My lady

NOT too long ago, it used to be fashionable for those who could afford it to ‘import’ a counsel from another place to argue a case locally.

As part of this practice, a senior practitioner from the district court would be taken to subordinate courts, a high court senior counsel would be taken to district courts and a Supreme Court senior counsel would be taken to various high courts.

This practice still continues but is no longer as rampant as it used to be.

In those days, the most sought after lawyers for making such ‘guest appearances’ anywhere in India were the ‘Bombay lawyers’.

Even non-designated senior lawyers from Bombay were much in demand for appearances before tribunals and courts in other states.

This story is about one such counsel from Bombay. He was a Parsi and had an average original side practice by Bombay standards. He mostly got second briefs to assist designated seniors.

To diversify, he used to take up some appellate side work in the Bombay High Court and was also available for outstation engagements.

He had two things going for him: an impressive personality, being fair and tall, and a command over spoken English. These attributes were often sufficient in those days to impress subordinate court judges.

Once, a junior counsel from Delhi decided to engage this Bombay counsel to lead him in a matter listed before the Tis Hazari Court. The client had wanted a “Bambai ka vakeel” and this second-rung Parsi counsel with an impressive appearance and fluent English had seemed a perfect choice to the Punjabi briefing counsel and his advocate on record (AOR) from Delhi.

The counsel was duly flown in from Bombay the previous day and put up at a good hotel.

He had read the brief thoroughly and impressed the clients in a conference by his overall demeanour and speech though they could not understand much of what was exchanged between the AOR, the local briefing junior counsel and this imported senior counsel.

The senior counsel wanted as much information as was available about the judge before whom he would be arguing the next day.

He was duly informed by the briefing counsel that the judge was a lady. She did not suffer fools kindly, was a no-nonsense judge and knew her law. She was respected by the Bar.

Is she also a Punjabi like you?” the senior counsel inquired from the briefing counsel.

No, sir. She too is from Punjab. But she is a pucca (proper) Sardarni.”

The counsel nodded, “Okay. Let us see how it goes tomorrow.”

As he settled down to get a good night’s rest in the hotel room, the Parsi counsel wondered how to impress a Sardarni in the Tis Hazari District Court.

Would it be desirable to address her as ‘Your Honour’?

But that was so common. He must do something to impress upon her that he had been specially brought from the illustrious Bombay High Court. How to make that evident right at the outset?

At last, he decided to address the lady judge in the usual manner in which senior counsels addressed the sole lady justice then on the Bench in the Bombay High Court.

He decided to give this Tis Hazari judge an imaginary ‘high’ of elevation by addressing her as: ‘My Lady!’ With this happy thought, he fell fast asleep.

The additional district judge was an orthodox Sardarni and she sat with her head covered by a traditional scarf.

When the case was called out, the Parsi senior counsel from Bombay began his arguments in an anglicised, stentorian voice by addressing her as “My Lady”.

She seemed taken aback.

But oblivious to her evident discomfort, the counsel rambled on about how the point he was making had evolved under the English common law.

The lady judge came from a conservative background.

The AOR and briefing counsel had noticed that she was showing signs of discomfort every time the Parsi counsel referred to her as “My Lady”, which was happening after almost every sentence.

Fortunately, the lunch recess intervened and diffused an imminent explosion.

During the recess, the lady judge summoned the briefing junior counsel who was a regular from Tis Hazari into her chamber and angrily admonished him, saying:

Ye kis angrez ki aulaad ko pakad kar laaye ho yahaan?”

She wanted to know who this foreigner-type counsel who kept calling her “My Lady” all the time was.

Uss badtameez ko kya ye bhi pataa nahin ki judges ko kaise address kiya jaata hai?” (Does that mannerless fellow not know how to address judges?).

She warned the briefing counsel to convey to the “angrez ki aulaad” (child of the English) that the next time he addressed her as ‘My Lady’, she would haul him up for contempt!

The terrified briefing counsel rushed to relay the threat to the senior counsel who was relishing a good, meaty lunch.

The senior counsel, fearing contempt action if ‘My Lady’ slipped out of his mouth as per habit, said he would rather pack his bag right away and run back to his safe haven in Bombay than having to face the wrath of a wounded Sardarni judge in the court.

There were strong rumours at the Bar that this Parsi counsel was being considered for elevation to the Bombay High Court. That was also a reason why his briefings had increased.

He could certainly not risk a contempt notice under any circumstances. Considering discretion to be the better part of valour, he rushed back to the airport and took the next flight to Bombay vowing never to appear before this lady judge again!

He didn’t have to. The rumours turned out to be true and he was soon elevated as an additional judge of the Bombay High Court. The Sardarni lady judge retired as a district judge in due course.

The Parsi senior counsel who had escaped her wrath retired as a Chief Justice of India.