“My commitment to pro bono work is motivated by a fundamental belief in justice accessible to all”- Highlighting the role of lawyers in ensuring equitable access to legal representation and advocacy : Suvendu Suvasis Dash, Advocate-on-Record & Managing Partner at Vaibhav & Dash Law Associates

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

Can you take us back to the beginning of your career? What motivated you to pursue law, and how did you start your journey in this field? 

My journey into the realms of law began serendipitously as I turned the pages of an old magazine that featured an obituary of the legendary constitutional lawyer, Nani Palkhivala. The year was 2004, and I, a science student at the time, was at a crossroads about my future. Palkhivala’s profound influence on the legal landscape struck a chord with me, prompting my decision to pivot from science to law. This epiphany led me to enroll in a 3-year LL.B course with a deep-set desire to build a career in litigation and emulate Palkhivala’s mastery in constitutional law and interpretation of statutes. My affinity for literature blossomed simultaneously, nourishing my analytical skills and enriching my legal acumen. Eventually I would read a lot of literature on Palkhivala and read many judgments where he had argued. 

Before pursuing your LL.B., you completed a B.Sc. in Physics. What was your career plan during your time studying physics, and what inspired you to transition to law?  

While my initial academic pursuit in Physics was driven by a fascination with science and an aspiration to become an air force pilot, my career trajectory took a decisive turn following a series of introspections and a pivotal setback in the air force selection process. The rigorous analytical training from my science background seamlessly transitioned into legal studies, where I discovered a profound passion for law. This newfound path was not just a career choice but a calling to delve into the intricate domains of statutes and societal norms. 

As an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court, what unique challenges do you face compared to other courts and tribunals?

Supreme Court practice is a unique ball game in itself. The challenges aren’t many but with constant and consistent preparation, it’s a delight to practice here in the long run. It eventually becomes more rewarding with passing years. As a Supreme Court lawyer, we require to inculcate all the requisite qualities of a good lawyer across all courts and tribunals. The emphasis however is on acquiring more and more knowledge on law, precedents and statutory interpretation. 

Practicing at the Supreme Court is akin to playing in the major leagues of law where each case can set a precedent or influence national jurisprudence. The key challenges here are the rigorous scrutiny of Special Leave Petitions under Article 136 and the statistically low acceptance rates of such petitions. This requires a deep understanding of both law and material facts to present substantial questions that warrant the apex Court’s intervention. 

Despite these hurdles, the satisfaction of advocating at India’s highest Court, where the stakes are monumental and the outcomes deeply impactful, is profoundly rewarding. The great thing about the practice in the Court is that it is the last resort of a litigant to get Justice and the Court, in many cases, allows substantial questions of law and also questions of fact to be opened up for rendering Justice to see that Justice is done in the case of deserving litigants. 

You were associated with Dr. Justice Akshaya Kumar Rath and Mr. Ashok Panigrahi. How did these associations shape your professional path and legal philosophy?

Both my seniors imbibed in me a sense of industriousness and punctuality during my early years of practice. Dr. Rath was eventually elevated as a Judge of the Hon’ble Orissa High Court. He is a man of unwavering integrity and imbibed in me those principles. He has voracious reading habits and that’s from where I picked up a taste of reading a lot on all subjects- from law to biographies, literature, spirituality, philosophy and science. He keeps himself updated on judgments and precedents and was a very good taskmaster. Subsequent to his retirement, we keep in touch and exchange a lot on our current reading. We talk about foreign judgments and articles in journals like Harvard Law Review etc. Dr. Rath instilled in me the virtues of diligence and broad intellectual curiosity.

Mr. Panigrahi was very influential during my early years at the Supreme Court. He helped me connect with a lot of people. He reposed a lot of trust in me while pursuing drafting assignments during my early years.  He helped me a lot on the minute nuances in Supreme Court practice and the best methods to prepare a case and brief a Senior Advocate. 

I shall always remain grateful to my seniors for where I am now and to have helped me set higher standards. These formative associations have not only crafted my legal perspective but have also deeply ingrained a commitment to excellence and ethical practice.

Given your top position in the Advocates-on-Record Examination, can you elaborate on the importance of this exam for legal professionals and share some tips for aspiring candidates?  

Passing the Advocates-on-Record examination is a sort of rite of passage into long-term, successful and progressive practice in the Supreme Court. It offers pan-India recognition as a Supreme Court Advocate and builds a great reputation while appearing in various Courts and jurisdictions. The preparation for the examination involves acquiring minutes of Supreme Court practice and procedure, developing deft drafting skills, building up good ethics in the practice of law, sound knowledge on legal principles, interpretation and precedents. The more a person spends time in the Courtrooms, administrative offices and sections of the Court, one builds up a sound practical idea about how things work in the Court. The academic environment in the Supreme Court with illustrious Senior Advocates and colleagues is also very conducive to efficient learning of legal concepts and effective performance of aspiring lawyers. 

The Advocates-on-Record exam is also a quality control system adopted by the Supreme Court, akin to the Solicitor’s exam, to maintain high quality amongst Supreme Court practitioners. The exam stands as a gateway to distinguished practice in the Supreme Court, signifying a benchmark of competence and credibility. For aspiring candidates, my appeal is to immerse oneself in the daily proceedings of the Court, engage with seasoned practitioners, and maintain an unwavering commitment to the profession’s highest standards. This not only prepares one for the exam but also for a fulfilling career at the bar.

What are some of your hobbies and personal interests, and how do they help you manage the demands of your legal career?  

My personal interests—ranging from aviation to literature and community service through the Rotary Club—enrich my life beyond the courtroom and provide a balanced reservoir of calm and resilience. These pursuits offer fresh perspectives and a creative outlet that enhances my professional stamina and mental acuity, crucial for navigating the demanding landscape of legal practice. I relish reading a lot on diverse subjects, travelling, spending quality time with my family and small circle of friends. I find it interesting to keep myself updated on the latest trends in the aviation industry. I’ve been associated with the Rotary club and I am the incumbent secretary of my club where I engage in various social activities. I like going on long drives. I enjoy cooking on holidays. These help me maintain an inner calmness. Reading legal literature, biographies, legal anecdotes, science, fiction and technology related topics helps me build a balanced perspective on life. These activities not only provide relaxation but also keep me grounded and focused, enhancing my productivity and approach to legal practice.

You recently completed a Diploma in Bhagavad Gita from ISKCON Bhagavata Mahavidyalaya. What inspired you to pursue this diploma, and how has it influenced your personal and professional life?  

I was amazed as well as intrigued by being introduced to the life led by the Brahmachaaris at ISKCON who have renounced the worldly affairs and have dedicated their lives towards studying and learning of the Vedas and Vedic scriptures, and acquiring knowledge on their underlying philosophies. From them I came to know about the significance of Srimad Bhagavad Gita. Each verse of the Gita is a treasure trove of deep and elegant philosophies of life. The meditation and chanting techniques discussed therein are of a superlative order in the impact that they exert on our thoughts, way of life, and understanding of things, circumstances and people. The way of life enunciated in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita is par excellence. It has helped me gain perspectives in my personal, social and professional life. Recently, I faced something immensely life-threatening. My reference to verses of Gita and my association with instructors from ISKCON helped me face things with courage and positivity. 

Life’s ephemeral nature coupled with its fledgling possibilities are sufficient reasons for one to study and understand the philosophies from Gita. It certainly helps me maintain equanimity of thoughts in both gains and losses. Pursuing the Diploma in Bhagavad Gita was an exploration into the philosophical bedrock of existence and ethics. The profound wisdom of the Gita provides a powerful framework for personal and professional resilience, guiding me through life’s tumultuous phases. This spiritual grounding enriches my legal practice, allowing me to approach each case with a balanced perspective and deep humanity

Which area of law are you most passionate about, and what drives your interest in this field? Please share some memorable cases in this area.

I am passionate about Constitutional Law, Administrative law and Criminal law. The vast amount of literature on the philosophy of law hovering around constitutional law, interpretation, evidence etc. have always drawn my interests. Such fondness helps me take up cases on diverse subjects of law. It helps me take up challenging work for my Law Firm. I have worked in a number of challenging cases both in the private practice arena as well as in the capacity of a government Advocate for the Orissa State. 

My passion for Constitutional, Administrative, and Criminal Law is driven by the dynamic interplay between law and societal values. These fields offer a platform to address fundamental rights and freedoms, challenging me to forge paths of justice in complex legal terrains. From cases involving civil liberties to intricate administrative disputes, my role as an advocate and a managing partner at Vaibhav & Dash Law Associates provides a continuous engagement with law’s transformative power. I have come across some of my most memorable cases while representing the state in a number of criminal cases involving the offence of murder, cases involving land allotments made by the government, land acquisition cases and service matters involving intricate issues of pay scales and promotions. 

While dealing with private cases, we were recently able to get an order of quashment of FIR from the Supreme Court in a case involving a purely commercial dispute which was given the cloak of a criminal prosecution. We have also been able to amicably settle a number of disputes before the Supreme Court through effective mediation.

Can you share some of the pro bono cases you’ve worked on? What drives you to take on these cases, and how do you think they impact the community?  

My commitment to pro bono work is motivated by a fundamental belief in justice accessible to all. I have worked on a number of pro bono cases in various courts including the Supreme Court. These are mainly criminal cases, consumer disputes, service matters for young recruits and matters for students in cases of admission to educational institutions. By some quirk of fate, I met an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi who was an accused in a death by negligence case. We prepared the case well and he was acquitted by the Trial Court.

I have appeared in the NCDRC for an insurance claim of a person whose property was stolen during the super cyclone in Odisha. I have represented a person with disability suffering from mental disability while seeking recruitment in the All India Services before the Central Administrative Tribunal and the Delhi High Court. I have appeared for young medical students in matters relating to their fees and admission to post graduate degree courses. These cases reinforce the societal impact of law and underscore the profound responsibility lawyers have towards equity and advocacy.

You are presently empanelled as Advocate-on-Record for the State of Odisha, Cuttack Development Authority (CDA), Odisha Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd (OHPC), and Canara Bank. Could you share some work details and responsibilities involved in these positions?  

Being an advocate for the government, various public entities and corporations offer immensely enriching experience on diverse subjects. I have garnered a significant amount of professional work experience through working in matters concerning these institutions. While appearing in such matters the advocate is expected to maintain high standards of integrity and assist the Court on facts when needed. The work involves multifarious areas of law and requires a meticulous approach to legal and procedural details, ensuring that the entities I represent adhere to the highest standards of legal conduct and fairness. The responsibilities of a lawyer in these positions are heightened, and so do the standards expected of them from the Courts. It also involves dealing with government officials and advising them properly on the standards expected of their actions in Courts in respect of procedural propriety, fact based approach, correctness in the pleadings and avoidance of tardiness in approaching the Court while taking legal recourse and complying with Court’s orders and directives. 

The sense of responsibility expected by Courts from state entities, as public trustees and model employers, is far too greater in comparison to ordinary litigants. A lawyer representing the state entities has to, therefore, (as expected and imperatively required) be very vigilant, maintain high standards of responsibility and integrity and act as a facilitating bridge between the Court and the state entities in the quest for justice. 

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