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Wild Wild Wit: A Lawyer’s Weapon

By Madhumita C

“The lawyers’ truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.”

- Henry David Thoreau.

Introduction

A mental picture of any courtroom, in the eyes of a commoner, is one involving arguments and filled with a dull ambience, monotony and stoic seriousness. Although this is true to a certain extent with regard to court proceedings, the Indian legal system is not without its own quips and lively moments.

The reason for such a public view is probably based on the fact that Courts are placed at par with temples, in that, they provide justice to the people. However, law as a profession is never considered to be dull, despite the solemn manner in which proceedings are expected to occur in court halls. Take for instance, the Madras High Court has been known for its humour and satire, possibly attributable to the British era. Such activities continue in the Madras High Court and several other courts in the country. This is because, in reality, the Judge of any courtroom is also human, with an innate sense of humour, a knack for sarcasm and wit.

Photo by Jackie Boylhart on Unsplash

Judges and courtroom humour

Contrary to popular belief that the Indian courts cannot take a joke, there have been several instances where Justices have passed orders infused with their witticism and hilarity, spicing up the usually boring judicial pronouncements. One such instance is where , during a serious trial in a suit proceeding held at the Madras High Court, the plaintiff, who was frantically looking for something, caused a lot of noise in the process that disturbed the Judge. Upon the judge’s inquiry to the Plaintiff’s counsel, the counsel apologized to the Court and stated that his client had misplaced a valuable jacket which he was searching for. Within a blink of the eye, the Judge said, “remind your client that till now he has lost only his jacket while many persons have lost their suits itself. Ask him to wait for some more time.”The wittiness and repartee of the judges of the Indian Judiciary have almost always been at par with their stellar judgements. Two more instances are to be discussed further.

The first one is by one of the Justices of the Bombay High Court, known for his dry sense of humour and sarcasm, Hon’ble Justice G.S.Patel, whose orders have reflected his wittiness time and again. In the year 2016, a case was brought before the Hon’ble Justice by the owner of GoAir Ltd., in the Bombay High Court seeking direction to remove the prefix ‘go’ from their rival airline, Interglobe Aviation Ltd.’s web address ‘goindigo.in’.

Introducing the case, the Hon’ble Justice wrote,

“ GoAir believes that Indigo should not use the domain name GoIndigo.in; it has intellectual property issues with Indigo’s chosen prefix Go in its domain name (though apparently not with the trailing go, a small mercy as it happens, for that might be a demand that Indigo should be rechristened Indi.”

Interestingly, Google India Ltd. was also made a defendant party in the suit by Go Holdings Pvt Ltd. When Advocate Amit Jamsandekar for the plaintiff granted that it was not because the word ‘Go’ was also part of Google’s corporate and domain name, Justice Patel quipped, “That is all to the good, for the alternative is unthinkable — we might otherwise be forced to ogle the Web.”

In the following year, there was yet another case that came before this Hon’ble judge, between Gillette India and Reckitt Benckiser, over a defamatory ad. The plaintiff (Gillette) upon missing a deadline for filing a rejoinder, requested a three-week extension. Upon hearing the matter, Justice GS Patel ended up giving Gillette a pretty bad cut (pun intended). Annoyed at the delay, on February 23, Patel scheduled the next hearing on November 3, 2020 — a good 3 years later.

Not only that, he also said it was to be posted “very low on (the) board”. He said that the fact that the plaintiff required three weeks just to submit a rejoinder was evidence that “there is not the slightest urgency”. He further penalised the plaintiff for waste of “scarce judicial time”, and ordered that no request for priority hearing would be entertained until the plaintiff deposited R.10 lakh as costs.

Humour- a lawyer’s area?

From the above example, it is abundantly clear that judges have the freedom to provide justice while also spicing it up in the process by penning down their orders or judgements with a sense of sarcasm and wit. However, can the same be said for the lawyers and attorneys? While the US and the UK have several websites and series dedicated to courtroom wit and humour, the Indian Legal system is yet to be plundered for such humorous content. Is it possible that the underlying reason is the temperamental nature of the Justice delivery system which could easily hold any advocate with a quirky sense of humour in contempt?

Leaving that question open to be pondered upon, it is not to say that there is an absence of a sense of humour among lawyers, for they have striven to stay afloat in the sacrilegious Courts by learning the art of subtlety and rhetoric and using it to lighten the mood of the courts at every possible instance. A question to any lawyer would reveal that they have their fair share of moments where they let their wordplay and wit take precedence in their arguments that was sure to have garnered a few laughs in the court hall. There are even instances where such quick-wittedness has acted as a means of persuasion, earning the lawyer a favourable order or two.

Contempt v. perjury- a witty reminiscence

A famous instance that does the rounds in Whatsapp even today, is the one that ensued in the Supreme Court, involving G Ramaswamy, who is known for his quick comebacks and expertise at repartee, during his days as an Attorney General. The story goes as follows:

“An exasperated Justice Kuldip Singh is believed to have demanded of Ramaswamy during the course of the hearing: “You think we are fools?” to which Ramaswamy replied with much gravity: “My lords have put me in a very difficult situation. If I agree, I am in contempt, if I disagree I commit perjury.” That got even the judges laughing.”

The balance in the balance sheet — a proof of poverty

Yet another case involved G Ramasamy before Justice Venkatachaliah. The famous former Attorney General’s client was a company in default of electricity dues. The company was facing the threat of permanent disconnection of electric supply. The special leave petition faced bright prospects of being dismissed. GR therefore valiantly tried a gambit, “My Lord, my client is poor and in hardship.” The astute judge was too quick to contradict him, “Look at the balance sheet on page 63, Mr. Ramaswamy, your client’s turnover just three years ago was over Rs. 50 lakhs!!” G Ramasamy’s repartee with a deadpan look was, “I know My Lord. That was before they engaged me!” The order that followed was that G Ramasamy’s client was given the facility of payment through and immediate disconnection was avoided.

Making the stand clear

One of the most outstanding Judges of the Allahabad High Court, Justice Mahmood, son of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, resumed his practice before the Judicial Commissioners Court at Lucknow after his resignation from the Bench in 1894. Being overly fond of drinks, he once appeared in Court in a less sober mood, and started arguing against his own client. His Junior promptly pointed out the mistake to Mr. Mahmood, who, with great alacrity, shifted his ground and addressed the Judge thus:

“Sir, I have said all that my learned friend on the other side could have said on behalf of his client. I would now proceed to demolish these arguments.”

As he said, went on to demolish his very own arguments with remarkable brilliance and ultimately won the case. This incident highlights the point that wit, when used diligently, could act as a tool for persuasion.

The above instances show that lawyers used not only their legal knowledge and eloquence, but even their wit as a weapon to defend their clients. In fact, Justice Abbott Parry, in his book “Seven Lamps of Advocacy” highlights “wit” as one of the lamps. Wit originates from intelligence, presence of mind and sharpness, all of which are essential qualities in themselves. Often, in cases where the argument gets too heated, a quick, smart and witty response might just persuade the judge from opting an otherwise unwise course of decision. Several instances where judgement or rhetoric might fail, a sense of wit could save the day. An advocate who knows when to use wit, benefits from ridding themself of any mental strain and to some extent, even relaxing their workload. To quote former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, from his famous holding in the Laugh It Off case:

“A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence. Humour is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in nonviolent forms. It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health.”

Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

Conclusion

In conclusion, the use of humour to argue a case does not signify a lack of seriousness on the part of the lawyers and every now and then, even the judges exhibit their sense of humour. Such a practice would only increase the liveliness in a courtroom and have a positive impact on the constitutional health and in turn, strengthen democracy by allowing a greater scope for freedom of speech.

The Indian legal system has only a limited number of instances where a lawyer’s sarcasm and wit has been appreciated rather than condemned. Also, it is nowhere near the level of freedom that is exercised by lawyers in the US or the UK courts. However, if the judicial system acquires the ability to take humour without holding its lawyers in contempt for using wit as a weapon, perhaps the lawyers wouldn’t lose their appeals and justice could come with a smile.

Madhumita C — Student, V SEM BBA LLB(Hons.), SASTRA Deemed to be University

Find her on Instagram.

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