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Ram Jethmalani interview: Gov't wants corrupt judges; Foreign firms good for profession


The 86-year-old senior advocate and politician Ram Jethmalani is a living legend of the criminal bar that is unlikely to ever fade quietly into the background. Despite his self-proclaimed desperation to retire he was recently instructed to co-defend former IPL chairman Lalit Modi, fought for Anil Ambani against his estranged brother in the Supreme Court and won the presidential election to the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) last month, vowing to clean up the tainted body.

Unafraid of controversy, Jethmalani remains as outspoken as ever and Legally India talks to him about the practice of law, why he thinks that foreign law firms would benefit Indian lawyers, how a bar exam is not necessary and how the corruption, backlog of cases and decline of the legal profession are squarely the government's fault.

Legally India (LI): You have been elected as the President of Supreme Court Bar Association, What are your priorities as the new President of SCBA?

Ram Jethmalani (RJ): There are so many issues which have to be looked into. The SCBA is the apex organisation to look into the interests of the lawyers throughout the country. You see there is a feeling of corruption in the system, and the higher judiciary has also not been able to keep itself away from it. We need to do something about it.

From the previous experiences, we have seen that there are problems with the present system of appointment of judges. We need to look into this also, may be we need to amend the constitution to do this. The Supreme Court Bar Association shall give its valuable suggestions in this regard. In addition to this, there are minor issues which I need to look into. To begin with, membership of SCBA is an issue.

In September last year, around 500 advocates applied to SCBA membership, in December around 1500 advocates applied for membership. Now they have deposited their membership fees, the SCBA shouldn't have any concerns so as to who paid for their membership fees. I have to also look into the facilities provided to the bar in Supreme Court.

LI: Is it true that you had been approached to fight the SCBA election? Or did you contest out of your own choice?

RJ: All these years, I never thought of contesting elections of the bar. But yes, there were pressures from the influential section of the bar. They wanted me to take control of SCBA. If there was no pressure, I would not have contested. Whether you win or you get defeated is a part of democracy, but at my age, if you get defeated, it would be very shameful. So I decided to fight after considering my stature and experience. With the results, it is clear that the Bar has reposed confidence in me.

LI: Do you think corruption has risen in the Indian judiciary?

RJ: No. I don't think that corruption has risen. If that was so, there was not a chance for improvement.

LI: What do you have to say about the compulsory bar exam proposed by the Bar Council of India? Do you think it will bring in talent in the profession?

RJ: I don't think that there is a need for compulsory bar exam.

Earlier, there used to be a rule which provided for compulsory chamber practice for one year under a senior advocate. But that rule was also abused, the youngsters never practiced but got the certificates from the senior advocates. If that rule is enforced again, it may help in bringing better talent in the profession. You see there is a concept of advocate-on-record [AoR] in the Supreme Court, but the non AORs are also practicing.

LI: Don’t you think that there is a general deterioration in the standards of this profession?

RJ: When we talk to decline in standards, its not about decline in judiciary only. It is a general decline. There is a decline in the capabilities of law teachers and professors, there is a decline in the Bar Council, there is a decline in various things which result in decline in standards of judiciary and we have to look into it.

LI: You talk of a decline in standards - don’t you think that because of decline, there is more a need for a bar exam?

RJ: No, I as I explained earlier, there is no need for compulsory bar exam.

LI: Do you think that some vested interests in the judiciary are preventing the meaningful development of the profession?

RJ: No, I don’t think that there is some vested interest preventing the meaningful development of the profession.  But if there is a general decline at the highest level then it is a tragic situation. This is the problem but I don’t think that there is some conspiracy to prevent the development of the profession. And to my knowledge, I don’t think that somebody would want that our Judiciary should continue with the pathetic situation.

LI: What’s your take of entry of foreign law firms in India? Do you think that it will affect the interests of Indian lawyers?

RJ: I fully support the entry of foreign law firms in India. But it should be done on the basis of reciprocity. We should allow the lawyers of those countries who allow our lawyers to practice. And if foreign lawyer would come, we shall see an increase in the standards of our lawyers also.

And let me tell you, the foreign lawyers shall not go to the court to argue the cases, they shall do more of transactional and drafting work.  Now so much documentation is needed in transactional dealings so need an expert to understand those documents. So I think there is a big room for foreign lawyers.  If the foreign lawyers come, they will set up big law firms in India, they will hire Indian lawyers only.

This will also bring prosperity for Indian lawyers and I think that there will be an increase in the standards of the Indian Bar. But the entry of foreign lawyers shall not be possible without the cooperation of Indian Bar.

And the people who oppose foreign lawyers they must understand that it is a short sighted view. There shall be an increase in the opportunities for Indian lawyers.

LI: What is your view on Indian Law firms? Are you satisfied with them?

RJ: I don’t know much about the working of law firms. And we have not seen any grievances against the law firms. But I know about some law firms, they are doing extremely well. They work with honesty and efficiency. I wish them luck.

LI: You have completed more than 65 years at the bar, don't you think of retirement now?

RJ: I do want to retire. Because of this, five years back I had put a signboard outside my gate that I have stopped accepting fresh cases. But what do I do? People do not let me retire. Sometimes, I get tremendous pressure to take up a case and many a times, the cause is such that I have to take up the case. Otherwise, I want to stop. Most of the high profile lawyers make money on Mondays and Fridays, but I work for free on these two days.

LI: Who do you think is responsible for the backlog of cases in India?

RJ: Everybody keeps accusing the judiciary for the backlog of cases but I think government is the one who is responsible for this huge backlog of cases. The Law Commission, in its report, had recommended setting up of court five times of the existing strength.

Why doesn’t the government appoint more judges - who prevents them from appointing court staff. They think judiciary is a revenue-earning department but they should treat it otherwise. One judge can not do the work of five judges and if you do it he will not be able to deliver justice.

We always say, justice delayed is justice denied but we have to understand that justice hurried is justice buried. And the government doesn’t take interest in this issue.

In fact the government wants that there should be corrupt judges. If there is a corrupt judge, you can easily control him. So the government encourages corrupt judges. How do these corrupt judges come? From where they come? Who appoints them? One has to look into this also.

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