A younger member of the bar reflects on Justice Indu Malhotra’s guidance on how a junior lawyer can approach the profession as she completes her time in the Supreme Court of India. PRASTUT DALVI writes on her wise counsel and journey from advocate to judge that allowed her to keep the connection between the bar and the bench alive.
I WILL never forget my first appearance before the Supreme Court of India. For my debut, I was to mention a brief before a bench comprising Justice Indu Malhotra. It was a typical day in court. However, in my great enthusiasm to enter the courtroom, I was smacked in the face by the infamous door curtains of the Supreme Court. The courtroom was jam-packed with black gowns, and I had to struggle to join the mentioning queue.
Upon my turn, I requested Justice Malhotra to consider my prayer for urgent listing. It was turned down, though most courteously. Once again, I had to find my way back through the ocean of lawyers, but now it was with a smile.
A junior’s career at the bar begins with mentioning, obtaining pass-overs, and seeking adjournments, and Justice Malhotra was always kind enough to accommodate junior lawyers, one way or another. I have witnessed juniors seeking a pass-over or adjournment and Justice Malhotra encouraging them to argue the matter at length. One could sense the joy of juniors on hearing the golden words, “notice and stay,” which she reserved for the deserving ones.
My next appearance before Justice Malhotra was an eventful one. It was a final hearing at the end of the regular board. She was leading the bench. According to my estimate, the matter was not likely to be heard on that day. I was soon proved wrong. Just as the board crashed, I started reading my brief more sincerely.
Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my client, my matter was called out with hours to spare before the bench called it a day. I looked at my senior friend on the other side and thought to myself, “God bless my client.”
Empathising with my hesitation to address the court, Justice Malhotra, in her assuring comportment, asked me to proceed with my case. Like an amateur, I read out the impugned order, page by page and word for word. Justice Malhotra, in her inimitable way, tried to make sense of my arguments. “Would you like to read this document?” “Would you like to show us this page?” were her words as she made sure I stood some chance in the case.
When I appeared before her as a new lawyer, she made sure my case stood some chance. She guided me and declared the hearing ‘part-heard’. Her encouragement gave me the confidence I needed to conclude the hearing the next day. Although my case was dismissed, this was the second time I left the courtroom with a smile.
Justice Malhotra made the job easy for juniors at the bar. She made the court environment comfortable for newbies like me and made sure we imbibed the values and traditions of the noble legal profession.
Justice Malhotra’s contribution to the evolution of arbitration jurisprudence is particularly noteworthy. Some of her landmark judgements in this sphere of practice include:
- Government of India vs Vedanta Limited, 2020, where the law of limitation in the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards was clarified.
- NN Global Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. vs Indo Unique Flame Ltd. and Others, 2021, addressing the doctrine of separability of an arbitration agreement and the fate of unstamped underlying contracts on the arbitration agreement.
- In the most recent judgment delivered on 10 March, BSNL vs Nortel Networks India Pvt Ltd, Justice Malhotra held that the period of limitation for applying under section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, is three years from the date on which the right to apply accrues.
Justice Indu Malhotra’s journey from lawyer to advocate-on-record, and from senior counsel to the first woman judge of the Supreme Court is truly inspirational to all young guns at the bar. It is this journey that kept the connection between the bar and the bench alive.
Justice Malhotra’s humanitarian approach and independent views reflect in her judgments. She touched many of our hearts by her judgment in Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India, 2018. Her words, “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries,” are etched in our memories.
The independence of her mind is evident from her dissenting view in the Sabarimala temple case, Indian Young Lawyers Association vs State of Kerala, 2019.
As a younger member of the bar, I am always reminded of Justice Malhotra’s wise words on what should be a junior’s approach towards his work. She said: “You must always be in the state of preparedness. There are a lot of opportunities that come to you by default; don’t miss those out. Especially in the Supreme Court, you grow by these defaults.”
We were fortunate to have our “default” moments before her as she graciously allowed us to grow. We, the junior members of the bar bid farewell to Justice Malhotra and shall forever remain indebted to her support and encouragement while we find our feet in the profession.
(Prastut Dalvi is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.)