his opinion but there is no finality to it. There is no necessity that this has to be the right one. Maybe my view tomorrow changes on a rethinking of the whole process. That is the beauty of the legal profession – that we are always been intellectually challenged and forced to evolve. Dissent has its own value too. Everybody starts becoming particular about dissent and some become overly sensitive on its expression.
You have been a former Chief Justice of Madras High Court and Punjab and Haryana High Court. In this professional journey, have you ever faced any difficulty in being accepted due to cultural differences in various regions?
We live in a diverse society and we need to understand that there are cultural differences. We are more diverse than the whole of Europe taken together. Our acceptance of the diversity of cultures solves a lot of issues. I have tried to adopt this practice as well.
There are different terminologies employed in different regions. I have learnt a lot during my stint as the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. The paramount lesson is to follow the mores and protocol of a particular place. The thought processes are different in the Southern and Northern regions of India perhaps owing to historical differences. In some ways I find people in South India to be more grounded. They may take time in accepting an outsiders, but once they accept you, they are very warm.
I believe that if you enjoy your work, you will find satisfaction in it and not treat it as a burden. I have enjoyed each phase of my life. In my entire judicial career, I must say Chennai was the most challenging and the most satisfying as well. Challenges were purely in terms of differing systems, and not due to the place. However, my colleagues in the judiciary backed me the whole way and the Bar also ultimately came around. I have always found that communication solves a lot of problems.
What according to you could be the reasons for stigma around mental health when it comes to law students, lawyers or even Judges?
I think there is a general stigma in the society as a whole. The legal system is only a part of it. It is perhaps more difficult to accept in the legal profession because of the perceived consequences. I however find that there is always a fear of the unknown, but the society keeps changing.
In terms of mitigating that stigma, it is important to talk about it and accept it. This is especially remarkable as the last few years have been particularly challenging for everyone.
We at SCC are trying to spread awareness about mental health. How do you think we as part of the legal profession or just even as part of society contribute to help reduce stigma around mental health?
When SCC brings this aspect into focus and when you start a process of thinking, I am sure there will be an acknowledgement that this problem exists. I always believe that the first step is to accept that there is a problem which exists. After identifying the same, you can find a solution to every problem if you first believe in its existence and not live in denial.
How do you remain mentally healthy?
I have never felt that there is any perfection that I can achieve. I tackle problems as they come. It is important to be decisive and to take calls on issues as they arise and then go on to do our jobs to the best of our ability.
If I keep looking towards a Platonic ideal, I will never be able to keep my mental health in place. Life is a passage which we must go along with and enjoy. One needs to find satisfaction in what one already has. A number of problems in the world arise because we look to what others have and we do not. Competition is raising our expectations. But as an epilogue, I would like to add that keeping healthy is also important – as I have learnt a little late in the day!