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Fraternity rallies behind AZB and Judge in Ambani drama


Practising lawyers have largely expressed support for AZB & Partners and Justice R.V. Raveendran's shock recusal in the Ambani brothers' dispute, although several have questioned the timing and causes of the decision.

Khaitan & Co litigation head and partner Gauri Rasgotra says that it was a welcome step, although belated. "One has to be careful, it is a good thing to do as one may come under scrutiny, but it could have been done earlier."

Another partner from a large Indian law firm agrees, while adding: "The timing is a little suspect."

Justice Raveendran stepped down yesterday (4 November) from the gas supply dispute between Anil and Mukesh Ambani's companies in the Supreme Court.

Justice Raveendran cited a potential conflict of interest because his daughter Sunitha Rajesh had recently joined AZB & Partners in Bangalore as a partner. He said that he was unaware that AZB had a close working relationship with Mukesh Ambani until speaking to his daughter by phone on Tuesday evening (3 November).

Meanwhile, the lawyers for Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and Anil Ambani's Reliance Natural Resources Limited (RNRL) have been exchanging brickbats.

Anil Ambani's counsel Ram Jethmalani told newspapers that Mukesh Ambani's RIL side had put pressure on Justice Raveendran to recuse himself from the proceedings because the judge had been asking "inconvenient questions" of RIL during the case.

"RIL was aware that a lawyer from the same firm AZB & Partners was not only attending the hearings but was also advising RIL in some matters. It was their plain duty to disclose this before the hearing," Jethmalani said.

Sources have confirmed to Legally India that AZB lawyers have been advising RIL peripherally throughout the dispute, although the firm is not formally instructed on the core of the case.

RIL counsel Harish Salve told CNBC-TV18 in an interview that Jethmalani's comment should be "treated with the contempt it deserves".

"Ram Jethmalani has hit a new low," he said in the interview. "This is just another attempt to disrupt court proceedings. We will respond if [Jethmalani] brings up the allegations in court."

In a statement, however, Mukesh Ambani's RIL appeared to blame AZB for the delay in pointing out that one of its partners was the daughter of Justice Raveendran.

The statement from RIL said: "[RIL was] neither aware nor AZB Partners informed us that Honourable Justice Raveendran's daughter is associated with the Bangalore office of AZB. This fact came as a surprise to our senior counsel and us.

"AZB Partners who have been advising us from time to time should have informed us of this fact and RIL regrets that six working days of the Honourable Court were lost."

Members of the law firm fraternity appear to be supporting the conduct of AZB, in light of Justice Raveendran's daughter Rajesh only having joined AZB in Bangalore recently as part of the merger between AZB and Anup Shah's practice.

"I think there's nothing bad in the whole thing," comments one Indian law firm partner. "I don't think in my view AZB did something amoral."

But he adds: "Whatever Ram Jethmalani is saying is probably true - because [Justice Raveendran] was asking very uncomfortable questions, [RIL] found this very embarrassing."

However, most lawyers are coming out strongly in favour of the circumstances of the judge's recusal and his conduct, although most bemoan the time delay caused.

"Justice Raveendran has got high standards of integrity, which cannot be called in question," says Seth Dua & Associates litigation partner Neeraj Chaudhry. "He carries a spotless reputation and an eminent jurist like him can never succumb to pressure."

"I think the judge was probably not aware - there was no impropriety and he raised it as soon as he became aware," adds Luthra & Luthra managing partner Rajiv Luthra. "More judges should do this and help clean up the system."

Khaitan & Co senior litigation associate Anil Dutt echoes the sentiment but adds: "There is lots of expenditure on the legal advice given to both the parties.

"Courts have been so worried due to the pendency of cases and all six days of hearing put into the case gets wasted. Apart from the monetary loss, the court's precious time has been wasted."

Iyer & Thomas partner Elizabeth Seshadri is the convenor of the Forum for Independence, Accountability and Transparency in the Legal System (FIAT Legal) and agrees.

"I am happy that the judge has recused himself from hearing the matter if there is such a conflict, even if it is six days after commencement of the hearing," she says.

"It is good that issues of conflict of interest are being taken seriously enough to focus on conflict situations like a judge's or relative's investments in the litigant company or any connection between the judge's relative and the law firms interested in the litigation," notes Seshadri.

"And after all, it is the judges of the apex court who must lay down the highest standards of professional integrity. Judge Raveendran has done the right thing."

The proceedings were to be completed by 15 November but have now been extended to 30 November as the replacement judge will not have the benefit of knowing what was being argued, many earlier arguments will now have to be re-heard.

Justice Raveendran also holds a number of shares in both companies and their subsidiaries. However, these shareholdings were declared and accepted by the parties before the case hit the Supreme Court and were therefore not a cause for his recusal.

Many other Supreme Court judges too have significant shareholdings in companies, with Justice S.H Kapadia topping the list and holding around Rs 20 lakhs ($43,000), according to information he has disclosed.

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