Chief Justice of India Sarosh. H. Kapadia battled acute poverty and hardship to rise from the level of a clerk to the highest post in the Judiciary. He did this through sheer dint of hard work and perseverance. His attitude towards work, his sense of humility, integrity and compassion makes him a symbol of inspiration and a role model for all professionals, says the author
Forbes has paid rich tribute to Chief Justice S. H. Kapadia over his stellar role in being one of the finest judges and administrators and in “redefining judgeship”.
What is noteworthy is that Chief Justice Kapadia comes from a very humble and poverty-stricken background. His father had grown up in a Surat orphanage and had worked as a clerk while his mother Katy was a homemaker. The family could barely make ends meet.
However, while the parents were poor, they were persons of great principles. From a tender age, Kapadia was taught never to accept obligations from anyone and to always live an ethical and moral life.
In the days to come, Sarosh Kapadia became very popular because of his ability to quickly grasp the core point in any dispute and concentrate on that. He was also well known for his thorough preparation of the facts and the law. His notes were always meticulous and he knew which fact was to be found at which page of the Paper Book and which proposition of case law supported that
Chief Justice Kapadia had a very difficult childhood and youth. To make ends meet, he worked as a grade four employee with Behramjee Jeejeebhoy, a landlord, who had a number of litigations going on in Court. He had very little money and could not even afford lunch, preferring to stay hungry on many days. His main job was to deliver briefs to solicitors and lawyers and this is where he started developing an interest in law. Kapadia made it a point to study the briefs himself and go to the offices of the solicitors and discuss the points with him. The lawyers there noticed his deep interest in the subject and encouraged him to study law formally, which he did and became a lawyer.
It was not long before Chief Justice Kapadia’s brilliant mind came to be noticed by others at the Bar and he started getting a steady stream of work from the solicitors and senior lawyers. One senior lawyer, who took Kapadia under his wing, was Feroze Damania, a leading labour lawyer who had a roaring practice in those days.
In the days to come, Sarosh Kapadia became very popular because of his ability to quickly grasp the core point in any dispute and concentrate on that. He was also well known for his thorough preparation of the facts and the law. His notes were always meticulous and he knew which fact was to be found at which page of the Paper Book and which proposition of case law supported that.
The turning point in Chief Justice Kapadia’s career as a lawyer came in 1982 when he argued that the poor and marginalized people living in Ghatkopar, a then distant suburb of Mumbai, living in a slum on a salt pan, could not be evicted. The case was politically very sensitive because it dealt with the rights of the downtrodden. Though there were no fees to be made from the matter, Chief Justice Kapadia put his heart and soul into the matter, after thoroughly studying all legal precedents and analyzing all possible arguments. He thoroughly outwitted the Government’s panel of senior lawyers, succeeded on all points and a landmark judgement was delivered. Overnight, Chief Justice Kapadia was recognised as a lawyer who could argue big and sensitive cases without any fear and deliver tangible results.
This led to a deluge of briefs for the young Kapadia and he went from being a lawyer with no work to a busy and much sought after lawyer, flitting from court to court.
The other remarkable aspect of Chief Justice Kapadia’s career is that he gave up a lucrative professional career at his prime in favour of judgeship.
Today, as a Judge, Chief Justice Kapadia is very popular because he is always even handed in his approach. In many ways, he is a model judge. He will listen attentively to the arguments, make notes, ask pertinent questions without interrupting the Counsel’s thought process, and carefully deliberate all aspects before reaching a decision. If he doesn’t understand a proposition of law, he doesn’t hesitate to express his ignorance
Once Kapadia became a part of the Judiciary, first as a puisne judge of the Bombay, then as Chief Justice of the Uttaranchal High Court, and then of the Supreme Court, one could see an overnight transformation in his personality. Till he became a Judge, Sarosh Kapadia was an affable person, always approachable, both at home and at the Chamber, and one would be sure of getting a warm welcome whatever time of the day or night one called.
However, when he joined the Judiciary, he made a conscious effort to withdraw himself from public life, choosing not to socially mingle with the very lawyers who were otherwise his trusted friends.
The transformation was necessary, Chief Justice Kapadia said, to maintain the dignity of office. He described the reason in his usual felicitous language while delivering the MC Setalvad Memorial lecture on judicial ethics in April 2011 “A judge must inevitably choose to be a little aloof and isolated from the community at large. He should not be in contact with lawyers, individuals or political parties, their leaders or ministers unless it be on purely social occasions.’’
Today, as a Judge, Chief Justice Kapadia is very popular because he is always even handed in his approach. In many ways, he is a model judge. He will listen attentively to the arguments, make notes, ask pertinent questions without interrupting the Counsel’s thought process, and carefully deliberate all aspects before reaching a decision. If he doesn’t understand a proposition of law, he doesn’t hesitate to express his ignorance.
Eminent Senior Advocate Soli Sorabjee credited Chief Justice Kapadia’s humble beginnings for his balanced and even handed outlook to life. “A litigant may feel disappointed if he loses the case but no litigant comes out from the Chief’s court with the feeling he was not fairly or fully heard’’, Soli Sorabjee said with pride in his voice at the achievements of a fellow Parsi.
One endearing feature of the Chief Justice is the effort that he takes to notice junior counsel and encourage them. While he can be brusque with senior counsel who appear to be wasting time, the Chief is always mellow with juniors. If a junior appears ill-prepared, the Chief Justice will give him a hint on what he should look up or which line of argument he should develop, whilst goading the junior to come better prepared next time. It is also usual for him, in long-drawn matters, to take time out to praise the juniors.
“Oh, Mr. Senior Counsel, this note of propositions is very well drafted. I am sure it has been done by your Junior. He is very good at this sort of thing“, the Chief Justice will say with a big smile on his face, while the Junior blushes with embarrassment and the Senior beams with pride.
But the Chief Justice can also be a tough task master as the staff of the Registry found out. The Registry used to be a “den of corruption” and a haven for “Bench shoppers“. The Chief Justice came down heavily on the staff, got them to reform their ways and streamlined the entire process so that it is no longer possible for a litigant to have his matter come up before a Bench of his choice.
At a personal level, Chief Justice Kapadia’s sober and down-to-earth personality can be attributed to his deep interest in Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. He is especially fond of the teachings of the enlightened gurus like Ramana Maharishi, Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He is also a frequent visitor to the Belur Math situated on the banks of the Hoogly in Kolkata and is familiar with meditation techniques.
The other endearing aspect of his personality is that despite his enormous success and the high office that he occupies, he keeps reminding himself of his humble background so as to ensure that he remains grounded in reality. “I come from a poor family. I started my career as a class IV employee and the only asset I possess is integrity…’’ Chief Justice Kapadia said publicly in his letter to the eminent jurist V. R. Krishna Iyer.
Another notable aspect of the Chief Justice is that despite an obviously brilliant and analytical mind, he is always willing to learn and does not hesitate to openly ask for assistance if he does not understand something. A classic example of this is the Limestone Mining case involving complicated questions of the environmental hazards of mining. The Chief Justice was disarmingly candid and openly told Harish Salve, who was appearing for one of the parties, of his lack of knowledge of environmental jurisprudence. Harish Salve and the others present in the Court were of course very pleased with the Chief’s intellectual honesty in admitting lack of knowledge.
Chief Justice Kapadia is popularly known as a “Whiz Kid” in finance and economics. He is a strong believer that Judges should not only be masters of the legal field but must also be conversant with concepts in economics and accountancy. The Chief Justice gave an excellent example of what he meant when he was dealing with the case of a mining company which claimed that it was making no profits and had no money for tribal welfare. The audited accounts supported the company’s claim. However, Kapadia was not willing to take things at their face value. He carefully scrutinized the accounts and discovered “creative accounting” by which the company and its auditors had turned profits into losses. Once, the Chief Justice fixed his steely eyes on the company and the auditors, they lost their nerve and confessed the truth.
The Chief Justice openly encourages his fellow judges to sit on the tax bench knowingly fully well that many of them dread the prospect. If one can master the tax laws, one can master any law, the Chief says with a twinkle in his eyes. In fact, the Chief Justice started his career as a Judge in the Bombay High Court by sitting on the tax bench though he had no formal knowledge of the subject. Within a short span of time, Kapadia had mastered the subject and went on to deliver several landmark judgements whilst in the Bombay High Court such as IPCA Laboratories 251 ITR 416 (Bom), K. K. Doshi 245 ITR 849 (Bom) (s. 80HHC), Shirke Construction 246 ITR 429 (Bom) (s. 80HHC), Sudarshan Chemicals 245 ITR 769 (Bom), Indo Nippon 245 ITR 384 (Bom) (modvat credit).
Even in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Kapadia showed his affinity for the subject by sitting on the tax bench throughout his tenure. He passed several landmark judgements on the subject such as Morgan Stanley 292 ITR 416 (SC) (transfer pricing), Lakshmi Machine Works 290 ITR 667 (SC) (s. 80HHC), Hundai Heavy 291 ITR 482 (SC) (offshore supply profits), G. E. India 327 ITR 456 (SC) (scope of s. 195 TDS) and many others.
Each judgement shows the clarity of thinking of the Judge where in just a few short and succinct paragraphs, he comes to the core of the issue. His judgements are cited as a “model” for the manner in which they are structured.
And so it is in the fitness of things that this brilliant lawyer and judge should choose to end his illustrious career with Vodafone vs. UOI 341 ITR 1, the most celebrated case in tax jurisprudence. In a judgement that sent a wave of relief amongst assessees worldwide, the Chief Justice reaffirmed the right of an assessee to arrange his tax affairs in a manner that attracts the least tax incidence provided he is within the four corners of the law. This judgement, as well as many others, will be the legacy of Chief Justice Kapadia for the several decades to come.