Insult and Injury

The undignified tactics of lawyers in our higher courts

Sledging thrives even at the Supreme Court of India. sandeep Saxena / the hindu archives
01 February, 2014

IT WAS A SWELTERING DAY IN DELHI in May 2013, and the bail hearing of a prominent regional politician was underway at the Supreme Court. Opposing the bail plea, the lawyer for the CBI recited, slowly and in a tone of utter disinterest, a litany of the accused’s alleged offences. This carried on for over an hour, and the politician’s counsel slipped ever lower in his chair. Then, in a voice loud enough for the entire courtroom to hear, he said, “Wake me up when he’s done.”

Sledging, that art of undermining one’s rival with barbs that are equal parts wit, aggression and sarcasm, has existed for years in the Indian parliament, on cricket pitches, and, increasingly, in frenzied television-studio debates. The proceedings of the country’s higher courts, however, are generally presumed to be more dignified. But this impression only exists because court proceedings are not broadcast to the public. In fact, underhanded verbal jabs are dealt aplenty in our courts of law, and the nation’s leading legal minds are experts at them.

In my own dozen years as a lawyer at the Supreme Court, I have seen several such tactics become standard practice. Often, a lawyer will adopt a Mark Antony style of attack against an opponent, first referring to him as “my learned friend” or “a colleague of such stature”, before attempting to demolish his submissions—usually deemed to be made “with his usual fairness”—as illogical and even dishonest. Lawyers’ high fees are also remarked upon. In one hearing, in which opposing corporate camps attempted to settle dues of a few crore rupees, the lawyers light-heartedly took digs at each other, declaring that no organisation that could afford such exorbitantly priced legal aid could possibly be short of such a pittance.

Veterans at the bar are quick to sniff out newcomers’ nervousness, and often drop well-aimed gibes to rattle their defences before the latter even begin arguing. They might, for instance, feign ignorance of their inexperienced colleagues’ presence in the courtroom, or their standing at the bar. “Er, do you practise in this court?” is a common query posed to a junior lawyer as he or she takes a seat, as is, “Who is the senior you are instructing?”

In another instance, from last year, a leading lawyer of the Delhi High Court, seeing that his rival was a young lawyer making an early appearance, turned to his own instructing advocate and loudly said, “Arre, kuch nahi bolna hai—yeh apne aap doobega” (We won’t have to say anything—he’ll drown on his own). Sure enough, when the session began, the unfortunate newcomer began to stammer, skipped relevant pages of his brief and misunderstood the judge’s questions, eventually losing the case.

Vigorous shakes of the head, exaggerated sighs and barely stifled yawns are other tricks that lawyers use to throw their opponents’ concentration. On one occasion in 2008, a lawyer who prides himself on being something of an academic attempted to impress the judge with what he thought was a sophisticated argument, tracing the centuries-old history of the subject at hand and even citing his own publications. His opponent punctuated these submissions with a series of guffaws. Provoked, the speaker lost his concentration and turned upon his rival, scolding him for his behaviour. When the speaker resumed his submissions after a heated exchanged, he had lost his line of thought and his arguments unravelled rapidly. Mere laughter had won a case.

The rise of sledging in the higher courts has coincided with a dramatic increase in the demands on their time and resources. In a 2010 lecture, KK Venugopal, a senior lawyer, quoted a retired Supreme Court judge as saying that in today’s high-stakes legal disputes, “one minute of interruption is equal to 15 minutes of argument”. It is no surprise, then, that the style of argument that increasingly yields results is not careful, scholarly reasoning but the aggressive verbal pugilism of the seasoned sledger.