Conversation with Constitutional Law Expert and Senior Advocate KK Venugopal

Pallavi Saluja August 17 2012

Senior Advocate KK Venugopal has been a practicing lawyer for nearly six decades. Widely regarded as an expert in Constitutional Law, KK Venugopal shifted base to Delhi from Chennai 25 years after joining the Bar in Madras.

In this interview, the Senior Counsel talks about his “accidental” entry into the profession, the lessons he learnt while working under his father MK Nambiar, controversies with the Supreme Court Bar Association and what he thinks about the legal profession today.

Bar & Bench: Talk us through your journey of becoming a lawyer

KK Venugopal: It was all an accident. The choice was practically forced on to me. That is because, while I was doing my B.Sc. (Physics) in the Madras Christian College, I fell ill and could not take the public examination. Coincidentally, my father, who had been practicing in the district headquarters in Mangalore and was Public Prosecutor and Government Pleader for as long as 11 years, had the opportunity to shift his practice to Madras and also had the opportunity to lead the arguments in the first big Constitutional case, A.K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras. He had obtained his Masters in London in Constitutional Law and Administrative Law, and, therefore, made a name for himself while arguing the case. Thereafter, he was handling high profile constitutional cases in the Supreme Court of India and in the High Courts. At that time he felt that there should be someone in the family who should carry on the tradition of law. When I did not complete my B.Sc., he came across an advertisement where the R.L. Law College, Belgaum was having a law course of two years, which did not require a bachelor’s degree. He gave me the choice of going to Belgaum and studying law. I had no particular ambitions but anyway decided I would take the law degree, and, hence, by sheer accident, as it were, I became a lawyer.

Bar & Bench: What was it like growing up with a renowned lawyer?

KK Venugopal: Undoubtedly, it was a great advantage to have one’s father as an eminent lawyer and he made sure that I worked very hard indeed. I may mention that in the beginning, instead of coming down at 8.00 in the morning he started coming down to his office at 7.30 itself so that I may put in more hours of work as a lawyer. He allocated his briefs to me so that my knowledge of law could cover a wide area. But I loved Constitutional Law and Administrative Law. During those days unless you had a godfather in the profession, it was very difficult to excel or succeed. Today, fortunately the position is different. With all the National Law Schools and other Law Colleges of Excellence, the new law graduate is able to stand on his feet and argue cases immediately on enrolment as a lawyer. Lawyers from a rural background are able to migrate to the High Courts and do exceedingly well. And it is only the fact that their knowledge of English was not adequate as they started learning that language only in the later years of their education that prevented them from competing on equal terms with the lawyers in the cities.

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

KK Venugopal: I enrolled in January 1954 in the then Mysore High Court and thereafter in the Madras High Court. It is only in 1961 when the Advocates Act of 1961 was enacted which alone provided for a unified bar throughout the country where, by enrolling in one High Court, a lawyer would be entitled to practice in all High Courts in India as well as in the Supreme Court of India.

At the time I started my practice in Madras under my father, motor vehicles litigation relating to the grant of motor vehicle permits, inter-State permits and variation of routes, was an extremely lucrative field. And again, by sheer accident, I was able to appear before the Collector of the District who was the Regional Transport Authority, and was able to get a permit for my client, an Ex-Servicemen’s Cooperative Society. On the next occasion again I got a permit for the same Society and with this my name as a motor vehicles lawyer was made, though I had put in only two or three years at the Bar. The advantage of practicing this particular branch of law was that the clients were able to afford litigation right up to the Supreme Court of India and even from the early years, I used to go over to Delhi to instruct senior counsel and later, after the first five years, was appearing myself in the Supreme Court. Thereafter I branched off into different areas of law and I find that my appearances in the Supreme Court of India were reported from 1963 onwards.

Bar & Bench: You are referred to as Constitutional law expert. How did you get interested in Constitutional law?

KK Venugopal: My father was a Constitutional lawyer of eminence and appeared in some of the noted Constitutional cases in the first three decades up till 1973. He passed away in 1975 at the age of 78. Naturally I assisted him in his Constitutional cases and, of course, in due course, started arguing cases of importance in Constitutional Law and Administrative Law myself.

Bar & Bench: What would you say was the defining moment of your career?

KK Venugopal: Since I was appearing before the Supreme Court judges off and on, I believe that they must have thought that I was eligible to be designated as a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India. In 1971 at a function in Delhi, one of the judges of the Supreme Court asked me as to why I had not applied for being designated as a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India. I forthwith did it and on March 6, 1972, I received a letter from the Registrar of the Supreme Court informing me that the judges of the Supreme Court had designated me as a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India. This was indeed a proud moment for me and was a defining moment, which I treasure.

Bar & Bench: The issue of who is entitled to participate in elections for Office Bearers of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) raised several concerns and certain resolutions were passed by SCBA members expelling the members of the implementation committee including you, P.P. Rao and Ranjit Kumar from primary membership. Your thoughts?

KK Venugopal: It is the Supreme Court, which by its judgment of September 26, 2011, suggested the appointment of three of us as the Implementation Committee.

We have about 10,000 members in the SCBA, but a very large percentage of them do not practice in the Supreme Court. Therefore, all that was sought to be done by the judgment was that only those who are regularly practicing in the Supreme Court would be entitled to vote. The other members not practicing in the Supreme Court regularly, would not lose their membership of the SCBA, but only the right to vote. Similarly, these members will not be deprived of any other privileges like using the library or getting all other benefits as the regularly practicing members of the SCBA. But, the right to vote alone was sought to be restricted because it is only those who are regularly practicing in the Supreme Court who would know the problems of the members of the Bar and would ensure that those problems are successfully remedied by the judges and otherwise.

Now, this judgment of the Supreme Court was not acceptable to those not regularly practicing members, because if the regular practicing members were to be alone given the right to vote, there may be only 2,000 or 3,000 who would be entitled to vote. This means that 7,000 or 8,000 would have no right to vote. To thwart the implementation of the judgment, some 300 to 400 members of the Supreme Court Bar Association purported to hold what they called a General Body meeting and declared the judgment of the Supreme Court to be void and expelled the members of the Implementation Committee whose appointment had been suggested by the Supreme Court judgment. Fortunately all this is history, because the Supreme Court did not hesitate to strike down the entirety of the resolutions passed by these 300 to 400 members, after hearing all interested parties, and thereafter issued directions to the Implementation Committee as to how they should go about identifying the regularly practicing members of the Supreme Court. We are now looking forward to a bright future for the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Bar & Bench: You joined the Bar in January 1954. What are the differences in the Bar that you have seen over the years?

KK Venugopal: The Bar is terribly over-crowded today. For example, take the Supreme Court. On a Monday or a Friday, you can’t move around in the corridor because of the heavy crowd of lawyers and clients. You have to push your way through the crowd. You hear your case being called but you are not able to reach the front seat due to the packed crowd of lawyers blocking the aisle and by that time the case is passed over. This is the situation which has now come about.

Secondly, previously, young lawyers were not able to get an opportunity to address the Supreme Court for a number of years. They had to work under a senior who would not give them such an opportunity to address the court. But today, young lawyers are coming forward and appearing in the Supreme Court and are getting orders, in spite of the fact that some of them who come from the rural areas are not fluent in English. However, they are as competent as any other lawyer who has studied in one of the law schools in a city. Therefore the situation has changed. Now, you don’t really need a godfather, unlike the old days.

Another change that I see is that we did not have any strikes by lawyers. Today you hear such gruesome stories of lawyers trying to rush into the judge’s chamber to attack him etc. The Supreme Court has clearly held that lawyers can go on strike only in the rarest of rare cases and the Court has also mentioned what those cases would be by giving one or two illustrations. Strangely, even the Bar Council of India calls for strikes on occasions. Can you believe that?

This is the unfortunate situation, which is prevalent today. The respect for the judgments of the Supreme Court, the circumspection that is required of a lawyer, the maintaining of high standards, the fact the he belongs to an honorable profession; all these are forgotten today.

Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the demand for regional benches of the Supreme Court?

KK Venugopal: I am against regional benches being created for the Supreme Court of India. If you start with one regional bench, you can take it from me, there have to be as many regional benches as there are States in the country. That is how the misfortune of the linguistic States had started and one does not see any end to it even today. But, I say the present state of affairs cannot continue. Access to justice is now treated as a fundamental right. What happens to natural justice if in some High Courts on the Original Side a suit is pending for as long as 20 years? Even Criminal Side cases take 15 years before the case sees its conclusion in the Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court of India itself has arrears where it cannot possibly dispose of them for the next 10 to 15 years. Litigants cry for an early hearing of their case and are unable to even have the case mentioned, even though the emergency is great. I have a case where I am appearing pro bono for pensioners from Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 54,000 out of the 1,44,000 pensioners have died during the pendency of the case and nearly 24,000 of them have died while the case is pending for the last 8 years in the Supreme Court of India. The judges work very hard but they are unable to tackle the huge problem of arrears.

I had suggested in an article in The Hindu that the apex court of the country is intended to dispose of constitutional cases as well as cases of national importance where the law has to be declared for the entire country and it is no concern of the Supreme Court that every error made by a High Court, of fact or of law, should stand corrected. The Supreme Court has to be relieved of the burden of all other cases arising out of rent control legislation, labour legislation, land acquisition, arbitration, matrimonial cases, and so on. But one cannot allow the High Courts in the present dispensation to have the last word, because we see aberrations of a grievous nature and these judgments have to be corrected. Therefore, it is necessary that Courts of Appeal be established in the four regions of the country manned by at least 15 judges each, who finally decide on appeals from the High Court judgments in all cases other than constitutional cases, cases of national importance which affect the whole country, disputes between States inter se or between States and the Centre, Presidential references and where substantial questions of law relating to interpretation of the Constitution arise. This alone should be within the exclusive purview of the Supreme Court and all other cases should be within the exclusive purview of the Courts of Appeal. All this, of course, requires a Constitutional amendment. But if the Government of India and if the Chief Justice and the Judges of the Supreme Court continue to blindly function as if all is well with the justice delivery system, I am afraid, they are failing to adhere to the Constitution and its mandates. The courts and the government would have failed the country. And if this state of affairs continues, huge arrears pile up at all levels of the courts and every single effort put in by the courts and the Government having failed over the past 65 years. Having failed to make a dent in the huge pendency, we would see that the courts have failed the litigant public of the country.

Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the current system of legal education especially in reference to the national law schools?

KK Venugopal: I think Dr. Madhav Menon should be given great credit for having introduced a system which is now prevailing not only in the NLSIU Bangalore but in the other 13 or so National Law Schools which have been established all over the country. Each state now wants to have a law school because they have realized the importance of turning out lawyers of excellence. Therefore, so far as the system which is working in these national law schools i.e. the case study method, seminar system, the libraries being kept open throughout day and night, having moot courts etc is excellent. Our law students are now competing all over the world in moot courts, seminars and various other competitive events and they have achieved success in a lot of these events. Therefore, the national law schools have changed the face of legal education in the country. There are other law schools also which maintain the same level of excellence and therefore legal education is slowly taking a turn for the better. I believe the Bar Council of India also is putting in a tremendous effort to improve the standard of legal education. There is a National Legal Education committee of the Bar Council of India which is meeting now to draw up the policy for the future.

An important change is that people are also slowly becoming aware of the great importance of legal education and of lawyers. Earlier, lawyers and law schools were given step-motherly treatment by the government. Now, the face of legal education is changing in the country.

Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the current tussle between the BCI and HRD ministry over the regulation of legal education?

KK Venugopal: This is a very sensitive subject. I have a feeling that if the BCI were to continue the recent trend of showing tremendous interest in ensuring that the quality of legal education in the country is upgraded, to be as competitive not merely in the national law schools but in every law school all over the country and of the same standard as those abroad, then, there won’t be any question of a tussle. Therefore, I think it is for the BCI to ensure that it carries out the mandate of the Advocates Act and that legal education in the country is brought up to the same level as in other countries.

Unfortunately, the previous track record of the BCI, if I may say so, has been dismal. I have heard so many distressing stories from Vice Chancellors and from Principals of law schools about the inspections carried out previously etc. But today, it is refreshing to see that a change is taking place.

Bar & Bench: There is a general perception that most students from these national law schools opt for corporate jobs and very few enter the field of litigation. What are your thoughts?

KK Venugopal: I don’t think it really matters. There are over one million lawyers now in the country. I don’t know whether the statistics are correct and whether the state bar councils have been reporting correctly because I have a doubt whether they are striking out those who are dead, those who are retired from practice, those who are going abroad and so on.

Now, suppose you are turning out 35,000 lawyers a year, imagine how many of them can go into the corporate sector? 3,000 may be? How does it matter? It does not matter at all and therefore what you have to do is to ensure that all the law schools maintain a minimum standard of competence and that’s all. 

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

KK Venugopal: I think the standard of legal education has to be improved, across the board, in all law schools. Secondly, those who man the courts (from the subordinate courts to the highest courts in the country) have to be very competent. It is only if they are able to manage the courts and the dockets efficiently and swiftly will one find that the dispensation of justice is satisfactory. This is very necessary. The standard of both the Bar and the Bench will have to be improved tremendously and then and then alone will justice be delivered effectively.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on the entry of foreign law firms.

KK Venugopal: I believe that it would be to the advantage of local lawyers because there is no doubt whatsoever that the standard of legal practice in the foreign countries is far more advanced. Legal education abroad is of a much higher standard than what we have here in India. Their technology is superb.

The result of foreign lawyers coming into India will be that you will be able to absorb the techniques, the methods of drafting, the precision with which they draft, the brevity with which they present their cases and thoughts. All this would be to the advantage of their Indian counter parts.

What is necessary is to ensure that they are not allowed to practice by themselves merely for the monetary benefit that they get. They have to involve an equal number of Indian partners in any firm that they set up here. So, if a foreign law firm wants to come here, they have to have a law firm with an equal number of foreign lawyers as well as Indian partners. The result would be that the entirety of the system related to the practice of law would be distributed to the Indian lawyers as well and the Indian lawyers would assimilate the techniques, the technology, the method of drafting and all requisites of a successful law practice.

Now, if that takes place then I would say that it would be to our advantage because there would be a transfer of “know how” from the foreign lawyers to the Indian lawyers. So over the course of 10 to 15 years, we will have the same competence as they have by our absorbing all what they have learnt over the last 100 years in just 10 to 15 years.

But the law firms here do not want foreign firms to come in because they believe that their practice will be affected. I do not think any of the foreign lawyers would want to come and practice as counsel and argue cases as they will not be able to effectively do it as they have to have a grounding in Indian law.

Most countries which have permitted foreign lawyers have drafted separate rules and regulations for the purpose of restricting foreign lawyers. They are permitted to practice only their home country laws or international law. If we follow the same principles, then, there is no reason why we should be afraid of foreign lawyers coming in. Out of a million lawyers in India, it is only a handful of lawyers who run law firms, whose work may be affected.

Bar & Bench: I must say you look so much younger and quite fit. How have you maintained yourself?

KK Venugopal: I eat in moderation and I believe that I have been able to shrink my stomach to some extent. A lawyer’s task is a difficult one, especially facing so many judges in different cases who ask tough questions and expect total preparation from the lawyers, which, of course, is not an easy task. I, therefore, practice yoga most mornings and I believe that without yoga or some sort of exercise, you may not survive to a ripe old age in the legal profession.

Bar & Bench: What interests you other than law?

KK Venugopal: I have many interests. I collect antiquarian books. I have collected books published in 1634, 1670 and so on. I also collect paintings, pictures and lithograph.

I have been travelling year after year and I have been to very many places, including the Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, the Galapagos Islands and so on. I trekked to Mansarovar which took a total of about 30 days. Two months back I had to undertake a vertical climb of 2,200 feet to look down on a volcano crater in the Island of Santorini in Greece.

Bar & Bench: Any memory of your father you would like to share?

KK Venugopal: My father was a self-made man and what I remember about him is the fact that he moved from the District headquarters to Madras and then attained eminence as a Constitutional lawyer after the A.K. Gopalan case and very many other such cases and he still remained a humble person. He was most approachable to lawyers, young as well as old, to juniors as well as eminent ones. This is a trait, which I have tried to follow but I wonder with what amount of success.

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