“I always request everyone in my family, as well as in my office, to learn to say no. The moment you learn to say no, ethical problems and other issues will never come your way.” – Ashok Kumar Singh, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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

Hello and welcome, today we have with us the esteemed Ashok Kumar Singh sir, who is a senior advocate. And we would like to start the interview by asking the most important and most pertinent question Sir, what inspired you to pursue law and how has been your journey from the beginning till the time when you are doing arbitration and dispute resolution with so much ease?

My father was a government servant. I have seen bad days in my life. He was a small, hardworking government servant and an honest man. To survive with honesty at that time, when I studied professionally back in 1977 and 1978, was a difficult job. So, I thought of not joining any service and doing something different. Business was not an option because I had no money. Ultimately, I decided to adopt a profession that required little or no money. I thought of joining law and, in 1975, I joined the law faculty at Delhi University. I graduated in 1978.

Before I graduated in 1978, I started going to the courts. At that time, there was no concept of internships. My senior would take me to court, and it was usually assumed that I was a new clerk. Sometimes, it was very humiliating and insulting when someone asked if I was a new clerk, and I couldn’t say yes or no. I started the profession because I wanted to do something different and had no money to invest in a business.

Why did I come into arbitration and dispute resolution? Initially, I started as a criminal lawyer. To this day, I love doing criminal work; it is in my blood. In 1986 or 1987, a gentleman who was an additional general manager in the Delhi Transport Corporation gave me a challenge in arbitration. It was against NPCC, and his CMD told me, “Mr. Singh, even if you get it compromised at 20 lakh rupees, I will be the happiest person.” Twenty lakh rupees in 1985-1987 was a big amount. By the grace of God, it was the first case in my life, and I did it.

A NIL award was passed, but no award was granted to NPCC. This brought a major change in my life. I realized that besides criminal clients, dealing with civilized, highly-placed clients allowed you to invite them to your place, your office, or chit-chat with them.

You can have a cup of coffee, but with a criminal client, you can’t have all this liberty. Secondly, I realized that good money was transferred to me even at that time. I charged per hour and per hearing. I was the only counsel in Delhi Transport Corporation who was paid this much.

Thereafter, some other government departments tried me. I worked in Delhi, outside Delhi, and gave good results in arbitration as well. People started liking me for arbitration work too. It was a matter of chance that I started working in arbitration. Slowly, around 2010, somebody from the US approached me. He wanted an Indian counsel to represent them in an international arbitration in different jurisdictions like London, Singapore, Mauritius, the Cayman Islands, and the Isle of Man. I thought he would pay me a certain amount as a fee, but he asked for my fee schedule in hours. He indicated that he didn’t want a petty lawyer, suggesting that I could charge a good amount. This gave a twist to my life. I started working for them as an Indian counsel because Indian laws and properties were involved. They needed someone knowledgeable about civil law, criminal law, and income tax.

English counsels were very costly for them, so they wanted someone to assist the English counsels. Within six months, they made me the second leading counsel in the matter. In a year, I became the leading counsel, overseeing all litigation in the USA, Singapore, London, Mauritius, and other countries. All the counsels were working under me, and they found that I was much cheaper compared to English counsels who charged heavily.

The best part, which I must share with you, is that a claim of about 1700-1800 crore rupees was filed against our client. When we entered the case, we reviewed the entire file, made a claim, and issued a notice for the counterclaim. Within a few months, the chairman of the claimant approached us for a compromise. Without contesting the case too much, they gave our client 192 crore rupees in Indian currency. The claimant didn’t get even a single penny. The respondent, whom we were defending, got 192 crore rupees. Obviously, we also received a good fee and gained confidence that we could handle international resolutions and deliver good results to clients globally. This confidence was earned by our hard work. It wasn’t just me; my team also contributed significantly. Other lawyers working with me helped a lot. That was another turning point in my life. I decided to focus more on arbitration rather than criminal cases because in criminal law, people initially look for a laborious, good lawyer.

I was getting plenty of work. I must say I got plenty of work. I’m not boasting, but I consider myself one of the busiest counsels in District Court and later in High Court on the criminal side. But suddenly, things changed over time. Clients started approaching me with the idea, “Sir, you know such and such person, you know the government counsel.” This was not my cup of tea.

So I slowly started moving away from that. It was a bit disturbing, and when you say, “No, I don’t know,” or “I don’t believe in this sort of practice,” they wouldn’t want to continue with you. They would go to others. But in arbitration and civil practice, I realized that people appreciated your expertise.

They appreciated your knowledge, and over time, even till date, I’m getting good work from domestic as well as international clients. I have no problem. This is how I entered into arbitration, all with the grace of God and a little effort—a little effort, a little zeal to work, and a little enthusiasm to work. That is required too.

Since you picked up such a new field of arbitration and, the field was absolutely new in 1986, as you said. During this course of time, what kind of changes have you seen in commercial dispute resolution as well as the kind of arbitration which we are seeing nowadays? There must be some difference because we suddenly opened up for the world, India, especially in 1991. So you must have seen a lot of change as you had shifted from criminal to arbitration and commercial dispute resolution. We would love to hear that, sir.

There have been a lot of changes as far as arbitration is concerned. You know, it’s a very difficult question you’ve asked. I know a lot of people would get annoyed with my answer. Now it is dominated by a particular class. India wants to become the hub of arbitration. It is said so. But what I feel is, it is something, a slogan which we have been given, that it should be the hub of arbitration. If it is so, then why are about 36 percent of the arbitrations in Singapore conducted by Indians? Why are about 30 percent of arbitrations in Hong Kong or about 30 to 33 percent in Kuala Lumpur conducted by Indians? Why are they not coming back to India? Why are they not engaging Indian arbitrators? Why are they not relying upon Indian counsels? Why are they not relying upon the system which we have, even though it has improved a lot?

The system doesn’t carry that much weight. The people who have to somehow work in the system are very important. How the arbitrators are appointed, who they are, how they behave, how much they charge, and whether it is feasible for international clients to engage them are all important. What is their tone and temperament? That is very important because an international client would not like to be dictated to, as we normally are. Secondly, internationally, when we go out to conduct a matter, we know that early in the morning at 9 o’clock, we have to report, or at 9:30, and by 10 o’clock we will start.

It will continue up to 5 o’clock, and we are paid for that. Hourly basis, arbitrators are also paid hourly. The amount is also very reasonable, 500 pounds or 600 pounds, which is 55,000 or 60,000 rupees in Indian currency per hour. Even the arbitrators charge that much amount. But here it is a little costly affair, as you would appreciate. Normally arbitrators, though Schedule 4 is there for domestic cases, that is something different. But in international arbitration, there is no schedule. Arbitrators are charging fees according to their own choice. Normally charges are 2.50 lakhs per hearing of two hours or more.

A good amount of time is wasted in looking into diaries to find out the actual dates. Then, two hours sometimes are completed or not completed. It is something, you know, which pinches the international clients. If you ask me, 2.50 lakhs means 1.25 lakhs rupees per hour, which is a little higher in comparison to international market rates. They give you a good amount. It doesn’t mean that they don’t make the payment. Their payment is much more than ours, but they give it in different forms, such as hourly preparation of the case. After preparation, when you prepare for the drafting of the awards, they pay you a good amount. For consultation and meetings in between, they give you a good amount. But hearings always go on in one go, from 10 to 5, 10 to 3, or 10 to 4, whatever the time given. And in a very disciplined manner. That is lacking somewhere here because we don’t have many institutional applications, if you ask me.

There are only a few institutions here. And those institutions are also somewhere state-wise, somewhere region-wise. So international clients are unable to choose whom they should go to. Whether it’s the Mumbai International Arbitration Center, Delhi International Arbitration Center, Chennai International Arbitration Center, or Chandigarh International Arbitration Center, there’s no certainty.

So you have to develop a particular city, find a particular city, and then develop it. Like in Singapore, they have a center in Singapore. It doesn’t mean the entire Singapore, it’s a particular place. There are also many other international arbitration centers working there.

I am also an advisor to them, but you have to develop a particular center. You have to choose this, and that center should be completely free from judicial interference. Completely. It should be in the hands of only independent persons. Alright? Highly placed arbitrators, highly placed persons who have good knowledge in arbitration, only they should run it.

Then, probably, we can make a difference. Previously, arbitrations were uncommon in this country, so the system was a little different. I still recollect when I would go to any arbitrator, he would welcome us warmly, invite us for a cup of tea, and teach us as if we were his children. Things are changing. Those days are gone. Now, we have become more commercialized. That is the difference I am noticing.

Secondly, regarding labor, I don’t blame the arbitrators. Nowadays, we are getting 100-page judgments, 200-page judgments. By the time you rely on one judgment, another judgment comes in, contradicting the previous one. Sometimes in a month, we get two or three judgments that are not in line with each other. Nobody is following what was decided earlier.

This creates a lot of difficulty for the clients. Their position is also very bad. Now the provisions are made very stringent. Normally, it should be in line with international practice, but we have to consider our country’s practice as well. In Section 34, there is no chance to get any relief unless the issue is something different. It’s the same with Section 37.

I’m not accusing anyone, but the possibility and probability of a few arbitrators out of 100 becoming dishonest cannot be ruled out. Just imagine the plight of those clients and the impression they would carry if they had not been able to prove their case, despite knowing that an injustice has been done to them.

There should be some judgment for clients facing such great difficulty and injustice. My experience is that most of the arbitrators I work with are very honest and dedicated.

India is a very big place. We have the maximum number of arbitration cases in the world. Most of them are not institutional. When they are not institutional, arbitrations are happening in small places as well, where even the area in charge or market pradhan conducts arbitration. Those arbitrations are also covered by Section 30.

I feel that while we are making the laws very stringent, we should also consider those who are losing good cases because of the arbitrator’s decision. The court says it is not sitting in appeal and that whatever is decided is final. This aspect needs to be looked at differently. The changes have both good and bad sides. It is very difficult to explain all these things.

There are many things you can’t or don’t want to explain openly, but yes, a lot of changes are required. It’s time we make arbitration reach the roots of society. We should include people from society as arbitrators, like lawyers, senior lawyers, engineers, architects, academicians, chartered accountants, and company secretaries.

Whenever I go to institutions to teach law or other aspects, the question they usually ask is, “Sir, will we be appointed as arbitrators sometime in our life?” I can’t say anything to them because appointments are done by someone who is not under my control. We all know how it should be, but I don’t want to open that discussion again.

Alongside your legal career, you’re also a Professor at Sanskriti University. How do you balance your roles in academia and legal practice, and what do you enjoy most about teaching?

When I was in London conducting the matter, I realized that most of the judges worked as part-time lecturers. My son also studied there, and my daughter studied in the US. So, I always got the impression that the judges would come in the late evening, sometimes at 10:30 or 11 o’clock. The message would be floated that they were coming to discuss a legal proposition, and they would come and teach the students.

During the pandemic, I was in touch with my juniors, and we were discussing various aspects of law: arbitration, the IBC code, and other criminal laws. Online, I shared whatever knowledge I had with them. At this point, one or two universities approached me to speak to their students online. One of the universities made me an honorary professor. I don’t go very regularly to teach, but whenever they require my attendance for a particular subject or practical experience for the students, I love to go and share my experiences.

I have realized, and I personally feel, that we should help because universities find it difficult to call us since their curriculum is different from what we have in mind. When we go and discuss practical problems, the students find it challenging. They say, “Sir, we have been taught this much, but you are saying it is to be done like this.” Particularly, there are so many problems in life. You know it very well.

A student who has learned criminal law, when he comes to court, has an idea just like Shatrughna Sinha would come from the back and say, “My Lord, how can you do it?” And the matter would be decided in five minutes. At the time of a bail application, a hearing will take place, or evidence will take place. This sort of idea always remains because they are fascinated by movies and films.

To make them understand that it is very difficult, I always tell my interns that this is not something to teach you. This is something to teach you only discipline in the office: come on time, sit over there, learn the legal propositions, and leave at the appropriate time. If you don’t learn discipline, you won’t be able to be a good lawyer.

We can’t make them lawyers in three months, four months, two months, or six months. No, we can’t. We have to just make them understand what the law is so that tomorrow they should not get frustrated and run away from the profession. You won’t believe that 85% of young lawyers who join the profession leave within two to five years. They don’t continue, especially those who are not in corporate but in trial cases. They get frustrated much earlier because what they have in mind is not there.

Getting clients is a difficult job, getting money from the clients is a very difficult job, and getting relief from the court is the next most difficult job. Unless they get relief, the clients will not come back to them. They won’t get new clients, so they soon get frustrated because they need to settle in life. They come in at the age of 23 or 24, and by 28, 29, or 30, if they are not able to earn even 50,000 rupees per month, they get frustrated. So, besides the legal education we give in universities and colleges, we have to make them aware of the practical aspects as well.

I thought of doing something different besides what is written in the books, to inform them about the practical aspects of the legal profession. Getting this done is not difficult. I recollect one of my seniors, who greatly influenced me. He is no longer in this world, but he always said, “Vyast woh hain jo ast vyast hain.” If I have to take out the time, I will take out the time. If I don’t have to take out the time, I will not take out the time. I just manage. I don’t take up too much work that I can’t do. It is an injustice to the client, to myself, and to my family.

Take only as much work as is required. In the initial stage, yes, I did a lot of work. I was working from 7 in the morning to 12 o’clock at night, conducting 20 to 25 cases in a day. Now, I don’t do that much work. I feel that whatever is required for me, God is giving me. I’m happy with that.

Taking out time is not difficult. You have to manage your schedule. You don’t have to do too much work. You have to give proper time to your family, work, staff, hobbies, and yourself.

I would like to ask you the next question related to the new entrance to the legal field and all the kind of stress that you were talking about that after five to seven years, usually they get frustrated because they have that filmy thought that this is how trial court will work. What would you suggest to those entrants and such kind of thought process, how to build this inherently that later when they enter the profession, they do not feel frustrated. There must be something because as you said, in your early days, you used to take a 25 cases a day. That’s a huge thing, but you must have managed that in some manner. So if you could impart some thought about that, because that will be very helpful to the new generation as well.

For the newcomers, we can give much advice, but before giving any advice, it is better that we change ourselves. I’m still finding it very difficult to persuade my friends to give at least some amount to the interns or junior lawyers. If you go to district courts, you will find the position is also very tough for them.

If we have to ensure that good lawyers join the profession, we have to support them for three years, maybe two, three, four, or even five years. It becomes the duty of every senior who is keeping a junior to cover at least the minimum possible expenses. This support is a great help to them in the initial stage. Even if they are asking for money from their parents, they are happy to receive 20,000, 15,000, 25,000, or 30,000. For a trial lawyer, when you join a law firm, the situation will be different.

Learning in a law firm is a little slow, which I am not against. I have all respect for them, but it is slow. A person working in the district court, starting from zero, and learning from the beginning becomes a very good lawyer. He knows when the accused will be produced, what to do when the bail application is moved, how the bail bond is to be moved, how charges are to be framed, how sensible suit issues are to be framed, and the meanings of rejoinder, application, and written statement.

He learns a lot of things in the process. So, before giving a suggestion to newcomers, I request all my colleagues who are well-placed in the system to extend their hands to help newcomers. That will be much better. The moment you do it, many will stay in the profession and prove to be good lawyers.

The second aspect is that none of the newcomers want to go to the lower courts. Out of 100, you will find hardly 5 or 10 who go to the lower court. Everybody is interested in coming to the High Court or the Supreme Court in their father’s car, enjoying a cup of coffee, some snacks, or smoking with friends, and then going back in the evening with a new white shirt and coat, with a smiling face.

They don’t appreciate that spending two, three, five, or even ten hours per day at the High Court is not going to help them in any case. The High Court has its own limitations, and the Supreme Court has its own limitations. Basic law is to be learned in the lower courts, which nobody wants to learn.

They also have to change their temperament. They have to decide what they want to do. People come to me and say, “Sir, we want to work in the High Court only.” That’s fine, but you will get a chance to work in the High Court after working for five years in the lower court. Then you will be in a position to understand the basic concepts of law, the basic concepts of practice, and the basic difficulties of practice.

So, we should also make them understand that it is better to work for two, three, four, or five years in the lower court, and then come to the High Court or the Supreme Court.

Ninety percent of those who start in the High Court and Supreme Court, 85 to 90%, leave the profession midway because there is nothing. You can work in a law firm for two, three, four, or five years, but eventually, you have to show your worth. They are not going to pay you throughout your life without you showing your worth.

You will show your worth when you learn something. The learning process is a difficult job. So, my humble advice to all newcomers is that they should spend some time in a law firm. Learn from the beginning, whether on the criminal side or the civil side. Learn from the beginning what civil law is, what criminal law is, the basics of the civil procedure court, the Limitation Act, the Specific Relief Act, the Stamp Duty Act, and other important provisions of law. On the criminal side, learn the CrPC, IPC, and Evidence Act. They should understand these and then come to the High Court to try their luck. They might be more successful in comparison to what they are today.

Sir, as you have interacted with so many international and national clients parallelly, kind of ethical complexities, I would say, have you encountered any while representing such clients? And how did you upheld that kind of principle of justice and fairness that we always talk about as lawyers? How has it worked for you? How have you gone through the whole process?

It depends on the person. Simply put, if I am honest, I am honest. If I’m not, I’m not. If I have to do something, I will do it. If I don’t have to do it, I won’t.

I always request everyone in my family, as well as in my office, to learn to say no. The moment you learn to say no, ethical problems and other issues will never come your way. If you are concerned about something, just say no. What is the problem with that? That is the best way out. If you don’t say no and continue with something despite difficulties, it becomes problematic.

It happens, right? Secondly, most people say the profession is degrading. Yes, in some aspects, I do agree, but in my 45 years of practice, I have never been abused for any work. No High Court judge, Supreme Court judge, or minister has ever approached me to manipulate a case. They know me well and are close friends. No member of parliament has ever asked me to ruin a session.

You have to build up your image. Once your image is good, you won’t face such problems, whether domestic or international. No one has ever dared to approach me to say, “Sir, we have to do it in this fashion.” It’s my prerogative, my decision. You have given the problem to me. I will discuss it with you and suggest solutions. If you are happy, that’s fine. If not, give me a counter solution, and I will examine it. No illegal business, no hanky-panky in my office. If I’m sure of my integrity, I won’t face any difficulties.

Problems arise when one doesn’t maintain their character. Otherwise, they don’t. At least, I haven’t faced such problems in the last 45 years. Not a single person has approached me inappropriately. I have handled the second largest arbitration case in the country, worth about 15,000 crore rupees. It’s not a small amount. I’ve also handled other cases worth 500, 1,000, and 2,000 crore rupees. I have been a senior legal advisor to many government departments.

But nobody has ever approached me to do something against my principles. I don’t boast, but even for one of the biggest business houses in the country, when I was a legal advisor for a particular department, a substantial work assignment was based entirely on merit.

So, it depends on the person. I have not found any difficulty, and I don’t think anyone should if they are a person of character. However, a person of character might face difficulties. People might consider you egotistical or form different opinions about you. They might say you don’t visit their chambers or listen to anyone.

But in my heart, I’m happy that I have never compromised my principles in my life.

Sir, that being said, when you mentioned the second-largest case of 15, 000 CR, if you are comfortable sharing some details and how it made a course for you, a difference in your life on your professional front, as well as personal, because this is the biggest thing which one can hear because you were handling such a huge case. How did it bring change in your life?

Look, as far as the case particulars are concerned, they are always confidential.

But I will say again that two things count a lot in all these matters: your reputation and your ability to plan effectively. If one knows how to prepare a case and how to achieve the ultimate relief, this planning must be done in the initial stage. Good work must be done before starting a case.

Someone who was very highly placed in the Government of India, after retirement, became an advisor to that company. He had seen me working for about eight or ten years, dealing with matters worth millions of rupees and achieving positive results. So, he recommended my name, and that matter was assigned to us. We worked for about six months to make a strategy and prepare the case.

I must say, it was a very well-prepared case. I’m happy that I worked on it, even though it presented different challenges. One of my friends, whom I must call a friend because of our long-standing relationship, came to me while I was handling the matter for the Delhi Transport Corporation. He got to know about me, and later, when he became the CMG of a department, he assigned me a case.

He said, “Despite our best efforts, we are unable to recover the money from this gentleman who is politically very highly placed.” With the help of the concerned officers, who were also very nice and dedicated, and my staff, we worked day and night. It was very difficult, like trying to catch a snake that would run here and there. We got an order in the department, and I proposed filing an appeal.

It was a very interesting issue. I proposed filing an appeal, which nobody wanted to do. Luckily, the chairman agreed, and we got the order modified. In the appeal, about 94 crore rupees were additionally paid to the government department. I’m happy that more than 400 crore rupees were recovered from that client for the government department.

All this happens sometimes because of luck, sometimes because of hard work, sometimes because of your reputation, and sometimes because of your relationships. But somewhere, someone is deciding our destiny and making these things happen. I don’t attribute anything special to myself; it’s all the work of the Almighty.

Sir, on that note, I cannot stop myself, but ask you all of this going around, definitely there must be some stress. I know not that much with your kind of thought process, but still, how do you come out of that kind of stressful situation? How do you take care of yourself? Your mental health and what kind of hobbies do you look forward to when you want to de stress yourself?

The very simple process that I am doing, I don’t know. For so many years, early in the morning, I get up and, after getting fresh, my routine is that I do my pranayama.

If I get time, then I go for meditation. For the last three or four years, I’ve been doing Sudarshan Kriya, Guru Shri Ravi Shankar’s. Whenever I get time, I also do my yoga asanas and take my bath. In the evening, if I get time, I like to spend quality time with my wife. My children are well settled with their families, so I have only my wife to help me. I had a good time with her. We are more friends than husband and wife and enjoy life beautifully.

Before Corona, we travelled at least four or five times a year abroad and within the country. After Corona, we started travelling again. We were in Thailand and Cambodia just two weeks ago. Now we are planning to go to the US and Canada next month. You have to make time and choose the right company.

God has already chosen the company for me, so my wife is there to give me company.

As far as hobbies are concerned, I love reading. Sometimes, late at night, I read books of my choice. Previously, it was good literature and history; nowadays, I read spiritual books.

Get in touch with Ashok Kumar Singh

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