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The enduring legacy of Chief Justice Chagla

MC Chagla was elevated as a judge of the Bombay High Court in 1941 and became its Chief Justice on August 15, 1947 at the dawn of independent India.

MC Chagla 2004 stamp of India. (Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Dr Balram K Gupta

September 30 was the 122nd birth anniversary of Chief Justice MC Chagla who joined the Bar in a century ago but continues to be as inspiring today as he was during his lifetime. He was elevated as a judge of the Bombay High Court in 1941 and became its Chief Justice on August 15, 1947 at the dawn of independent India. During his long journey of over eight decades, he played his innings in style with measured strokes in which he scored fours and sixes immaculately.

I was born in 1944 when he was already a judge of the Bombay High Court. I was 14 when he retired. He came to inaugurate the Panjab University Law Department building on December 19, 1964 when I was in the first year of LLB. I do not recall having met him then or at any other time. This piece is based upon what I have read and written about him over the decades. It is an amazing journey. Rich in every respect. Meaningful and wholesome. A real learning for the legal and judicial coparcenary even today.

Chagla returned to India from Oxford, and joined the Bar at the Bombay High Court in 1922. He got a seat in the Chamber of M.A.Jinnah. His initial years were financially difficult as Jinnah firmly believed that the juniors should learn to stand on their own feet and must not look for work or financial support from their seniors. For six years, Chagla remained with Jinnah who never allotted a junior brief to him. Consequently, he had no work. I do not subscribe to Jinnah’s thinking. The chamber of the senior should be a laboratory for the junior. Once the senior is convinced of the seriousness of the junior, he should ensure work and financial support to him. The old mindset must change.

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It was after 7-8 years of joining the Bar that Chagla got an important brief. It was on the day he got engaged to be married. Chagla recorded in his autobiography “Roses in December”, “I always maintained that my wife brought me luck… I have risen in life from one high post to another…it was due more to her luck than to my own good fortune”. After that case, his work took off, and by 1940, he had a flourishing practice. In his autobiography, Chagla recounts how Strangman, an Englishman who later served as Advocate General, appeared before Justice Marten to make an urgent application towards the end of the day, hands in his pocket, clinking the coins. A stern disciplinarian, Justice Marten asked him to come forward and make his application. When Strangman came to the fore, Justice Marten asked him to take his hands out of his pockets, looked at the clock that showed 5 pm, and left the court. Chagla said he was happy that Justice Marten had taught this Englishman (with bad manners) a lesson of his life. Strangman was a forceful advocate and very skillful cross-examiner but all this was of no consequence if he lacked court etiquettes. Even today, the young and not-so-young advocates must learn how to conduct themselves in court.

It was in 1941 that Chagla was elevated as a Judge of Bombay High Court where he adopted the practice of not reading paper-books beforehand. He believed it was a mistake for a judge to go to the court after reading the paper-books, as he/she would then tend to make up their mind one way or the other. This making up of mind was of course tentative. Yet, it required a very strong mind to change an opinion once formed. Justice Chagla also appealed to the Supreme Court Judges to not read the SLPs beforehand. The response was that if they do not read the SLPs beforehand, it would consume much more judicial time. Chagla disagreed. He believed that if the judge can pin down the lawyer to the essential point, it would take less time. These days, the petitions are read in advance in High Courts as also in the Supreme Court.

Justice Chagla developed the habit of dictating the judgments in the open court as soon as the arguments concluded. The first time it happened was when two opposing counsel K.M.Munshi and Taraporevala were concluding their arguments. Chagla hesitated for a moment, took courage, called the stenographer and dictated the judgment then and there. Thereafter, it became a habit with him. On another occasion, Chagla was sitting with Chief Justice Beaumont hearing income-tax references. When the arguments concluded, the Chief told Chagla, “I have lost my voice. You fire off the judgment”. To deliver a judgment extempore on a subject which was new to him, was a daunting task. Chagla dictated the judgment smoothly. When he concluded, he told the Chief, “I wish you had given me some notice.” The Chief smiled and said, “My dear boy, you have done very well. I do not think any notice was necessary.”

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Chagla served as judge and Chief Justice for more than 17 years and he reserved only one or two judgments. That too, in order to achieve unanimity. This feat, no one else has been able to accomplish. He believed that judgments should be founded on first principles. He illuminated justice. He humanized the law. He even humanized the taxing laws. His judgments reflected his burning desire to do ‘real’ and ‘complete’ justice. His judgments had no dark corners, they were lamps.

Chagla was a multifaceted personality: lawyer, law commissioner, judge, diplomat, central cabinet minister, a man of letters and a fearless upholder of freedom and democracy.

Eve today his white marble statue outside the court of Bombay Chief Justice (always Court No.52), which he presided over for 11 years, stands with the inscription: ‘A great judge, a great citizen and above all, a great human being’. This speaks for his relevance even after 122 years of his birth.

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Chagla whole-heartedly endorsed Graham Green’s recipe for good life in old age: ‘Good cheese, good wine and good sleep’. My recipe: relax, read, write and lecture. This is the best sleeping pill for creative, happy and old minds.

(The writer, a Professor Emeritus and Senior Advocate, was formerly Director, National Judicial Academy, India)

First published on: 30-09-2022 at 07:47:15 am
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