In Conversation with:- Mohini Priya, Advocate on Record, Trained Mediator, Policy analyst, Member of International Legal Alliance and Member of India Child Protection Forum

This interview has been published by Prabhjot Singh, Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

What motivated you to pursue law? How was your under-graduate experience in law school? If not law, which subject would you have opted for?

I completed my five years law course from Government Law College, Mumbai in the year 2009. Honestly speaking, being from the science stream, pursuing law was not the obvious career option for me.

I wanted to pursue medicine in the first place but like any other confused student wanted to explore other options as well. Interestingly, around the same time, with the emergence of national law schools and many corporate law firms, law as a career option was becoming lucrative, as it offered a stable career which was financially rewarding.

Many new offshoots of law had come up, like the IPR, Cyber Laws, Environmental laws, so there was no dearth of opportunities. All these factors were creating an inclination towards law. However, I was not very vocal and outspoken in my school days which made my family sceptical about my suitability for the legal profession, as it is the popular perception that lawyers are supposed to be loud and aggressive.

In the midst of all the confusion raking up  in my head, I intuitively decided to take up law. In those times there was no CLAT and admission in GLC, Mumbai  was solely on the basis of 10+2 score and interview. The cut off was high but I luckily managed to make it through the final list.

And that is how this journey began. So in my case it was more a matter of destiny than choice. Hailing from a small town, there were initial hiccups in adjusting to the fast pace life of Mumbai but I believe it is far more easier to adapt to change at a younger age, and so I soon became a part of it.

Being in the heart of the town, GLC had locational advantage, apart from having some very good professors and an extremely distinguished alumni.

A few months into college I realized that extra curriculars were as important as academics. I was a part of the Moot Court Association, The Legal Aid Committee and the Student’s Council, which gave me abundant exposure to lawyers and law offices, allowed to acquire some important life skills like organization and team work and also helped me get visibility.

I did some national and state level moot courts, which gave me a good practical experience of law. I focused on getting a few good internships in Bombay High court and the Supreme Court of India and also did a couple of corporate internships.

I think it was the last corporate internship which made me realize that litigation was my true calling. So yes, I did take five years at law college to understand what I really wanted to do, but once that happened I held on to my decision and persevered.  

Do you believe that law students must be taught the ground reality of Court procedures along with the theoretical part?

Most law schools these days have moot court competitions, negotiation competitions, which give a law student some opportunity of legal research and arguments as well as a preliminary understanding of court manners. However, in actuality, the working of a court is very different and there is no set pattern.

For a litigating lawyer, every day is a new day. “Legal acumen” is not something that can be taught but is only acquired after years of experience  and learning from one’s mistakes. Sometimes things may not go as planned.

A lawyer may be fully prepared to argue a case in a particular manner but the Bench may throw a completely different issue at them. Thus real court craft involves creative thinking,  quick decision making  and learning to read the mind of the judge, which can only come after some years of real court experience.

A good approach to be adopted by law colleges would be compulsory court visits for law students, so that they get adequate exposure to actual functioning of courts. Now with the live streaming of Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court, as well as some other High Courts law students will have online access to courtrooms and can well prepare themselves for the times to come.

How do different approaches of adjudicators help in critical thinking? Do you believe that it helps in understanding cross-cultural overlaps in legal systems?

India is known for its cultural and religious diversity. Sometimes reading a book or doing a course may not help a law student understand the socio-cultural implications of the problem at hand. Real life references are needed to relate to a particular issue and understand it at a grassroot level. Socio-cultural and religious ethos run deep into an individual’s psyche and that reflects in many of the judgments delivered by Courts. A judgment is not merely an interpretation of a law, but is a reflection of  judge’s cultural background and mindset. A study of court judgments does encourage critical thinking. Take for  example, the recent split verdict of the Supreme Court in the Hijab case. The moot question there was whether there is a right to wear hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka – with one judge affirming that the state government is authorised to enforce uniform in schools as wearing of hijab is not mandatory in Islam, and the other calling hijab a matter of choice that cannot be stifled by the state.

While both the reasoning are correct, the question we need to ask ourselves is how do we want to grow as a society. Whether we should follow the strict letter of the law or give way to a progressive interpretation in light of the changing times and in the interest of social justice.

Some of the judgments delivered by Courts may not be in tune with the societal changes and that is where a role of a lawyer comes in- to sensitize and be sensitive.

Even as a mediator, I come across individuals from different backgrounds and cultures, which helps me better understand human psyche better, which in turn gives me an additional advantage in deriving a solution when faced with a similar situation in courts.

The Courts in recent times have been moving towards a progressive regime, like decriminalizing homosexuality, declaring abortion as a reproductive choice of women, and including ‘marital rape’ within the ambit of rape for the purpose of MTP Act, to mention a few. In some ways we are ahead of western countries when it comes to fundamental rights.

However, a change in laws cannot change mindsets overnight, as social and cultural norms play an important role in resisting change. Analysis of court judgments helps in understanding cross cultural diversities and  narrowing this gap.

You filed a PIL before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, on behalf of a leading IVF Specialist based out of Chennai, challenging the constitutionality of several provisions of the Surrogacy (Regulation) Act, 2021 and the Assisted Reproductive Technology Act, 2021. Please tell us about the matter in detail.

Surrogacy is a rather complex issue as it has several socio-cultural and economic implications. Bringing about a legislation in this field would require extensive study and research as well as opinions of experts in the field. However, the present legislations on Surrogacy and Assisted Reproductive Technique seem to be fundamentally flawed in many aspects.

Firstly, the Surrogacy(Regulation) Act, 2021 recognizes only heteronormative married couples and fails to take into account other alternative family arrangements like same-sex couples and live-in couples which have been given legal recognition.

The Surrogacy Act creates artificial distinction amongst women inter se by excluding single women (except widows and divorcees within a certain age bracket) to avail of surrogacy. Single men have been altogether excluded. Moreover, surrogacy is now allowed only in altruistic form from a close relative which is an infringement on a couple’s fundamental right to privacy.

Unfortunately, infertility is still a taboo in our country and most couples wouldn’t want to disclose such a fact even to their family in order to find  a close relative who is willing to be  a  surrogate mother.

Thus imposing a blanket ban on commercial surrogacy may prove to be counterproductive and lead to illegal and unregulated markets. Apart from that many provisions under the Assisted Reproductive Techniques Act, 2021(ART Act) are medically not viable and impossible to implement.

The ART Act apart from restricting the number of times an egg donor can donate in her lifetime, creates no provision for compensation to an egg donor. Moreover, several procedures which were completely legal earlier have been suddenly rendered illegal or in an impasse by the passing of the Acts.

All these factors have brought donor cycles in our country to a standstill. During the hearing of the petition. the Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that these issues need consideration and has asked the Central Government to file a response. I sincerely hope and pray that the Apex Court gives a progressive interpretation to both the statutes and if that happens, this case could prove to be a breakthrough in the field of reproductive rights.

How important do you consider legal professionals to work with NGOs and support social initiatives? Do you think it adds value in the long run?

Law is called a “Noble Profession” and rightly so. We, as legal professionals have a positive obligation to contribute to the society. Lawyers are agents of social change. However, in order to bring about a substantial change, it is important to understand the  problems and complexities associated with an issue at grass root levels and NGO’s provide a very good platform for that. NGO’s work in close association with vulnerable and marginalized sections of the society.

Working with an NGO may not provide one with an immense amount of money, but it gives great networking opportunities, as well as help a lawyer to contribute towards creating a social impact. Apart from that, NGO’s have extensive research material and experience in the field they cater to, which could be effectively used by a lawyer to become the voice of the voiceless. 

Lawyers have an additional advantage of knowledge of court procedures and direct access to courts, and can help direct future litigation on important social issues in accordance with an NGO’s aims and objectives.

I have had the opportunity to work with some leading NGOs like Prayas, which extensively works for rehabilitation of street children and juvenile justice,  and I can certainly say that it has opened a whole new dimension for me which has immensely helped me in my professional and personal growth.

Apart from that, the satisfaction one gets from rendering service to the community is unmatched. So, I would highly recommend every litigating lawyer to have some exposure of working with an NGO.

What are the roles and responsibilities for a policy advisor? And will it create more opportunities for legal professionals in coming times?

Policy analysis includes identifying current or impending problems with a government policy, determining its causes and proposing solutions. A lawyer broadly does the same for his clients and therefore lawyers make for great policy analysts, although not all policy analysts are lawyers.

There are special courses offered by universities on policy analysis. However, lawyers and law students have a unique advantage when it comes to deciphering legal jargon and forecasting how a legislation would develop. Another advantage is their ability to recognize how a small change in a rule or regulation could have a huge public impact.

Legal professionals can work in policy space as research fellows in government agencies, think tanks, research organizations and corporations examining complex issues that affect the government and the daily lives of citizens.

I have personally worked at analyzing some provisions introduced by the Child Marriage Amendment Bill, 2021 and the Juvenile Justice Amendment Act, 2021 as a representative of the NGO Prayas and India Child Protection Forum headed by noble laureate Kailash Satyarthi and I have to admit that it was one of the most enriching experiences of my legal career.   

What, in your opinion, could be a social security safety net for lawyers after experiencing various pandemic waves?

It is indisputable that two years of the pandemic has hit lawyers very hard. There has been loss of work, loss of income, many lawyers had to downsize their team and even close down their offices as there was not enough revenue generation even to pay for rents. Virtual hearings have resulted in concentration of work leading to disguised unemployment.  

Although some of the Bar Councils have done their part in providing financial assistance to lawyers during the pandemic, it needs to be accessible to a larger community of lawyers and specially young lawyers.

A welcome step in this direction has been the recent observation by the Hon’ble Supreme Court that young lawyers should be adequately compensated by their seniors.

The pandemic has not just hit lawyers financially but the uncertainty and trimmed income apart from social isolation has had a severe impact on their mental health. There should be some initiative by the Bar Council to conduct counselling sessions for lawyers and seminars on mental health awareness.

Young lawyers should be encouraged to argue in order to help fast track their career trajectory.  

The post pandemic era has seen increasing use of technology and a gradual transition towards paperless courts. Although green courts are a welcome step, however some lawyers who are already facing financial difficulties may find it rather difficult to invest expensive gadgets in order to switch to paperless mode, and hence some financial assistance should also be offered to such lawyers.

What career advice do you have for our readers? 

There is no “One size fits all” approach when it comes to the litigation. Things may not always go as planned, so be patient but relentless in your efforts. Identify opportunities and take the first step.

Sometimes what may on the face of it seem to be insignificant might turn out to be a determining factor in your career, so don’t be afraid to take chances. Create short term goals and focus on them. Failure is inevitable but also necessary in order to stay motivated and grounded.

As a young litigator, there may be many brief-less days. Instead of getting hopeless and frustrated, use that free time to learn new skills, take up some courses and create litigation opportunities.

Time management is very crucial. Hard work has no substitute but smart work gives you a cut above the rest. Intelligence is a blessing but knowing how to channelize it in the right direction is what differentiates an average legal professional from a successful one. Today, digitally-savvy lawyers are in high demand as technology continues to evolve and progress.

And as the Indian Judiciary System gradually acquaints itself with cutting-edge technologies, emerging lawyers must do the same.

Lastly, going by my personal experience, I would like to tell my readers that career confusion is completely natural and pushes individuals to explore different opportunities in order to reach a well thought out decision, so keep your minds open and always remember that growth is more important than success.

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