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Chief Justice Kapadia: Inspiring Story Of Journey From Clerk To Chief Justice

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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.

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35 comments on “Chief Justice Kapadia: Inspiring Story Of Journey From Clerk To Chief Justice
  1. Nem Singh says:

    There is a phrase “neki kar bulandi choomegi charan tere” No doubt the per person have grace of God and elegible fot that grace without any comment. I have heard the person he is a man of simplicity. God grace him, praise him, and help him.

  2. jai rao says:

    the wise have known to echo…”the apple always falls close to the tree”. Blessed then is the doorway to creation through which J. Kapadia emerged – noble and humble parentage. The sublime yet rigorous parenting was of enormous value assisting the young J. Kapadia on his arduous path. It is we that should consider ourselves not just privileged; but people of great good fortune to have been in the vicinity of J. Kapadia. Humbly, manifestations such as J. Kapadia are rare and far appear apart.

  3. jai rao says:

    Apologies please. the last line must read Humbly, manifestations such as J. Kapadia are rare and appear far apart.

  4. Ravi Thakur says:

    India needs such honest and down to earth judges and leaders to take the country forward.

  5. Ravi Thakur says:

    Justice Kapadia is a rare breed of professionals with ethics, morality, honesty and a matter of fact approach towards all things – personal or professional. He knows how to conduct himself and keep the dignity and integrity of his high office. I salute him for his contribution and direction to Indian judiciary.

  6. NILESH CHAWDA says:

    HONESTY PAYS IN THE LONG RUN. THOSE WERE THE GOLDEN ERA OF INDIA WHERE AND WHEN SENIORS USED TO NOT ONLY SUPPORT BUT INCUBATE JUNIORS OR ANY OTHER PERSON DEPICTING SERIOUS APPROACH TO STUDY…. NATION WILL BE THANKFUL TO PARSIS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF JURISPRUDENCE.
    PANGU LANGHAYATE GIRIM IS THE CLASSIC SANSKRIT PROVERB. I FEEL HOPE FOR POSITIVE GROWTH OF OUR GREAT COUNTRY WHERE SUCH HIGH BREEDS ARE BORNE AND ARE SHINING LIKE THE POLAR STAR IN THE SKY AND GALAXY. HATS OFF TO HIM

  7. drparasjain says:

    Vodfon is a clear miscarriage of justice. An Indian operation changed hands with dubious transfer through offshore company, the parent company took credit for the same and Vodafon has the last laugh. Except for the big lawyer who get big briefs with fat fees from corporates , Vodafon is a matter to grieve . RIP justice and fair play . Welcome to dubious transactions.

  8. T.SATYANANDA, says:

    Justice saroh Kapadia is excellent and fine human being who has been elevated to dizzy heights from a very humble beginning.He achieved pinnacles of glory through his profession and it is worthwhile and great to emulate his path.The dignity,integrity,adaptability with humility to the cause and issue is hall mark of the Justice Kapadia and Let us all pay the almighty to have more such people amidst us and such tribe multiflys to make our country proud and this world a nice place to live and progress.

  9. Nice Article and inspiring for the youth, Role model with Humble personality but steely belief in value system. Thanks

  10. Sanjeev Sharma says:

    Really Great Son Of Soil……………………..really ………………besides APJ Kalam Azaad……………Salutes…………….rarest of rare and India Needs such Great Personalities

  11. Hono’ble Chief Justice Guidance to to Yong Lawyers is very important for the legal profession as well for for the social responsibility. The Crux of the Article is the “HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. ”
    AMBRISH TANDON
    (ADVOCATE)
    TANDON ASSOCIATES
    KANPUR 9839533673

  12. Ostwal T.P. says:

    He ought to have been appointed as a president of India .In true sence an extra ordinary person.

  13. rahul hakani says:

    he should be the president of india

  14. R M Desai says:

    Indeed CJ Kapadiais one of the rares. We need many more kapadias in every walks of life if fruits of Independent India has to reach the downtroddens. I salute CJ Kapadia

  15. CA AJAY KUMAR RAJPUT says:

    Great Article, Truly Inspiring for Youngsters… I had oppertunity to listen him in a International Tax Conference, Very down to earth, keen to learn personality.

  16. CA Jayesh Shah says:

    Something to to hold the nerve of young and enthusiastic lawyers..
    To understand and develop clarity in case decisions and make to the point pleading..
    Time is very precious for both The Judge and the Lawyer so value it like The Chief Justice…..
    Good Care in Drafting the subject matter to be developed…….
    That’s what I learned from this Article……

  17. SIDHARTH PRASAD DAS says:

    “THE SYMBOL OF JUSTICE”, whom I respect from the core of my heart.

  18. S K Goyal says:

    J Kapadia, a gem of judiciary system of India, gave full time and oppurtunity to advocates. A complete discipline, great interest by all; in his court, fair judgements are the principles of his court. A great personality. I salute him.

  19. J Kapadia, a gem of judiciary system of India, gave full time and oppurtunity to advocates. A complete discipline, great interest by all; in his court, fair judgements are the principles of his court. A great personality. I salute him.More and more Justice Kapadias are needed to clean the scammy India.

  20. Ch.G.Murali Krishna Murthy says:

    TRULY INSPIRING FOR PRESENT DAY JUDGES TO ENCOURAGE JUNIORS. ALSO TO BE ABOVE ABOARD FOR THE PRESENT JUDICIARY NOT WITHSTANDING ANY ALLUREMENTS. MODEL JUDGE FOR TIME TO COME AND WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR SOME OF HIS PATH BREAKING ORDERS BORNE OUT OF DEEP KNOWLEDGE ON THE ISSUES BEFORE THE HON’BLE BENCH.

  21. A. Husein Nouman Ali FCA says:

    A very Illustrious personality who must have touched millions hearts in his life till to-day, I am sure. We Indians are really blessed when such personalities like great Justice Sarosh H. Kapadia are here in the Country. To-day I remember Shri Nani Palkhivala who was another such great luminery.

  22. A. Husein Nouman Ali FCA says:

    I am really moved by such very illustrious personality who has touched many hearts. We are really blessed that such great achievers are born in our great country. God bless him and give him long life.

  23. CA Kumar Pal says:

    It is strange that how one individual can change the perception of whole nation towards judiciary. Justice Kapadia has restored the faith of people in Judicial system. God Bless Justice Kapadia.

  24. Justice Kapadia is a professional possessing combination of rare qualities with honesty, ethics, morality. Having a practical approach in the all matters that is personal or professional. His conduct, work culture, dignity and integrity make him admirable in his office, colleagues and professional work. I appreciate for his direction to Indian judiciary and contribution.

  25. CA SANDEEP JAIN says:

    We feel proud on such a telented judges our country have.

  26. Advocate Vipin Raturi says:

    It was not doubt that former chief justice kAPADIA brillant mind. VODAFONE VS. UOI judgement will be the legacy of Former chief Justice Kapadia for the several decades to come.

    “KHUDI KO KAR ITNA BULAND
    kHUDA BANDE SE PUCHE BATA TERI RAJHA KYA HAI”?

    Regards
    Vipin Raturi
    Advocate

  27. CA R S V Raman says:

    Real Inspiration for proceeding further in the Career.

  28. Mihir Shah says:

    A great article to read. This is really very inspirational for young professional like us. Surely this article has everything which one would like to learn in Life.

  29. Hon’ble Justice Kapadia was a man of Integrity who has delivered without fear and favour. During his tenure Chief Justice of India, all the scams have unfolded before the nation. His integrity inspired fellow judges also. Quality of Judgments have improved. I have read his judgments which are very educative, based on logic and considers in details various proposition of laws. He inspire me and I wants to meet such a towering personality if opportunity comes to me.

  30. rubia says:

    Hon’ble Justice Kapadia is an inspiration to the world

  31. CA Sudeep Chhallani says:

    Superb Article to read and motivate young aspiring professionals to believe in themselves and work hard !
    Respect to such a great luminary ! Rarest of rare and just one of its kind….

    – Regards
    CA Sudeep Chhallani.

  32. Lawyer Mahen Thakkar says:

    Respected Hon`ble Lordship Justice Kapadia Sir is an inspiration to the world and Hon`ble Lordship Justice Kapadia Sir was RAM in the jungle of litigation.

  33. mk kmuar says:

    It is very heartening to note that in our country who has integrity and talent can achieve the top post and Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, Justice Kapadia is one amongst them. With such a humble back ground it is astonishing to see that he has adorned the top echelon of Indian judiciary. He is really an inspiration to the young generation.

  34. True K.apadadiji was an inspiring person at bombay high court where i was advocate.
    Fact is his humility that helpred me mould ,as i started my life asa village school teacher under harijan welfare program in madras state
    Where i saw a lot of poor agriculture labor neverwanted children waste time, as the used to tell me, sìr, ,in school children wdould soon become lazy as they also get midday meals that is ploy politicians made tomske us their slaves, which we do not want.
    None helped us in agriculture by physically sharing our burden, so we believe in real jard work that poeer God gave us why these men in politics play with pur lives by playing more and more conflicts in our life.
    I used to convince them and bring children to school, but the farmer used to ask me when he needs his chikd to help him in field i should release them if i agree to it thdn we wil send childrdn to schol, i agreed after al whole life is based o n some contract o f integrated mutual apreciation, that way Indisn cpontract Act was framed in 1872 by then British
    Law makers. Once district collector at Trivandrsm
    Mr.Wood wrote a note if we work faithfully with preople, then anything better could be done.
    I agred with his idea that way the harijan vhildren studied under me became graduates in eafly 19 6 0s and some too cultivated lands which they never sold i n the interest to runi ng to some urban areas thus they saved their assets as also their xsome childrsn too became district officiials and they served and tetired with solid integrity, thst means they developed strong characters that is ehst G K Chdsrerton said never lose character that is the super asset any can boast of, never moneys last llonger but integrity.

    That way my life too changed. So i agree with his virws without any hesitation, if we folloew his footsteps, soon INDIA MAYREACH EMINENT HEIGHTS,

    QUESTION WILL WE.?
    Thanks

  35. PJ mahida says:

    Pleased to learn shri Kapadia saheb’s career journey from clerk to Chief Justice of Supreme court and being a surati I am proud for it. We mostly prefer short cut without putting hard work and doing homework. Sir, reading about you will definitely encourage us to do a detailed study of the case.

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