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Justice Mandavli

Time is money for all professionals. In many countries, the concept of ‘billable hours’ is well established. Thus, the amount you pay a professional is supposed to be commensurate with the time the professional spends on the work. This is true for the medical as well as the legal professions.

In our country, except in the commercial capital and big metros, the concept of billable hours has not really taken off. Fixed fees or lump sum charges are still the order of the day.

In the good old days, there was trust and honesty between counsel and clients. I remember reading an anecdote about how M.A. Jinnah, who used to charge around 200 ‘gold mohurs’ (₹ 3,000) per hour for reading case papers, had asked his client to deposit ₹9,000 as he had estimated three hours of reading time but returned ₹1,500 to the client later saying he had actually finished reading whatever was necessary in two and a half hours!

Integrity and honesty of that kind made people acknowledge our profession as a ‘noble profession’.

Another story about Jinnah is that once when a winning client told the solicitor that he wished to pay much more to counsel Jinnah than what he had marked, the solicitor conveyed this to Jinnah… only to be reminded that professionals take only their fees, not baksheesh!

Jinnah politely declined to accept anything beyond his marked fee, irrespective of how much the client had benefited monetarily as a result of his advocacy.

Times have changed drastically.

A milord from the Bombay High Court who had retired as the Chief Justice of another High Court soon established himself as a popular arbitrator in the metropolis. We can call him Justice Mandavli.

As his workload increased, Justice Mandavli raised his fees in a bid to control the inflow. As he grew older, he began to keep indifferent health. Thereafter, he started accepting only high-stake matters for arbitration and charging very high fees.

Still, people preferred him as an arbitrator because he was a very fair and pleasant fellow and his reputation for integrity was better than others in the market.

My friend, a solicitor, was representing one of the parties to a property dispute. It was between two rich relatives. The learned judge hearing it in the high court suggested that the parties resolve the dispute amicably by mediation with the help of some seasoned milord of good reputation.

Both sides agreed to appoint Justice Mandavli as their mediator. He demanded ₹10 lakh as his “reading fees”. It was promptly given. Both sides shared the cost 50:50 as was the general norm.

Then their ordeal started. Justice Mandavli used to call both sides, making them wait for hours in his waiting hall while he was busy inside his conference chamber.

He would then come out for two minutes only to say: “Let’s meet some other day. I haven’t been able to go through your papers yet.”

Justice Mandavli also magnanimously turned down the offer from the solicitors to pay his fees even for those unproductive dates.

Out of the question. Though you have been sitting in my office for two hours, I do not treat it as a billable sitting. So don’t bother at all about the fees.”

With no fees having to be paid even for the tea served at those ‘waitings’ held at regular intervals in Justice Mandavli’s office, the clients on both sides did not mind it.

In fact, during those long waits, the ice on their frozen relationship thawed and they started talking. After a few more sessions, Justice Mandavli once again came out and gave the same excuse of not having had time to read the mediation papers because he was just too busy with high-stake arbitrations.

As both sides were relatives, they used these waiting sessions to resolve the whole dispute among themselves through dialogue and told their lawyers to draw up ‘consent terms’ with a view to work out their pending suit amicably.

They then asked their solicitors: “Since Justice Mandavli has not had time to read our brief will he not return the reading fee we deposited if we tell him we have settled our dispute?”

The solicitors were embarrassed to ask the judge but agreed that an honourable judge like Justice Mandavli who did not treat their numerous waitings as billable sittings, would certainly return the reading fee as admittedly he had not been able to read their case papers.

The solicitors on both sides were inwardly hoping to lay their hands on a good chunk of the ₹10 lakh which Justice Mandavli would return.

On the next date fixed for the mediation, the lawyers and their clients carried a box of mithai and waited in the outer hall where they were always told to wait.

But this time they requested Justice Mandavli’s secretary for an audience with Justice Mandavli for just five minutes. Their message was duly carried into the conference room.

When Justice Mandavli came out they thanked him profusely and announced that they had settled the matter amicably.

Justice Mandavli looked genuinely pleased. He graciously accepted the mithai box and playfully chided them: “Why did you not telephone me and give me this good news as soon as you decided to settle? You could have saved the 10 lakhs you had given me, you know!”

The clients and their lawyers looked perplexed.

Justice Mandavli continued: “I started reading your file just the day before yesterday… and I finished reading it last night.”

His visitors did not know what to say to that! As they took his leave, Justice Mandavli mouthed this dialogue from his favourite film Mughal-E-Azam: “Salim bagair jung ke kaamyaab hai.” (Salim has emerged victorious without battle!)

The clients and the lawyers understood this in a slightly different manner.

They thought it meant: Mandavli had pocketed their ₹10 lakh without reading their brief!

The Leaflet