A very important person in any direct practitioner’s life is his registered court clerk.
Without this special breed of conjurers cases can neither be filed nor listed.
I was lucky that I got to work with the best and the worst of them.
After my senior dictated a petition to the steno he only indicated when he wanted it placed before the court.
Proofing, checking draft, fair typing on ledger paper with correct spacing and margins, putting all the exhibits and annexures in order, doing the pagination, getting the paperbook stitched and ready for affirmation, affirming it, lodging in the registry, getting a lodging number, getting the case assigned to a court associate for checking, removing the office objections, if any, raised by the checking associate, getting the case finally numbered and then mentioning it before the appropriate court for circulation on the day indicated by the senior..all these were to be done by the clerk and the juniors.
Our clerk himself had four junior clerks as understudies and he occupied a pride of place in the clerk’s room.
Let me call him Mr.Bigmani.
In our very first meeting Mr. Bigmani told me:
“I have trained twelve judges”.
I was wondering whether he lectured at some judicial academy, when he explained that twelve lawyers whose filing clerk Bigmani was, had made it to the Bombay High Court bench..and one had made it even to the Supreme Court!
Bigmani was a magician in the Bombay HC board department.
But he needed big money to perform big magic.
He could get affidavits affirmed from associates in the absence of deponents, conjure up cases on the board bypassing the mentioning and circulation process, make our opponents’ cases disappear from a judge’s board if the boss felt insecure or unsure about a particular judge.
Bigmani seldom failed in his assignments but I propose to narrate in some detail just one instance where our collective efforts almost came a cropper.
We were representing an activist bank officer of Canara Bank who had been an officer-director on the Board of Directors.
He was sought to be departmentally proceeded against by the Bank for misconduct soon after his term as a Director was over for allegedly leaking some sensitive minutes of the board’s meetings to his agitating colleagues from the Officers Association.
We had challenged the action mainly on the ground that the ‘Officers Service Rules’ did not apply to Directors and hence his actions as a Director could not be faulted and consequentially he could not be penalised under those rules.
The Writ Petition had been admitted and its hearing had been expedited.
There was also an interim relief restraining the Bank from proceeding with the threatened disciplinary action against the petitioner.
Admitted writ petitions in those days were listed on the final hearing board after 3-4 years, unlike the 10-15 years that the same process takes nowadays in the Bombay High Court.
The Bombay High Court in those days had very good judges like Justice Sujata Manohar, Justice P.B.Sawant, Justice C.S.Dharmadhikari, Justice M.L Pendse, Justice S.P. Bharucha, Justice S.P. Kurdukar and Justice Bakhtavar Lentin to name just a few.
Our petition had been admitted and interim relief had been granted by Justice Kurdukar.
After a few years it got listed at the bottom of the final hearing board before the same judge.
Naturally, my senior and more importantly the senior advocate engaged by us as counsel were keen to have the case finally heard by the judge who had prima facie found merit in our matter.
Unfortunately, the weekly final hearing board was always taken up after the day’s urgent admission matters were over.
With a judge like Justice Kurdukar who patiently heard every matter for admission, that meant that the final hearing board would hardly ever start on many days.
Even if it did, unless one’s case was listed very high on the final hearing cause list i.e. within the first five matters, the chances of it being heard during the assignment were quite remote.
Thus, our clerk Bigmani was tasked with getting our matter which had moved only from number 28 to 21 in four weeks on the final hearing board of Justice Kurdukar to make a record breaking jump into the top five matters listed before that judge.
Bigmani, like a seasoned fixer, first had a discussion with the board-makers.
Everything was done manually those days.
Computerisation was still far away in the future.
The board-makers advised that the jump ought to be a triple jump spread over the next three weeks so as not to invite undue attention and set tongues wagging.
Thus the matter hopped, skipped and jumped to serial nos.17,11 and six by the seventh week.
We were watching the board with bated breath..because an assignment typically used to last around eight to nine weeks in the BHC.
Unfortunately, when the hearing board had reached no.5, the assignments changed.
The single bench writ assignment went to Justice Pendse.
He was known as a superfast, no-nonsense judge.
Which meant that our case would get called out before him in the first week itself!
And that was the last thing our designated senior counsel wanted!
He was extremely diffident about arguing the matter before the new judge.
Even my senior felt that we would lose the case before this judge.
Once again, I was promptly despatched to our clerk Mr.Bigmani.
Now, the assignment was to do exactly the reverse of what had been assigned to him earlier.
He was to either make our case disappear from the list completely, or at least to push our case to the bottom of the final hearing list.
Bigmani once again demanded big money.
But it was worth it as the man was a magician.
Our case, which had crawled almost to the top of Justice Kurdukar’s cause list was made to vanish from Justice Pendse’s final hearing cause list.
However, our joy was short-lived.
Our opponents mentioned the matter before Justice Pendse very tactfully without blaming anyone.
They simply pointed out that one case had “inadvertently” not been listed after the change in judicial assignment and the registry may kindly be told to look into it.
It was quite obvious that the respondents fancied their chances before Justice Pendse while the petitioner did not.
Therefore, while the former wanted the case to be heard by the judge the latter were hoping it wouldn’t.
The respondents’ attorneys had their in-house clerks and they were no doubt put to work.
But no one in those days was as big as Mr.Bigmani.
Once again, big money changed hands in the board department and in the following week our case did get listed but it was listed at sr.no.50 which was last on board!
The problem was that Justice Pendse could easily polish off 10 final hearing cases in a week with judgments after completing his daily urgent admissions board.
This meant that in four to five weeks our case could still be heard!
Sure enough, after four weeks, our case had moved up the causelist to no.12.
Thirty-eight cases had been disposed of and 38 others from the queue were added behind ours.
The final hearing list usually used to be fixed at 50 by the judge.
It was then that in the following week our clerk Bigmani waved his magic wand again.
On that Monday, our case suddenly slipped down the final hearing board from no.12 and showed up at no. 48 as if some snake in a ‘Snakes & Ladders’ game had swallowed it!
Our arguing counsel was most relieved.
He would not stop singing praises of Bigmani.
Then, on Monday night I got a desperate call in the evening from Bigmani.
“Justice Pendse has listed our case at Sr.No.1 tomorrow under the caption ‘For Directions’.
Please inform Sir and the Senior Counsel.”
I did what he had asked.
Sir and Senior Counsel must’ve spent a sleepless night!
The next morning the Senior Counsel did not come to the High Court saying he had fever.
My senior too was reluctant to go to Justice Pendse’s court that day.
Therefore, I was told to “attend” the “Directions” matter and simply relay those directions back to my senior.
In the courtroom, the respondents were present with their full team.
I was the only one from our side.
Luckily, the petitioner was personally present.
Unluckily, he looked like a cunning, crafty fellow and kept grinning at everyone for no rhyme or reason.
The judge took his seat and our matter was called out.
Although the “advocate on record” in this case was my senior, he was not present and I was “holding the brief” for him.
I said I was appearing..and also that the petitioner was present.
I informed the judge that my senior was held up and our senior counsel, engaged to argue the matter, had reported sick.
The judge was looking mighty annoyed but did not start venting his ire on me like many judges routinely vent on juniors nowadays.
He only asked me if I had read the brief.
I answered in the affirmative.
The judge smiled and said he had too!
He said he always watched his final hearing board very carefully and read all matters likely to reach for final hearing.
Therefore, he had read our matter and was looking forward to hearing it but instead of moving up it had slipped right down.
Hence he had had it placed for ‘Directions’ as he intended to hear the same in that week itself.
He however said we could choose any day out of the next three working days!
He asked me to inform the associate our choice of day after consulting our senior counsel.
Before parting he added: “If your counsel is still sick, please ask the advocate on record to make other arrangements or be ready to argue the case himself. No adjournment will be granted”.
Outside the courtroom my senior was anxiously waiting to know what had transpired.
He was pretty cool about it when I narrated what had happened but our senior counsel was now furious at the “failure” of Bigmani.
I tried to tell him that the Hon’ble judge himself watched his board but got shouted at for trying to defend the clerk.
Bigmani was unfazed when I told him that the counsel was furious.
“Woh ek number ka darpoke hai.
Apne case ke liye Justice Pendse hee achha hai”
I asked him what made him think that?
He told me that the highly respected senior advocate briefed by the Bank in our matter had lost three good cases in the last two weeks before this judge by trying to act “oversmart” and that the judge did not like him much.
On the other hand, our senior counsel’s father was very highly respected by this judge.
So in all probability, we would win!
I conveyed Bigmani’s analysis to my senior.
He told me to keep it to myself but he somehow persuaded our most diffident and reluctant senior counsel to attend Justice Pendse’s court and argue our case.
As you may have guessed by now, we won that case.
Bigmani was right on the money even with his predictions.