•  •  Dark Mode

Your Interests & Preferences

I am a...

law firm lawyer
in-house company lawyer
litigation lawyer
law student
aspiring student

Website Look & Feel

 •  •  Dark Mode
Blog Layout

Save preferences

India, meet your future boss: CJI-to-be Altamas Kabir vs SH Kapadia (profiled by Court Witness)

Altamas Kabir: New boss in town?
Altamas Kabir: New boss in town?
It’s four in the evening and shadows lengthen along the main corridor of the Supreme Court of India. It is Friday, a miscellaneous day, and all courts have completed their work in time to enjoy what passes for a busy lawyer’s weekend - Friday evening.

All except one court.

Here advocates bearing the burden of the crushing grind of the week wait impatiently as the court takes its own sweet time in getting through its “board” for the day.

The court-masters envy their colleagues who will get their administrative work completed in time and enjoy an early Friday. Clients exhausted by the day long wait for their cases don’t cling to the partition separating the lawyers’ section from the visitor’s gallery but sit wearily in the visitor’s sections still bearing anxious and somewhat worried looks.

Only one man sits calmly and goes through the proceedings with a quiet professionalism and ease, a smooth, calming voice and a freshness of mind that belies the fact that he’s nearly 64.

Meet Justice Altamas Kabir, senior-most puisne judge of the Supreme Court of India.

Boss in waiting

Originally from the Calcutta High Court, Kabir was sworn in as judge of the Supreme Court of India in 2006. Strangely, like some of his predecessors from Calcutta (Justice SC Roy, and Justice AK Mukherjea), Kabir’s health took a serious turn for the worse upon getting to Delhi, affecting his Court work.

Fortunately, he managed to get back on to his feet, slowly but surely and made a timely recovery back to work at the Supreme Court of India. Since then he’s heard a fairly wide range of cases and was most recently in the news for the review order in the Black Money case.

Kabir will also take over from Sarosh Homi Kapadia as Chief Justice of India when the latter retires in September this year.

Justice 'Stable Hercules' Kapadia (click picture to read more about him and his work)
Justice 'Stable Hercules' Kapadia (click picture to read more about him and his work)

He is also the polar opposite of Kapadia in seemingly every way possible.

Manufacturing chalk and cheese

The average miscellaneous day in Kapadia’s court is an hour or less of fire and brimstone, thunder and lightning. In Kabir’s court miscellaneous days are long marathons of slow and patient hearings that stretch sometimes beyond the official closing hour.

The proceedings in Kapadia’s court are run with something approaching the ruthless efficiency of an iPhone assembly-line (too early?) as the thirty or forty matters are disposed of within the first hour of the Court’s sitting.

In Kabir’s court on the other hand, proceedings are carried on in a sedate, but somewhat haphazard manner where one can never be sure when one’s matter will be called out. On some days urgent matters, or even three of four similar matters together, are taken out of turn.

Advocates crowd around the court master after lunch trying to find out when their matters will be taken. Only sometimes do they come away enlightened.

The Chagla school

Kapadia’s speed of disposal could also be attributed to the fact that he’s usually read all the briefs beforehand and has already made up his mind in advance what to do in Court. Kabir however, is more in the mould of Justice MC Chagla who never believed in reading the briefs prior to the hearing or making up one’s mind in advance. He prefers to listen carefully, and at length if required, in Court to achieve just the same ends as Kapadia.

Where Kapadia repeatedly expresses a deep and abiding contempt for out of turn mentioning (i.e., seeking relief in a matter that is not listed on that day), Kabir listens to advocates mentioning matters with just the same seriousness and thought that he gives to a regular listed matter.

For junior counsel, arguing in Kapadia’s court is a strict no-no. You never know when your complete lack of knowledge of something or the other will be ruthlessly exposed to all and sundry. In Kabir’s court, it doesn’t matter if you’re someone just out of law school or Nani Palkhivala himself re-incarnated - you will receive a patient and friendly hearing.

East v West

In their backgrounds as well, Kapadia and Kabir could not be more different. Kapadia’s office-clerk-to-Chief-Justice-of-India story is well known.

While Kabir didn’t exactly enjoy a bed of roses, he grew up in a milieu about as far removed from Kapadia as geographically and culturally possible: a family of well known public intellectuals and politicians, prominent to this day in Bengal politics.

One could easily stereotype and see them as true-blue representatives of their respective cities and High Courts. Kapadia represents the efficient hustle and bustle of Bombay (as he prefers to call it) and the depth and knowledge in commercial law that practice in the Bombay High Court requires.

Kabir perhaps represents a world fast disappearing — the slow, measured and gentlemanly ways of the Bengali bhadralok that reflects a fine, cultured and broad-minded intellect. Where Kapadia speaks with a strong Gujarati accent so characteristic of Bombay Parsis, Kabir speaks with an enunciation that smooths over his Bengali roots and places him somewhere firmly in Victorian upper class London.

But emphasising the differences between them is perhaps mistaking form for substance.

Different cut, same cloth

For all their superficial differences, Kapadia and Kabir are more alike than they seem.

Despite the alleged shenanigans involving their progeny (such as this and this) their personal integrity has never been seriously questioned.

They are both very hard working judges held in deep respect by the Bar.

They both share the hidden burden of running the administrative behemoth that is the Supreme Court of India, and carrying out all the responsibilities that come with the top two jobs in in the judicial fraternity.

Kapadia leans on Kabir to head many of the numerous committees of judges that are in charge of various administrative issues within the Supreme Court in order to devote more time to his work as Chief Justice.

In fact, just like that, Kabir has become the public face of the Supreme Court at a lot of functions and public meetings (including at the recent visit by the Pakistan SCBA to India), as Kapadia cloisters himself with his judicial and administrative work.

Necessary toughness

While Kapadia’s tough core seems evident and obvious, Kabir’s toughness is well hidden. Kabir doesn’t fly into a rage for the small inconveniences of everyday life.

But when faced with a seemingly minor breach of propriety on the part of a lawyer, Kabir comes down harder than a megaton of bricks.

Many advocates, and even some senior advocates, make the mistake of believing that Kabir’s gentlemanly nature makes him a pushover. When they push a little too hard, they suddenly find that they are at the receiving end of a thunderous tongue lashing in open court.

One instance perhaps best illustrates the folly of going by appearances alone.

A senior advocate, recently elevated and a well-known scion of a famous legal family, apparently mistook Kabir’s liberal attitude with mentioning matters for mere indulgence. When denied interim relief of early listing of his case (after a long-ish and patient hearing on Kabir’s part), instead of walking away with a shrug, he hung around at the Bar trying to butt in between other mentioning matters.

He barely got a word in before Kabir flew into a rage. No no no Mr. _____________! This is completely unacceptable behaviour on the part of senior counsel. We have heard you and dismissed your plea and now you attempt to abuse our indulgence. This is appalling!

The courtroom was silenced in an instant.

Not only did he refuse early listing, he banned all advocates from mentioning matters seeking early listing, reminding them and a certain over-confident senior advocate exactly who’s boss in the courtroom.

Handing over power

Kapadia’s term as the Chief Justice of India will go down in the history books as the period when the apex court became the most powerful and respected institution in the nation (also, check out the link for another awesome Kapadia pic!).

When Kapadia hands the baton over to Kabir in September this year, he knows he’ll be handing over to a person from literally the opposite end of the country from him in every possible way.

Yet he’ll probably hand it over with the confidence that he’s giving way to someone just like him.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and tweets @courtwitness1.

Court Witness’ previous Supreme Court postcards:

Click to show 7 comments
at your own risk
By reading the comments you agree that they are the (often anonymous) personal views and opinions of readers, which may be biased and unreliable, and for which Legally India therefore has no liability. If you believe a comment is inappropriate, please click 'Report to LI' below the comment and we will review it as soon as practicable.