Sleeping beauty

WATCHING some geriatric gentlemen in black coats hobble into courtrooms with walking sticks and hearing aids, I used to wonder if there should be some retirement age for members of the Bar as there is for those on the Bench.

But there can never be a consensus on this because there are many old legal eagles who keep flapping their well-worn gowns and continue to perform their roles as senior counsel admirably even after spending 90 calendar years on Planet Earth.

As a junior at the Bombay High Court Bar, I sometimes witnessed ancient counsel struggling to be audible to the Bench and barely able to hear and comprehend questions posed by milords.

Their assisting counsel had the unenviable task of being their ‘loudspeakers’ as well as their ‘interpreters’. It was certainly not a pleasant sight to behold.

By and large, the milords did not lose either temper or patience out of deference to these fair-haired legal practitioners of yore but one could surmise that they were irritated.

Why do they come to the court daily for a few hours to doze off in the bar rooms?” I would wonder.

But some of them had been empanelled as senior or special counsel for the state or Union. They occasionally had some ageing brief to keep them company.

Once, I was appearing for a writ petitioner before the late Justice Bakhtavar Lentin. The senior panel counsel appearing in that case for the respondent, Union of India, was one such ‘vintage model’ who could barely walk, read or hear.

As we waited patiently in Justice Lentin’s courtroom for our case to be called out, my opponent fell fast asleep. When I noticed that milord was observing him from the dais, I tried to nudge the vintage learned friend’s shoulder to wake him up.

Justice Lentin, however, signaled me to let the senior sleep. I resumed reading my brief.

After a while, our case was called out from the cause list. I got up, stepped forward and gave my appearance. The judge asked me who was appearing for the respondent. I pointed to the sleeping beauty in the second row.

Justice Lentin: “Let him enjoy his well-deserved slumber.”

Then, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, he added: “We may be able to get this done much quicker without his assistance.”

And so the whole matter was heard for around thirty minutes. All relevant documents were perused, including the affidavit filed by the respondent. Thus far, everything was sailing quite smoothly.

But the learned judge wanted to see the notification which had been relied upon by the Union of India in its reply but had not been annexed to it. So he looked at me almost apologetically and said: “I am afraid we will have to wake him up now.”

I volunteered to shake the sleeping senior awake but the kind judge said: “Let me try!”

Judge: “Mr Shah.”

(No response.)

Judge (loudly): “Mr Shah!”

(Still no response.)

Exasperated, the judge almost shouted: “Mr Shah!”

(At this, Mr Shah let out a loud snore … as if he was responding to some roll call being taken in his dream.)

The learned judge then quite reluctantly turned to me and said: “You may do the needful now.”

As I vigorously shook Mr Shah’s shoulder, he slowly opened his eyes, looked at me, and asked aloud: “Has our matter reached?”

Then, before I could answer, he rose from his chair with great difficulty with the assistance of the departmental clerk who was attending court with the relevant file. Moving ahead to address the learned judge he rattled off the standard magic mantra of all government pleaders: “I need two weeks’ time to take instructions.”

The judge smiled benignly and replied: “We have gone slightly past that stage, Mr Shah. I just need to see the notification mentioned by you in your affidavit-in-reply.”

Counsel Shah was gazing blankly into space. I could perceive that he was almost in a meditative trance.

Seeing no response forthcoming from my opponent, I informed the learned judge that the file he was seeking was with the departmental clerk standing behind Mr Shah.

Thereupon, the judge asked for it, turned a few pages, found what he was looking for, satisfied himself and returned the file to the clerk.

There was still no response or reaction from Mr Shah, who by now had a beatific smile on his face. Probably, he was experiencing something akin to self-realisation.

Justice Lentin then called for his stenographer and dictated a speaking Order allowing my client’s writ petition at the stage of admission.

However, before parting with the papers in his usual kind manner, he inquired from Mr Shah: “Would you like me to add anything?”

Counsel Shah: “Milord may note my appearance and observe that I argued vehemently.”

Justice Lentin chuckled, nodded and acceded to Shah’s request. All of us exchanged knowing glances with big smiles on our faces.

As we were leaving the learned judge remarked: “That’s the advantage of so many years of practice and seniority. One can argue vehemently even with eyes shut!”

Those present in court enjoyed that quip. I still recall it and it brings a smile to my face.

Counsel Shah was by then looking very relaxed and fresh. The court rose for the day. Shah hobbled to the Bar room for his well-earned cup of tea. My client too went home in good spirits.

I really miss those good old days and pleasant judges like Justice B. Lentin.

The Leaflet