“Education knows no bounds – Specialization has its strengths, but exploring diverse branches enriches one’s legal knowledge” – Neeraj Malhotra, Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India

This interview has been published by Namrata Singh and The SuperLawyer Team

Reflecting on your college days, what prompted you to pursue a career in law, and could you share some fond memories or experiences from your time as a law student? Also Can you share with us some pivotal moments or experiences that shaped your career, especially during your early years of practice? 

My decision to pursue Law and become a lawyer was not planned. Upon completion of my matriculation from Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, New Delhi, I opted for the Commerce stream as I had intended to pursue Chartered Accountancy and become a Chartered Accountant. In furtherance of the same, I took up the B.Com (Hons.) course in Delhi University in 1986 and persuaded the same till 1989. During the said period, I came in contact with another student in my college, whose father was a practicing advocate in the District Courts and the Delhi High Court. During my frequent visits to my friend’s residence in that period, I also had the occasion to communicate and interact with my friend’s father and he encouraged me to pursue a career in law and become a lawyer. That shaped the trajectory of my career and I  decided to travel the path towards becoming an advocate. 

Talking about my time as a Law Student in the Campus Law Centre, Delhi University makes me feel all nostalgic. The three year period was filled with excitement, hard-work and also the apprehension about the future which the legal profession would hold for me. I was anxious and happy at the same time. However the entire period of my graduation in law was very informative, enriching and satisfying wherein I was taught by best legal brains and scholars in multifarious subjects of law, which included Professor Upendra Baxi, Professor Mata Din, Professor Tahir Mahmood and Professor M.P. Singh. As a student, I was always zealous to learn and gain knowledge. I remember an instance when Professor Upendra Baxi did not come to the college on a particular day. Determined, not to miss a class and the passion to learn , I attended another class which was being taught by Professor Mool Chand Sharma, despite the fact that I was not a student of Professor Sharma’s class. I am also reminded of the fact that during that period we had wooden benches and tables in our classroom and had a small canteen, unlike a café today, where I used to have my tea during the Class breaks, along with some of my batchmates. We hardly had any moot courts at that point of time. My travel used to be in a DTC Bus on a monthly pass of Rs. 12.50 and the journey to and fro my residence and my college is still fresh in my mind. 

During my initial and formative years as a Lawyer, I learned invaluable lessons from my seniors. I had the benefit of being mentored and guided by two seniors viz Mr. Justice Sanjay Karol, an incumbent Supreme Court Judge, who was a practicing advocate at that point of time and Mr. Sanjay Jain, Senior Advocate and ex-Additional Solicitor General of India. They taught me to be work centric and being meticulous in my work. I was asked to prepare my cases at least a week in advance of their hearing dates. I was also briefed about the manner in which case notes were to be prepared and how to undertake and execute quick and effective legal research qua any particular subject of law and dig out the most appropriate legal precedents . I also learnt the invaluable lessons of being “all ears to one’s clients”, to read the relevant statute(s) before venturing out to draft any pleadings, to be respectful towards the judges and practice ethically in the profession. 

One instance which I would like to share with my readers relates to a judgment which had been passed by the Delhi High Court against one of our Clients. My Senior asked me to assail the same but without specifying whether the same should be done by means of a Review Petition or an Appeal. I drafted and filed an Appeal and when the same was listed for hearing , I apprised my Senior that I had drafted and filed an Appeal before the Division Bench of the High Court. After reading the judgment under Appeal , my Senior pointed out that the appropriate remedy was a Review Petition and not an Appeal. Though I attempted to convince him legally that an Appeal was the appropriate remedy instead of a Review, he was apprehensive that the Appeal would not be entertained and asked me to appear before the Appellate court. I appeared reluctantly and argued the Appeal for Admission . The Division Bench on the first hearing itself allowed the Appeal in our favour and disposed of the matter . The reward was prompt and my Senior took me out for lunch the very same day.  

​​Your expertise spans across various branches of law including Arbitration, Capital Market, Electricity, Environment, Insolvency, Insurance, Intellectual Property (specially Patents) and Telecom. What inspired you to diversify your practice, and how do you manage to stay updated with the ever-evolving legal landscape in multiple domains?

I had the advantage of undertaking myriad and multitudinous cases for drafting, research and arguments in different Courts and Forums including the Supreme Court, High Court, MRTPC, NCDRC, Press Council of India, CAT, DRAT, DRT, CLB , during my initial years of practice , as my Seniors practice spanned over multifarious courts and Tribunals.  I owe my knowledge and expertise in the niche subjects of law to the work which  was entrusted to me during my period as a Junior Advocate / Associate and also to my decision to be acquainted with varied branches of law, instead of specializing in one branch which would have curtailed my legal knowledge. Specialization in a particular branch of law comes with its strengths but also has its disadvantages. It ultimately depends on the personal choice of a lawyer as to whether he wishes to attain specialization in a particular branch of law or specific branches of law or explore all branches of law. I chose to specialize in some upcoming and niche branches of law and to delve in other branches of law also. 

After the grooming in my formative seven (7) years as a Junior Lawyer / Associate , I decided to venture out on my own and resultantly I joined hands with another lawyer and expanded my practice in diversified branches of law which included Arbitration Law, Banking Laws, Commercial Laws, Capital Market Law, Competition Law, Corporate Law, Criminal Laws, Electricity Law, Environmental Laws, Indirect Taxes, Insolvency Law, Insurance Law, Intellectual Property Rights related laws, Mining Law and Telecom Law, whereafter I was designated as a Senior Advocate in 2017. 

It is very important to keep oneself abreast of the latest developments in all branches of laws including the amendments in various statute(s) and the latest judicial pronouncements on various branches of laws . Since I am an avid reader, I have subscribed to various online legal softwares besides different legal journals , which keeps me updated about the latest developments in law. Besides the above , I also read books and commentaries on various subjects of law in which I specialize . Legal Conferences also give me an insight to the latest developments as well as the changing trends around the globe and I actively participate in Indian and International Conferences. Additionally, I also run through articles on different subjects of law and articles which critically examine the interpretation of various judgments. 

Your contribution to the development of competition law in India, especially through challenging the levy of pre-payment penalties by banks, is noteworthy. Could you share some insights into the challenges you faced during such landmark cases and how they have influenced your approach to similar matters?

Answer: In the year 2009, I filed a Complaint in my name under Section 19(1) of The Competition Act, 2002 against various Banks and the Indian Banks Association. My Complaint alleged that various banks were indulging in the practice of imposing prepayment penalty charges for the premature closure of housing loans which was ranging from 1 – 4 % , either on the entire principal amount of the loan or on the outstanding balance of the loan and this practice was creating a deterrent to a borrower from switching over and migrating to another Bank offering a lower rate of interest which could enable a borrower to avail of a reduced rate of interest and thereby a cheaper loan (also called refinancing the loan) from the other Bank . This practice was thus anti competitive and anti consumer as the same indirectly determined and controlled the price of the services and also created a barrier for new entrants in the market. Thus as per my Complaint, the Banks were contravening the provisions of Sec 3(1), 3(2), 3(3) (a) and 3(3) (b) and Sec 4(1), 4(2) (a) (i) of The Competition Act, 2002. My complaint was numbered as Case No. 5/2009 and was titled as Neeraj Malhotra, Advocate V/s Deutsche Post Bank Home Finance Ltd. & Ors.

The Commission after hearing me as the informant and considering the information and the documents filed by me arrived at a prima facie finding that a case of appreciable adverse effect on Competition existed against the Banks as mentioned in my Complaint and ordered investigation by the Director-General, CCI (DG) vide its order dated 10.09.2009​.

The DG in his report recorded the finding that the allegations pertaining to the Banks imposing prepayment penalty/charges were found to be correct . Further, concerning my allegations of violation of Section 3(3) (a) & Section 3(3)(b) of the Act, the DG recorded his finding that Section 3(3) (b) of the Act was violated. The DG investigation further revealed that in the context of Section 19(3) of the Act, levying of prepayment penalty created a barrier to a new entrant in the market in a way that if the new entrant was providing competitive/lower interest rates, better services etc, the borrower of  the existing banks could only avail the services of the new entrant by incurring an additional cost in the form of prepayment charges. The levy of prepayment penalty by banks made the exit expensive and thus acted as a deterrent to the borrower. It was further stated by the DG in his report that the group of banks (under the IBA) had come together and taken a collective decision to limit market competition and to generate fee-based income. The said collective decision of the bank was beneficial to the banks but on the contrary, was anti-consumer and anti-competitive. Given above, the DG came to a finding that levy of prepayment charges by the banks violated the provision of Section 19(3) (a) (c) and (d) also.

However, by a majority judgment of 4:2 pronounced on 02.12.2010, the Commission held that there was no contravention of Sections 3 and 4 of the Competition Act. The minority decision however dissented from the majority judgment and held that the Banks could not enter into any agreement for charging the above prepayment penalty. 

I think the major takeaway from the above case was that after the passing of the above judgment, the Reserve Bank of India took up the said issue and clarified that the Banks and NBFCs could not impose prepayment penalties on loans sanctioned to individual borrowers.,  After the same, a substantial number of Banks waived off the prepayment penalty. 

The biggest challenge faced by me while researching and drafting the above case was the collection of data pertaining to the banks which were levying the prepayment penalties, the rates of the penalties, the extent of loans  availed of by the borrowers who intended to switch over to other banks ,the percentage of such borrowers etc. In addition to the same the law which was prevalent in other jurisdictions across the Globe pertaining to levy of prepayment loan penalty had also to be unearthed . During the stage of arguments , the tough queries put to me by the 6 member bench of the Commission , which consisted of experts on the subject , were also very challenging.         

Being an avid writer and reader, how do you think literature and the habit of reading have enriched your legal practice? Are there any particular books or authors that have had a profound impact on your professional journey?

I have always been a very avid and a keen reader and devote a substantial part of my time on reading books relating to law. I believe that all of us, irrespective of being lawyers or not, must inculcate a habit of reading in any form whatsoever. Literature, viz. Written works are a form of human expression and have a high and lasting value on a human mind, be it Classical Literature, Modern Literature or Legal Literature. The benefit of reading enables a reader to understand the form of expressing an idea and also to improve one’s vocabulary and his manner of speech. Speaking about myself, I can say that the habit of reading has immensely contributed to my development as a lawyer. I attribute a significant part of my proficient drafting and oratory skills to my habit of reading . Literature has also contributed to my learning the art of cross-examination and I take pride in the fact that I am one of the few lawyers who have and are being engaged specially to cross-examine witnesses , including expert witnesses in highly complicated and high value disputes , before courts and in Arbitrations.  

I have in the past two decades focused on books primarily pertaining to conducting cross examination, law lexicon with maxims, conducting civil and criminal trials besides books discussing aspects of articulating arguments, the thinking of judges, the idea of justice and the due process of law. In addition to the above, the autobiographies and biographies of various Legal Eagles including Nani Palkhivala, Fali S. Nariman, Moti Lal Setalvad, Justice Rajinder Sachhar have also been my favourite reads. 

My favourite authors have been Lord Alfred Denning, Fali S. Nariman, Bhawani Lal, Moti Lal Setalvad, M.K. Gandhi, Richard A. Posner and Micheal S. Lief. Some of the books, which have contributed to my successful legal journey, include –  My Life – Law & Other Things, How Judges Think, The Articulate Advocate, The Idea of Justice, You Must Know Your Constitution, The Due Process of Law, Courtroom Genius, The Devil’s Advocate and Extraordinary Trials. 

You’ve authored a handbook on the Capital Market Laws. What motivated you to undertake this initiative, and what insights have you covered in this book?

Answering: My association with the Capital Market Regulator viz. Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) relates back to the year 1997 when I got empaneled with SEBI and started conducting cases for SEBI in the Delhi High Court. Due to my proficient handling of their cases, I was assigned further matters by SEBI in other courts and Tribunals in the following years and my scope of work increased. I was one of the few lawyers who was handling important and sensitive matters of the Capital Market Regulator before the High Court of Delhi , Special Criminal Court, Central Information Commission , Company Law Board etc. 

Due to my long and continuous association with SEBI, my expertise in the said Branch of Law and on account of my frequent appearances before the Delhi High Court, I was asked by one of the sitting judges of the Delhi High Court in early 2016 to author a  handbook on SEBI for a better and holistic understanding of the law pertaining to the Securities Market, as the same was a Specialized branch of law. Taking a cue from the same and also considering the fact that knowledge was meant to be disseminated for the benefit of the Institution ,  I ventured on the job of penning down a basic hand-book on SEBI which I titled as “Securities & Exchange Board of India – A Broad Overview – 2016”. 

The said hand-book  gave a broad overview of the Securities Market Regulator wherein I traced the origin of the Securities Market in India, dealt with the history of the regulator of the securities market prior to the birth of SEBI viz, the Controller of Capital Issues, elucidated SEBI’s objectives, duties and powers, cited the key Regulations governing the securities market, touched upon other statutes which are interconnected with the SEBI Act, referred to the  significant developments in the securities market, adverted to some important legal precedents and finally culled out the notable achievements of SEBI since its inception. 

After printing the said hand-book , I presented a copy of the same to all the sitting judges of the Delhi High Court.

With the legal profession undergoing rapid changes, especially in the digital era, what advice would you give to aspiring lawyers looking to build a successful career in today’s dynamic legal landscape?

The legal profession is very challenging and equally competitive. In the past two decades, the legal profession has witnessed a large number of aspiring as well as practicing lawyers going abroad for studies to hone their knowledge in the legal field. The aspiring lawyers should realise that the legal profession has benefited immensely from the advancement in technology in the last two decades and the accessibility to the legal software on the mobiles and laptops has enabled them to be more aware and informed about the latest developments in law while being on the move and they should take advantage of the same . Aspiring lawyers  should participate in moot courts and take up regular internships so as to build up their confidence and also get more exposure to real time practice in Courts and Tribunals. They should also make the optimum use of legal softwares and develop a strong aptitude for legal research. They should also endeavor to host webinars on different legal subjects by calling reputed lawyers from diversified fields of law. They should   participate in legal conferences and widen their legal spectrum. They should be mindful of their objective and interests while  choosing a Seniors chamber and should endeavour to associate themselves with a Chamber which aligns with the areas and branches of law of their interest and the courts/ forums where they intend to practice in the future. They must watch and observe the manner in which their Senior addresses arguments in the courts. They should remember that there is no substitute to hard work. They must be strong, be determined , be focused and be ethical. 

Balancing a successful legal career with personal interests and hobbies can be challenging. How do you manage to maintain this balance, and are there any activities or hobbies that you find particularly rejuvenating outside the courtroom?

It is very important but equally difficult to balance one’s professional career, his hobbies and family commitments at the same time. The balance attains importance in view of the facts that a lawyer cannot put his professional guard down and has to be dedicated to his professional career. At the same time, he has to devote ample time towards his family and also has to cull out time for himself to pursue his hobbies in   his areas of interest. 

I balance my work, my hobbies and my family time to the best of my abilities. I ensure that I wind up my work by 9.00 PM and thereafter I spend quality time with my family till 11.00 PM. Hereafter again I read my briefs till around 1.00 AM. I manage to rise by 7.00 AM and thereafter go out for my walk / jog or play badminton. What I find very rejuvenating is to go out on a small vacation for 3-4 days and spent a relaxing time during the said sojourn by going out for walks or simply by reading my favourite books. 

Your involvement in addressing sitting Judges from various High Courts on different aspects of law is commendable. Can you share some insights from these experiences and how they have influenced your perspective on legal education and awareness?

Answer: I have had the occasion to address sitting judges from various High Courts in the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal on more than one occasion. The first address by me was on the law pertaining to the Capital Markets and the said address was co-chaired by me along with Mr. U.K. Sinha, the then Chairman of SEBI. The second address was on the law pertaining to the Partnership Act, which I co-chaired along with Justice (Retd.) Sanjay Kishan Kaul, an erstwhile judge of the Supreme Court of India. 

The experience of addressing sitting High Court Judges was very unique and interesting. The fact of a lawyer being on the dias and speaking on a branch of law in front of sitting High Court Judges actually reverses the role of a judge and  lawyer , as otherwise the judges usually address lawyers on legal issues in legal conferences and seminars. The experience in the Academy was very meaningful inasmuch as the sitting judges actively participated in the session and put various queries to the Speakers. This was a manifestation of the fact that  law is ever evolving and one is always a student of law, be it a lawyer or a judge . It should be understood that there are always areas to be explored in different branches of law and one can never be a jurist unless he reads, listens , queries and explores. The informal interaction by the sitting judges after the session was over was very encouraging and equally heartening as the judges praised the speakers for their in depth knowledge of the particular branch of law . This further evidenced the simplicity of the judges and their openness to become aware of the specialized branches of law. As the saying goes – Education is not subject to the law of diminishing returns. 

As someone who has mentored and guided numerous aspiring lawyers, could you share your perspective on the importance of internships for law students? What advice would you give to students seeking meaningful internships to enhance their legal education and practical skills?

There is no substitute for hard-work, dedication and commitment in the legal profession. If you are focused on your work, you will succeed. An aspiring lawyer must have the zeal and enthusiasm to train oneself and emerge as a formidable lawyer. The stream of practice and the chamber which a lawyer joins, determines the trajectory of the career of lawyer. 

Internships are a very important facet in the career of a lawyer. Internships give an aspiring lawyer a real feel of being on the job. Aspiring lawyers should prefer undertaking online internships instead of offline and should juxtapose legal research along with  attending courts and observing court proceedings during their internships. During this period, they should also emphasis on writing legal articles on different aspects of law, which would enable them to improve their thinking, writing and research skills. They should be part of the conferences which takes place between their Seniors and Clients so as to learn the art of dealing with and handling of, the clients. They must have a full overview of the case before they go to the Court and should observe how their seniors argue in the Court. During their entire college tenure, they should endeavor to undertake internships in different chambers viz; with an individual lawyer, a designated senior lawyer, a law firm and also with Arbitrators,  so as to have a myriad experience of different chambers of law . 

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