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Ashok K. Gupta, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, on the AOR exam, life in litigation and being on panel of union government

Ashok K. Gupta  graduated in B.A. (Hons. – Political Science) from University of Delhi in the year 1976.  Then he completed LL.B. from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi in 1979.

He enrolled as an Advocate with Bar Council of Delhi in January, 1981.  After practicing in District Court, Delhi for two years, shifted to Supreme Court & joined the chamber of Mr. P.H. Parekh, Advocate Supreme Court of India. He passed the Advocate-on-Record Examination conducted by Supreme Court of India in November, 1986.  And started his Independent Practice in 1987.

He practices primarily before the Supreme Court, various High Courts like Jabalpur and Indore Benches of MP High Court, High Court of Odisha at Cuttack and Punjab & Haryana High Court, and before various statutory fora like National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), National Green Tribunal (NGT) & Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (APTEL) .

He was appointed Counsel by Delhi High Court (to conduct its cases on the administrative side) before the Supreme Court in the year 2000. The he was appointed Senior Panel Counsel for UOI in Delhi High Court, in January 2001. He was designated as a Senior Advocate in April, 2012. He was the appointed by the supreme court as chairman of three-member committee under the Right to Education Act to report on compliance with various stipulations contained in the Right to Education Act in April, 2014. And also, other pro-bono committees.

He is also the member of Supreme Court Bar Association, Delhi High Court Bar Association, Odisha High Court Bar Association, Madhya Pradesh High Court Bar Association and International Law Association. Life member of All India Women’s Education Fund Association and in that capacity was elected as member of the Governing Body of Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi during the Academic Year 1996-1997 and 1997-1998. Life member and Treasurer of Confederation of Indian Bar.

In this interview, we talk to him about:

  • Being a first generation lawyer: college life, internships and interest in litigation;
  • Establishing his independent practice;
  • Cracking the Supreme Court Advocate on Record examination;
  • His wide range of practice encompassing various courts, tribunals and;
  • As Panel of Union Of India for Delhi High Court.

 

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO OUR READERS?

I would like to be known as a quintessential Delhi-06 person, who loves his family, puts in honest, hard work, never ceases to learn and practice, and yet, enjoys all the good things of life: food of Old Delhi, and theatre at Mandi House in the evening, to name a few. This is my typical middle-class perception of myself.

 

YOU ARE A FIRST GENERATION LAWYER. WHAT LED YOU CHOOSE LAW AFTER GRADUATION IN POLITICAL SCIENCE?

Right, I am a first-generation lawyer. After my graduation in political science from Delhi University way back in the year 1976, I chose law not because it fascinated me; I chose law because I thought firstly, it would help me in my Civil Services examination, and shall be my second subject apart from political science. The other feeling was that, in case, I fail to make it to the Civil Services (as indeed, I did), I won’t be unemployable and could always do something as a professional lawyer. So, this was with a view to ensure that I don’t remain unemployed and/or unemployable.

 

YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER WITH PRACTICE IN DISTRICT COURTS. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOUNG LAWYERS TO KNOW BASIC DISTRICT COURT PRACTICE BEFORE MOVING TO THE HIGH COURT AND SUPREME COURT.

It is correct that I started my career in district courts. Knowing that the nitty-gritty of practice in the Districts Courts is an absolute must for a young lawyer, I’m not suggesting that a lawyer should not aspire to become a High Court/ Supreme Court practitioner. All that I’m suggesting is that one should be fully familiar with the procedural parts of the legal practice, both on the criminal as well as the civil side. At the genesis of one’s career, it is your known circle of acquaintances who approach you, say, for a recovery suit, section 138 complaint, some accident or insurance case, matrimonial disputes and such matters which primarily emanate at the district court level. The ideal situation would be, of course, where one joins a chamber, which handles district court work, besides work in the constitutional courts.

 

YOU JOINED THE CHAMBER OF SENIOR ADVOCATE PH PAREKH. PLEASE SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH HIM.

Way back in the early eighties, the experience of working in my senior’s chamber was very fascinating and exhilarating. We were about a dozen junior colleagues at that time and it was not unusual for one junior to be doing two-three cases each day. The day would normally begin with a conference with a Senior Counsel like Mr. Fali Nariman, Mr. Sorabjee, Mr. Mridul or Mr. Tarkunde at around 8:30 A.M in the morning, court thereafter, after which we would be immediately heading towards office for drafting work and, again, the cause list would come around 6:30 P.M, whereupon our senior would allocate matters; the office of Senior Counsel would be informed and conferences fixed for next day morning. Then you head towards home around 9 PM and read the brief for the next day morning conference. But we had great fun; lot of outings and birthday celebrations, with legal conferences and seminars thrown-in between.

 

HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO COMMENCE YOUR INDEPENDENT PRACTICE WITHIN A SHORT SPAN OF SIX YEARS AFTER GRADUATION?

I decided to commence my independent practice once I realised that one cannot be somebody’s junior eternally. By the time I commenced practice, I had already passed my AOR examination and knew that one has to setup his own practice one day.

 

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE TO LAWYERS APPEARING FOR AOR EXAM NOW?

I can really advise that a lawyer should thoroughly prepare with case law, latest judgements and equip himself with precise and concise drafting skills. One should know that on the account of the very heavy work load, the Supreme Court judges very much like and appreciate if the pleadings are to the point, not verbose and the point arising in the case is neatly stated. I keep emphasising and reinforcing to my juniors and briefing counsels: “don’t miss the forest for the trees”.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN STARTING INDEPENDENT PRACTICE?

Challenges in starting independent practice are no different from starting any new venture in any new sphere of activity. But, then, if you put in sufficient quality work, you are bound to be noticed. You have to build up reputation for being an upright and a committed professional. Of course, all this would take time. Nothing good was ever achieved in a short time.

 

YOU ALSO TAKE UP AND ARGUE ARBITRATION CASES. HOW IS PRACTICE IN ARBITRATION DIFFERENT FROM LITIGATION PRACTICE IN INDIA?

I was first introduced to arbitration way back in the mid-eighties when I appeared alongside a noted junior counsel (now, a respectable Judge of the Supreme Court) in an arbitration proceeding pertaining to claims and counter-claims arising out of the 1982 Asian Games held in New Delhi. The Arbitral Tribunal was headed by Justice (Retd.) A.C. Gupta of the Supreme Court. He was a very quiet and taciturn arbitrator, unlike the majority of present-day arbitrators. For a successful arbitration practice, it is indispensable for one to know the basic essentials of handling suits, even though the technicalities of CPC and Evidence Act do not apply to arbitration proceedings. Surely, one must know about admission and denial of documents, framing of issues (not all arbitral tribunals frame issues), and the proof of documents in case of denial by other side, etc. Also, the art of cross-examination assumes a lot of significance and seriousness in an Arbitration proceeding. An arbitration claim is no different from a claim in a suit, except that the procedure is shorn of all the technicalities, and there is much less stress because of less pressure of time.

 

YOU HAVE ALSO BEEN ON THE PANEL OF UNION OF INDIA FOR DELHI HIGH COURT. WHAT IS THE MODUS OPERANDI WORKING FOR THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT?

This was the first time ever that I worked for any government (Central/ State). I was, hitherto, primarily appearing for private clients and some PSUs. It was, initially, difficult for me to adjust to the role of a government lawyer, inasmuch you hardly receive timely instructions, proper records are not maintained, and most of the time you cut a sorry figure before the Court, not on the account of any lack of professional skill or competence on your part. That said, it is, indubitably, a matter of pride, prestige and honour for any lawyer to be empaneled as a government lawyer.

 

WHAT ARE THE SKILLS REQUIRED FOR A LAWYER AIMING TO BE A SENIOR ADVOCATE IN HIS CAREER?

First, one has to be a competent and honest lawyer and the other, one should totally abjure sharp practices as a lawyer. There have been several instances, where very skilful and competent lawyers were not given the designation of a Senior Advocate by the Court, on account of the perception of lack of ethics on the part of such lawyer. Now, of course, the Supreme Court in the judgement of ‘Ms.Indira Jaising vs. Supreme Court of India’ has laid down the entire procedure for designation of a lawyer as a Senior Advocate.

 

BEING A LAWYER, IS IT DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN WORK-LIFE BALANCE?

Work-life balance is difficult but not impossible to achieve, just like in any other business or employment. Here the complexities are of a different nature, in the sense, that in the early years as a lawyer, money is hard to come by, hours are uncertain and stress is a little too much to handle. The reason being that the client is primarily concerned with the outcome of his case, not really concerned with your legal knowledge and the hard work put in by you. This does take its toll on one’s health and impacts work life balance.

 

WHAT IS THE REQUIRED SKILL-SET OF BEING A SUCCESSFUL LAWYER?

Being successful in the profession requires no set of different rules than the ones you require in other spheres of activities of life. It is talent, hard work and luck – an amalgamation of all the three.

 

PLEASE LET US ABOUT YOUR MOST MEMORABLE CASES.

I have appeared in hundreds of cases in my career as a lawyer spread over 38 years, as an instructing advocate in the early years of practice, and as a counsel thereafter, and a senior advocate in later part of life. A government-tender matter, wherein I had engaged and instructed Mr. S.S Ray, Sr. Adv. (now deceased) and Dr. Shankar Ghosh, Sr. Adv. to appear before the Jabalpur High Court in 1991-1992 stands out in my mind. The other case that I fondly remember of the nineties was a very complex trademark case before Justice Ajay Noth Roy of the Calcutta High Court against NALCO Chemicals, USA. I found Justice Roy to be an outstanding and brilliant judge, though the Supreme Court collegium, perhaps, thought otherwise. Among the arbitration matters, I have a proclivity towards my case, ‘National Aluminium Company vs. Pressteel & Fabrications Pvt. Ltd.’: (2004) 1 SCC 540, which paved the way for the Supreme Court to rule on the applicability of the 2015 Arbitration Amendment Act in ‘BCCI vs. Kochi Cricket Pvt. Ltd.’. In recent years, in the cases, ‘National Aluminium Company Ltd. vs. Ananta Kishore Rout’: (2014) 6 SCC 756, ‘Chairman-cum-MD vs. Bharat Chandra Behera’: (2013) 16 SCC 622 and ‘Kalinga Mining Corp. vs. UOI’: (2013) 5 SCC 252, I was able to persuade the Supreme Court to sustain my view point.

 

HOW CAN JUNIOR WISHING TO WORK UNDER YOU GET IN TOUCH WITH YOU? WHAT QUALITIES WILL YOU LOOK FOR HIRING A JUNIOR?

A junior wishing to work with me can directly approach me, no need for an intermediary. The only quality I look for in a junior is that he should be hardworking. I have always maintained and continue to maintain till this date, that a talented person might fail but a hardworking person never fails.

 

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR WORD OF ADVICE TO YOUNG LAWYERS AND LAW STUDENTS AIMING TO MAKE CAREER IN LITIGATION?

My advice to young lawyers would be no different than what I received in the early eighties, and it is: “work like a horse, live like a hermit”. Now, a word of unsolicited advice: I would very much like if young lawyers take to politics as well, even as they continue to practice law. There is such a dearth of good people- professionally employed people in Politics. This way you contribute to the well-being of the society, as also enhance your own prospect in the profession. The success achieved by the likes of P. Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley and Kapil Sibal is attributable, in part, to their being seen in politics.

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