Kerala's acclaimed Trial Lawyer, the late Advocate Kunhirama Menon

Murali Krishnan April 18 2019
kunhirama menon

Every student and practitioner of law in Kerala might very well have heard the name of Advocate Kunhirama Menon  at least once. I was no exception. Many lawyers, professors and teachers including High Court judges, who taught me law took this name more than once, particularly when teaching criminal law. They would wax eloquent about his exploits in trial courts and his simplicity outside of them.

My interest in the legendary lawyer was re-ignited after a political leader posted a judgment on Twitter. The judgment, which pertained to an old murder case, showed that Kunhirama Menon had appeared for current Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was one of the accused in the case.

Wanting to find out more about the late Kunhirama Menon,I went to Kozhikode in June 2018.

Kozhikode, popularly known as Calicut, is a sleepy town in the north of Kerala. Going through the quaint streets of the town, I was determined to find my destination. The monsoon rain pattered down, leaving me drenched.

But I kept on with my relentless pursuit until I eventually came across a board marking 'Adv. Kunhirama Menon Road'.

Advocate Kunhirama Menon Road

Advocate Kunhirama Menon Road

Locating the house after that proved fairly easy. And here I was sitting across people who knew more about Kerala’s foremost trial lawyer.

The first steps

Advocate K Kunhirama Menon was born in the year 1904. He enrolled at the Bar in 1924.

I sat down to talk with his grandson and his erstwhile juniors.

Why did Kunhirama Menon take up law? His grandson is not certain about the reasons for the same. Kunhirama Menon’s father Sankara Menon was also a lawyer.

“That might have been the reason. I am not certain about it because he (Sankara Menon) had died before I was born. However, law was considered a good profession back then and not many people had the opportunity to study it. Also, one had to go to Madras to study law.”

The office

The front room of the house where we were seated was Kunhirama Menon’s office – one of the busiest chambers in Kerala at one point of time. It is unassuming and deserted now, but radiated the energy and aura befitting a busy lawyer’s chamber back in those days.

“This room was the office… it used to be filled with people in the 60s”, his grandson said, recollecting those days.

Office of late Kunhirama Menon

Despite being the go-to lawyer in trial courts in the Malabar, Menon never had any air about him.

“Regardless of who came, they were all dealt with in the same manner. Everyone would sit here and chat. This room always had at least one other person besides him. That was the chair he would sit on, says his grandson pointing to the chair in the corner of the room.

Chair used by Kunhirama Menon

Chair used by Kunhirama Menon

No junior-senior differences

Does he remember something about the culture in Menon’s chamber and the juniors who worked with him?

“There was never any difference between junior and senior in his office. One Raghu was the person who was involved the most in the office and he was also the last person to leave the office”, his grandson says.

A former junior of his testifies this fact - Senior lawyer N Bhaskaran Nair who also served as public prosecutor.

That there was no difference between juniors and seniors meant that juniors received ample opportunity to learn and conduct cases.

“He was very helpful. Importantly, from the beginning, the junior had to take initiative. He was willing to take initiative for those who wanted to work. I was very studious and hence, I had enough opportunities to study cases”, says Bhaskaran Nair.

The work hours were always taxing, as is usually the case with the legal profession.

“We would reach the office at 8 am and leave by 9-9.30. Sometimes it went beyond that when we had to go to Trichur, Palakkad etc. in which case we would get back late.”

N Bhaskaran Nair, who was junior to Kunhirama Menon

Menon used to open two murder trials in a week.

“He used to open two murder trial cases in a week. Once it was opened, after three months, he would entrust the file either to advocate Rajagopalan (about whom the second part of the series would be) or me. 'You go and open a case in Manjeri', he would say.

We would go there, and later the others would join. We had to make lists of witnesses examined, exhibits marked etc., we had to work up the question of law involved – all if it had to be prepared. So, there were enough opportunities to learn”, Bhaskaran Nair recalls.

Cross-examination, Perry Mason and the importance of what not to ask

The single most important aspect of a criminal trial is cross-examination. And Menon was a master at that.

“In cross-examination, what is important is what not to ask”, says advocate Suresh Chandran, a former junior to Kunhirama Menon and now a Senior lawyer.

And Menon was an expert in cross-examining expert witnesses.

“Ballistics expert, fingerprint experts etc. He was a specialist. Kunhirama Menon always used to carry around Perry Mason’s book. When he was asked why he was carrying around a detective novel, he would say it was to read the foreword.

There was a police surgeon who had written books on medical jurisprudence. He used to say, ‘There is only one person with any sense here, that is Kunhirama Menon'."

Practicing law before European judges

When Menon started his practice, the fees charged by him might sound egregiously low.

“Achan (father) used to tell us that the fees back then was around Rs. 2. I am not sure if it was for the whole case or per appearance”, says his grandson.

The judges then were Europeans.

“Practicing law before British judges was not easy”, Suresh Chandran weighs in.

Advocate Suresh Chandran

Kunhirama Menon had been the defence counsel in the Kezhariyoor case, which was a bomb blast case in the backdrop of Quit India movement.

“It was a sensational case. If a lawyer defended someone who acted against the British, they would consider the lawyer also their foe. So it was very difficult for that lawyer.”

Some other famous cases

Since he was used to appearing in criminal cases including murder trials, he was exposed to a fair share of media attention.

“The Soman case got a lot of attention. Then there was the Kunjazhi murder case in which he was the prosecutor.

The Shia murder case was another case which received a lot of attention. In that case, a lady, Shia was beaten to death by her husband. However, she did not die, but became unconscious. Thinking that she had died, the husband hung up her body to make it look like a suicide. But she actually died because of the hanging. He was the Special Prosecutor in that case”, Bhaskaran Nair recounts.

Suresh Chandran remembers quite a few cases which had made headlines.

“One important case in which Kunhirama Menon was involved was the Rama Simhan murder case. Simhan was a Muslim who converted to Hinduism – he was killed by Muslims for that.

Kunhirama Menon appeared for the accused Muslims. The Special Prosecutor was U Gopala Menon. The trial took place in Ponnani. Menon won the case.

After that case was won, Muslims said 'Sir, we want to take you to Ponnani Angadi. Kunhirama Menon refused all that, but they gifted him a gold chain.”

Kunhirama Menon, counsel for Pinarayi Vijayan in a murder case

Another famous case was the Ramankiri murder case.

In this case, a sub-inspector Sugathan was living with a woman. One Soman, who was earlier acquainted with the woman, met her later and they began an affair. The case was that Sugathan hatched a conspiracy with the woman and killed Soman.

The body was disposed of by dumping it in a river. The decapitated head was dumped at one spot and the headless torse at another spot.

“Kunhirama Menon was the Special Prosecutor in that case and was able to secure conviction from the trial court against both the SI and the woman.

However, Kunhirama Menon said that it was wrong. He told the investigating officer that if a person is having an affair with the wife of a person, he would not come home if the man called him. But, if the woman (wife) calls him, he might come. Because if the wife calls, he would not know that he is being called after the husband and wife conspired. But that does not necessarily mean that there was a conspiracy involving the wife.

In this case, the wife had not done anything. But she was also convicted. He (Kunhirama Menon) said that it was wrong.

The High Court acquitted the woman of murder charges and it was upheld by the Supreme Court”.

Advice to juniors

“Another peculiar thing about Kunhirama Menon was that if he said something deceptive in court during arguments, he would tell us after he steps out of court: 'The proposition that I argued in Court is wrong. So please don’t argue the same'", says Suresh Chandran, recounting an incident.

There was a murder case in Wayanad. The Prosecutor was not well versed in criminal law as she was a civil lawyer. A person was the accused in the case for the alleged murder of his wife whose body was found hanging.

Kunhirama Menon argued and won that case.

“He conceded that his job was made easier because the prosecutor was not competent.

The reason is that when a person dies by hanging, there is a bone in the neck – the hyoid bone –which breaks. It’s only then that the person dies. In this case, that bone was not broken.

When a person dies by hanging, she will end up clawing at the throat, after the bone breaks in a struggle to breathe. In this case, there was nothing like that. So, it was clear that it was not suicide by hanging.

But this prosecutor did not know that”, Suresh Chandran recounts Menon’s words.

Subsequently, after the case was over Menon asked the accused how he had committed the crime.

“Why are you asking this? The Court verdict says its suicide...”, replied the accused.

Menon replied,

“That’s the court verdict I got you after I conducted the case. How did you manage to do it?”

The accused did not say anything.

“Can I tell you how? When she was sleeping, you smothered her with a pillow. Isn’t that how you killed her?”, asked Menon.

The accused walked out without a word.

Kunhirama Menon

Kunhirama Menon

Menon explained to his juniors that if a person is attacked when conscious, she would defend herself and the attacker would get scratched. Some mark would be left behind (on the body of the assailant).

“The only way to overcome it is to kill the person by smothering the person while she is asleep. When you are being smothered, your hand will not rise high enough for you to scratch your attacker.

Again, Kunhirama Menon told us that what he argued was not correct and advised us not to learn from it”, says Suresh Chandran.

Appearing against Kunhirama Menon - What happens inside the courtroom stays inside the courtroom

Interestingly, after he became independent and a public prosecutor, Bhaskaran Nair proceeded to appear against Menon his erstwhile Senior. How was that experience?

“(Laughs). Yes, I was the prosecutor in one case and he was the defence counsel and there were some heated arguments from my side. At the end, after the hearing was over, he told me,

‘Bhaskaran, apart from you being the prosecutor and me being the defence counsel, there is always something between us. Don’t forget that.’

When I heard that, ento pole aayi (I felt really bad). I couldn’t sleep for the entire night. In the morning I went to his house. He saw me and called out to his wife, ‘Bhaskaran has come.’

He called me in for breakfast. After breakfast, I told him, 'Sir, the reason I came was to apologise. I did not conduct myself properly yesterday, I am sorry'.

Menon’s reply to Bhaskaran Nair is worthy of emulation by lawyers, Senior and junior, today.

“What happens in the Court hall, you should forget it and leave it inside the court. Before you leave the court hall, whatever transpired in the court hall, must be forgotten. Don’t carry it in your mind. If you carry it in your mind, you won’t be able to present your case further. I have forgotten it already.”

Court complex, Kozhikode

Court complex, Kozhikode

Bhaskaran Nair reminisces how Menon was a thorough gentleman.

“He was never rude to anyone. There may have been arguments – but they were all healthy quarrels. He would never misbehave with the court (judges) or other lawyers. Never!”

Menon was very affectionate towards his juniors too.

“Even if they made a mistake he would not get angry or scold them. At any time, a junior could drop in and ask doubts – you could call him anytime. Juniors had that freedom.”

Bhaskaran Nair also says that juniors had the freedom to handle cases.

“When juniors were entrusted with cases, he wouldn’t form the team (to handle the case). He would tell the junior to fix a team – 'It’s your case, you can decide the team'.”

Fees – the Kozhikode Bar culture

The journalist in me is always inclined to prod more and I proceed to ask about the fees charged by trial lawyers back then.

“He wasn’t too particular about fees. I think that applies to the Calicut Bar as a whole. Calicut lawyers are slow to charge fees. There are old school lawyers, the priority was to get the client results. There was nothing like ‘we would only start after we fixed the fees’.

In the Supreme Court, there are lawyers who would ask for huge fees. They would flip the papers, pick a point, say something and charge exorbitant fees for the same. Kunhirama Menon wasn’t like that”, says Suresh Chandran.

“And many lawyers still follow the tradition followed by Kunhirama Menon”, he adds.

Bhaskaran Nair also agrees to the same.

 “He never demanded the kind of fees that a person who possessed the kind of skills he did could demand any day.”

From Perinthalmanna RBI Court to the Supreme Court 

Through his career, Menon argued from the lowest forum to the highest court of the land.

“The unique thing about him was that he would appear before the Perinthalmanna RBI court and the Supreme Court”, says Suresh Chandran.

However, Menon was essentially a trial court lawyer who also appeared in the High Courts as well. He appeared in Supreme Court only a handful of times.

“Why don’t you set up practice in Supreme Court”?

Advocate Suresh Chandran distinctly remembers one episode when he appeared in Supreme Court in Thalassery-Pulpally case.

“After hearing Kunhirama Menon’s arguments, the judge asked,

‘Where do you hail from?’

Kunhirama Menon answered that he was from Kozhikode, Kerala.

‘Why don’t you set up your practice here?’, asked the judge.

‘It is too late, my Lord,’ said Kunhirama Menon.

Not a person who would “apply” for Senior gown

The controversy surrounding designation of lawyers as Senior Advocates has been going on for some time now. However, Kerala’s most acclaimed trial lawyer was never a designated Senior Advocate.

“He was not a person who would apply (for the gown). Of course, the Court would give him the respect befitting a Senior lawyer but he was never a designated ‘Senior Advocate’”, Nair says.

House of late Kunhirama Menon

Hobbies

Menon was equally interested in outdoor activities.

“He was very active and used to participate in extracurricular activities when he was studying. He used to play all kinds of sports”, his grandson says.

That energy reflected in his profession too.

“He maintained that level of energy. His juniors could at most times not keep up with him.”

Menon passed away in 1998 after practicing law for more than 70 years. He left behind a legacy that remains unmatched till date.