The bar has its own way of judging the judges; farewells are a time when lawyers speak frankly and many expression opinions which they would not dare express when the judge was on the bench. But occasionally, junior lawyers pay tributes which matter, after all, juniors feel they are discriminated against by most judges. This tribute is therefore doubly significant not only because the author is a junior lawyer but also because he represents the voice of the marginalised.

 

JUSTICE Bhushan P Dharmadhikari the 44th Chief Justice of Bombay High Court held his last sitting on April 27, 2020. Breaking the convention he decided to retire from Nagpur instead of Principal Seat at Bombay. He will be missed dearly by young lawyers, and more importantly by lawyers who come from marginalized communities and find this profession challenging for more reasons as against high castes, high class.

I have no doubt that there are many more who share the same affection towards him. I will and many more may have principle differences with him, but there will be no dispute that he was one of the most respected judges.

In the times when punctuality is much desired than practised, it was the court of Justice Dharmadhikari which would assemble 30 seconds before time. Athletic built, tall, determined look, shining face and with ever radiating energy he would enter the court hall. With the customary bow, he would take his chair with his companion judge.

Leaning forward, advancing his right hand for the brief, in sharp voice and signature command “Yes Mister!” he would ask the counsel to open the case. Once started, every matter would see some effective hearing, the matter would see some progress if not final disposal. Yet the board would end in the first half, most of the time.

Adjournment without good reason, you can imagine. Even heavy board, yet well-read. Well prepared with briefs. Respectful treatment to counsels and clients alike. No nonsense. If he is not convinced with your contentions, he will always ask if there is “anything else”. I had a run-in when he discarded four of my contentions one after other and yet again asked me if I had any other additional contention before he could reject the petition in limine. I dared and requested for an adjournment, he flatly refused “not after so much of argument”. I begged desperately “allow me to educate myself to see if there is any other facet in my favour, and come back to My Lords, even tomorrow would be kind”. Giving a good stare through his squeezed eyes holding flavour of disappointment, he agreed “alright! one last chance, but Mr Rathod no repetition, Friday!”. On that Friday, my additional contention found favour with him, however, he admonished “this should have been your first contention mister” he issued notices, eventually, another bench allowed my petition.

His ability to convey most, in the least words also educated many in formulating their submissions in a more crispy manner. Strict about procedures, he was kind to give departure only when injustice was writ large. There was nothing that could stop him from taking a bold decision, except perhaps he himself.

Granting acquittal in death penalty matters, directing demolition of places of worship built on the encroached property, directing action against perpetrator whether the person is highly placed government servant or some politician, he minced no words. At the same time, he has been extremely sensitive when it came to the issue of children and protecting them. He followed constitution religiously.

His courtroom was more a classroom for learners and has remained filled with them all the time. There were lessons, there were questions, there was admonition and then there was some material you must read back home, call it homework.

One could see him holding up even a grand old senior by his neck for committing a mistake or trying to argue impalpably incorrect proposition. Casual drafting, casual approach, or anything casual was not casually taken by him, making him one of the strictest judge.

Perhaps this was the best part of Justice Dharmadhikari. He indirectly, motivated juniors to push their limits. He offered them opportunities, exhibited patience, brought out best from them, never humiliated, never discouraged, corrected with care, admonished with affection, hardly caused any damage.

Many like me, gained the confidence to argue only because of him. His knack of getting young lawyers to come to the point when getting carried away has been awesome. Such was his reputation that, corridors whining was obvious “he unnecessary entertains juniors”, however never heard anyone saying that he does a favour to any particular person or tilts on any particular side.

I know of many judges who are very considerate with juniors or new entrants, of them Justice Dharmadhikari off course led with the baton. No matter how good senior you have, you learn court craft on your feet. The undeniable truth is young lawyers are nurtured by the bench, cultivated by self, cultured by the bar, and guided by seniors. All these ingredients put together to form into the experience and gradually that budding lawyer blossoms with his years of experience and become an integral part of the prestige of the institution.

I know how it feels to be dismissed, how it feels when you are discouraged, when a person of less or no calibre, is shipped to shore thanks to nepotism, while cannons remain loaded aimed at you to be shot as soon as you surface. Such experiences then breed kind of lawyers who turn bitter, headstrong and rude, at times abusive.

For some it is devastating. They lose heart, confidence and many even give up on the practice. Justice Dhamadhikari will hold lions share in grooming many lawyers who over the period could root themselves in the institution.

Justice Dharmadhikari after having illustrious practice as a lawyer spent over 15 years on the bench. His transfer owing to seniority to Bombay disappointed junior bar. When his becoming chief justice became obvious, many of us decided to appear before him at the principal bench.

We had made plans to attend his retirement ceremony. Unlike bar which bids farewell, we wanted to welcome him in the free world where we will be able to meet him without hesitation. Unfortunately, his elevation as chief and spread of pandemic collided. Lockdown apart from restricting movement has made people lose track of day or date, there is an invisible shadow of depression, sadness. While this prevailed with COVID-19, Justice Dharmadhikari retired quietly on 27th.

However, his retirement from Nagpur will bear witness to his journey which came to a full circle on that day. Starting as a struggling lawyer, becoming office-bearer of the bar association, establishing as one of the renowned counsel, getting elevated as a judge of that very high court, and then retiring as 44th Chief Justice from the same place he had begun from.

Born and brought up in Nagpur, he obtained his formal education and a law degree from Nagpur itself. Enrolled in 1980, he became a busy lawyer soon. Although a leader in every endeavour, he has always made it a point to encourage others to take the lead. Of many full benches he presided over, many of the judgments are authored by the junior-most on the bench.

Once confronted with this by senior bar member, he replied “they are the future of the institution, they must get such opportunities at the beginning and utilize our expertise to get it vetted out to fineness. I understand settling the law point and authoring full bench judgment has a certain importance, but I feel larger good lies in getting them to lead.”

There would be many judgments that would hold his quiver of credit forever. In a double murder case, where the trial court had convicted a Dalit man, finding him guilty of killing his two daughters, it was bench lead by Justice Dharmadhikari which acquitted him purely on factual consideration of the matter without going into applying ratios and judgments to aid his opinion.

He lay great emphasis on the constitutional morality and went on to hold, “when we stick to the cherished principles of – let thousands of guilty persons go unpunished, but, one innocent person should not be punished, or implement the principles of presumption of innocence, the same is on account of absolute faith of framers of Constitution reposed in us and acquiesced in by us when we accepted the Constitution of India and committed ourselves to honour it with words “We the people of India”.

He did not hesitate in acquitting or punishing people when he found merit worth it. His efforts to protect liberty and zealously so reflect from his actions, than mere words. Be the matter high profile or media sensation, he simply glued his pen to principles, evidence and material on records. His bold moves to acquit people sentenced to death, while holding sitting at Mumbai, brought him an image of being fearless and well-balanced adjudicator.

His scholarly contribution to jurisprudence cannot be capsulated in such a small space. The undeniable truth is that he shall remain to be an inspiration, motivator, a milestone, a legend. He will be part of many stories, many lives all of whom will wish him the best of health and another equally or more impressive second inning.

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