Conversation with Senior Advocate and Former Additional Solicitor General Mukul Rohatgi

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Bar & Bench Editor Pallavi Saluja spoke to Senior Advocate and Former Additional Solicitor General, Mukul Rohatgi. In this interview, he talks about his initial years as a lawyer, some of the interesting and challenging cases of his career so far and cases that he would like to argue. He also shares his thoughts on what goes into making a successful lawyer and the changes that he would like to bring into our current legal system.

Bar & Bench: What made you choose law as a career?

Mukul Rohatgi: My father was a lawyer and I grew up in that atmosphere. I found that it was quite exciting to see different cases. I used to hear my father speak about different disputes and cases and I thought it was quite challenging. So I took up law.

Bar & Bench: How were the initial years of your career?

Mukul Rohatgi: My initial years were as hard as they are now. I finished law from University of Mumbai and started working with Justice Sabharwal who later rose to be the Chief Justice of India. I worked with him in the High Court and he gave me lots of opportunities to do cases. I used to do a lot of cases on his behalf because he was a very successful lawyer and after about a year, I was doing five to seven cases every day. I worked in Justice Sabharwal’s chamber for almost three years before I started my own practice.

It was a lot of hard work. I used to leave home at seven in the morning and at that time there were no electronic gadgets like computer etc. and so one had to physically sit with the typist and dictate the urgent cases. In the evening, I used to work with Justice Sabharwal from four to seven, and after seven, I used to sit in my own office. The initial years were very hard and slowly, very slowly I began to get recognition, and kind of go from strength to strength. But I would also say that after you gain recognition and fame; the rigors of hard work don’t end. You get older but you are still always pressed for time. Even now I have a twelve-hour routine every day with half days on Saturdays and Sundays. I have never had a full day off whether it is a Saturday or a Sunday but it’s nice and challenging and I like it.

Bar & Bench: Sir, you are very quick with briefs. How do you manage with so many cases?

Mukul Rohatgi: See, reading briefs quickly and getting down to what are the one or two important points in a case is something which really comes by experience. I mean if you have done hundreds of cases, by and large you can divide cases into property issues, company issues or criminal cases. So, by and large, the floor plan is similar. So getting down to the bottom of the case is much easier because you have done a huge number of cases and the more you do, the more experience you get. It is like a doctor who sees 500 patients a day; he can immediately tell what the problem is. I must have done more than ten thousand cases by now. This only comes by experience and there is no other way.

Bar & Bench: What advice would you give to young lawyers?

Mukul Rohatgi: There is only one way to success and that is hard work. The ability to think on your feet and to be respectful to the court is very important and you should not fight with the court. You must realize that you are there because of a client and you don’t have a personal issue with the judge. So you have to get the best out of the court and it can only be if you are courteous and respectful to the court.

Hard work is the only way to success and you should not take short cuts or tell half-truths because your reputation will go a long way if you are truthful. Basically, it is all about burning the midnight oil.

Bar & Bench: Could you tell us about the most interesting and challenging case in your career so far?

Mukul Rohatgi: It’s very difficult to say. I have done thousands of cases but one very important order, which I remember, was from the Supreme Court in regard to the Jharkhand Assembly case, when the Speaker was not calling the Assembly for a floor test because the Speaker was reluctant. We moved the Supreme Court asking the Court to look into what the Speaker was doing. The three senior most judges of the Supreme Court, in a remarkable order, directed the Speaker to call the Assembly and have a floor test so that the democratically elected government comes to power and that was done. The government was then sworn in.

There was a lot of criticism about the order… that the court was entrenching upon the field of the legislature etc.

Bar & Bench: Is there any case you feel that you should have argued?

Mukul Rohatgi: I would like to argue all challenging cases. One case, which I would have liked to argue, was the Right to Education Act but I was not involved in that case. That I think was a very important case.

Another one, which I would like to argue, is the Presidential reference in the 2G matter. I think I will get a brief on that from the telecom sector.

Bar & Bench: What goes into making a successful lawyer?

Mukul Rohatgi: As they say, law is a jealous mistress. Single-minded devotion and at least 12 to 14 hours a day of hard work, integrity and doing the best for your client by being courteous to the court is what makes a successful lawyer. I think if anybody follows these 3-4 principles then regardless of the troubles you face ultimately you will succeed. But there are no shortcuts. That is the long and short of it.

Bar & Bench: If you were to make changes in our current legal system, what would those be?

Mukul Rohatgi: Firstly, I would abolish a huge number of laws, rules, regulations that are obsolete. One such rule, which comes to my mind, is the Bombay Prohibition Act, which was created in 1960s. I was reading about that rave party in Mumbai, in which people were arrested. Now they are going to be charged under the Bombay Prohibition Act, which is obsolete. It came at the time of prohibition and sought to restrict consumption of liquor but in the last 40 years Bombay, like any other metropolitan city, has changed. Anyone can go to a bar or restaurant and have a drink. This Act has never been enforced and today, to enforce an antiquated law, which is not in circulation, is entirely unfair since it would infringe the right to liberty of such people. This is one example. There is huge number of such laws. A lot of them are pre-Partition laws made under the British rule. The Law Commission should have abolished these laws by now. I think a committee should be appointed and we should do it in 2 or 3 years. Make a list of all central laws and then do it state wise. Abolish these laws, make things clearer and certain rather than more obscure.

Second, you have to cut out a huge number of appeals, revisions and reviews that are available in our procedural laws because our procedural laws are more than a 100 years old. They have been curtailed somewhat but not fully. In other words, a case of recovery of Rs. 1-2 lakh which is not much today, can actually go up to the Supreme Court which means 3 or 4 appeals and revisions. It’s a huge waste of judicial time, so those appeals have to be curtailed keeping in view the subject matter. If the subject matter is important regardless of the monetary aspect it should go all the way up to the Supreme Court but mere monetary amounts should not be allowed to go up all the way. So these have to be curtailed.

Three, there must be a legal audit of the system and of the persons who man the system. Today, the High Courts, because of their Constitutional position, are not really answerable to anybody, much less the people. How many cases does a judge dispose off? The judge of a High Court very often remains in that post for 15 years, but no one knows how many cases he disposes off in a year. Whether a judge should be allowed to continue if he disposes 10 cases in a year for the next year is also a question. There must be complete accountability.

Next there must be a transparent manner of appointment of judges. People are just picked up and they are appointed. There is no debate. There is no transparency. Merit is not the sole criteria. You have large number of other criteria like regionalism, religion and all that. One good way could be a judicial commission, which is yet to come.

Lastly, you have to better the pay scales of judges. During the pre-Independence days in 1947, the salary of a High Court judge was Rs. 3500. That salary today is worth, I would say, Rs. 35 lakh a month. Today a judge gets Rs. 1 lakh a month and he is supposed to maintain complete integrity and honesty. He has to live like a hermit, not meet anybody, not go to parties etc. It is not possible for a judge to survive on these kinds of salaries, especially if you have to maintain a family, put money for education, household expenses etc.

There should be a holistic view of all these issues that I have mentioned which I, as a lawyer, see every day. So something should be done by the Parliament.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on the present legal education system.

Mukul Rohatgi: Firstly, I disapprove of this 5-year system. I will tell you why. According to me, a boy at 17 may or may not be able to make up his mind as to what profession should he follow. It is too early. Realistically speaking the 3 + 3 system was a better system. They should first do graduation, may be in economics or history or any other subject, and then branch off. It is only in medical or engineering that starting right after class twelfth has worked but law is something one should decide after some time. I think the 3 + 3 system is better. That is my view, I may be wrong.

Bar & Bench: Who is your mentor?

Mukul Rohatgi: I never had a mentor but I used to watch all the good lawyers in the courts. I used to see Fali Nariman, Soli Sorabjee. I used to see how they conduct cases and how brilliant they are. I also had the opportunity to see Nani Palkiwala. I tried to model myself on these top lawyers.

Bar & Bench: How do you unwind?

Mukul Rohatgi: I like to read historical stuff like the Mughal history, ancient Roman history or books on the, Byzantine Empire. Sometimes I enjoy reading racy novels like Jeffrey Archer. I like to travel so I go abroad couple of times in a year and I travel within India too. I have a farm near the Qutub Minar, which has a pool where I go to swim. I am fond of cars and I love to drive in the mornings when I go for a morning walk.