Justice S Ravindra Bhat: An Archetypal Judge As Per Parameters Of HM Seervai

  • Nitish Raj
  • 04:20 PM, 25 Nov 2023

Read Time: 15 minutes

If one were to ask legal scholars across the globe about the name of one judge of the Indian Supreme Court who had a tremendous impact on the jurisprudence, a resounding answer will be the name of - Justice Vaidyanathapuram Rama Krishna Iyer. A resolution passed by Mr. Fali Sam Nariman and other senior counsels to describe Justice Krishna Iyer as a humane judge said the following about his legacy:

“…No words of prosaic prose would be adequate to encompass your vitality and versatility — not even if we drew upon and borrowed from the hoarded wealth of a vast vocabulary you are known to possess. We shall therefore crave your indulgence to supplement the record by those profounder feelings, which the language of the lexicon cannot communicate and which are best conveyed by the language of the heart.”

Any discussion about Krishna Iyer J. will be incomplete without discussing the criticism against him by eminent Indian constitutional jurist H. M. Seervai in his legendary 3-volume commentary on the Constitution of India (extracted below) where he wrote that, “the judgments of Krishna Iyer J. are a pre-eminent example of lack of judicial discipline and of importing his own views on social and economic matters in his judgments.” Relevant scanned pages with my underline to emphasise are attached as annexure here.

It is submitted that gist of the criticism against Justice Krishna Iyer, if analysed objectively and dispassionately, can be said to be that he was pioneer of judicial activism (and that led to H. M. Seervai to term it “judicial indiscipline”) in the history of our Supreme Court. According to H.M. Seervai, Justice Krishna Iyer imported his own socio-political predilections and pet ideas in his judgments without any regard for settled legal principles.

Coming back to Justice Bhat, as per the set of code of conduct of judges in accordance with set parameters of judicial discipline, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat can be considered as a numero uno choice for an ideal judge. Especially in light of his recent judgment in Supriyo v. Union of India, (2023 SCC OnLine SC 1348) despite we all disagreeing with his conclusion to not give legal recognition to same-sex marriages, it may be argued that legally he could not have given same based on constitutional fetters on judicial activism. Nonetheless, he still recognised that queerness is neither elitist nor urban concept merely. Trust, Indian Supreme Court in future soon gets its moment of Obergefell v. Hodges soon. Hope, Indian legal history will be kinder to him by not limiting his entire career to this judgment merely.

Justice Bhat completed his innings from the bench of the Indian Supreme Court on October 20, 2023. After being born in Mysore and then raised and schooled at Gwalior and Faridabad, he attended Hindu College, University of Delhi. Later he read law at the University of Delhi which has statistically as of present date produced most judges of the Indian Supreme Court.

Straight after his legal education, he started his practise at the Supreme Court and became an Advocate-On-Record in 1989 (exactly a decade after our own chamber senior – Mr. C. S. Vaidyanathan, Senior Counsel and former first ASGI). He mostly appeared in cases pertaining to labour laws, service law, education law, inter-state water disputes and other branches of Public Law. He was even empanelled as a panel counsel for government. A detailed biography of him discussing his landmark judgments is already available in the public domain already and same will not be reiterated in this piece.

As an arguing counsel, in employment litigations he ensured his legal counsel was available for employees. He led Professor K.B. Singh before the division bench of the Delhi High Court comprising Justices BN Kirpal and Santosh Duggal in Professor K.B. Singh v. Union of India (1990 SCC OnLine Del 337).

As a judge of High Court of Delhi (along with Justice (Dr.) S. Murlidhar) and later as Chief Justice of the Rajasthan High Court, Justice Bhat spearheaded to decolonise the terms used to address the bench by passing resolutions on administrative side to avoid usage of colonial terms of addressing benches of writ courts (like my lord, our ladyship, lordships inter alia).

If one were to read his farewell speeches at the respective High Courts subsequent to his transfer and elevation to the Supreme Court, one may recall he acknowledged each and every individual from top to bottom who somehow supported him or mentored him or assisted him. Not only did he mention every mentor, chamber seniors but also his legal research clerks and past interns (Dr. Gautam Bhatia inter alia to name a few in the long list).

My first in-person interaction with him happened at India Habitat Centre at the party hosted by Mr. Vaidyanathan. Towards the end of the function when Justice Bhat along with his spouse were heading back, Mr. C. S. Vaidyanathan categorically asked me to escort them back. First in shock, I was surprised if he was telling me or others in the event who might have a longer standing at the Bar than me. But I realised that lady luck smiled at me. So, I started escorting them back to the car along with a few other senior counsel who went together having a conversation as they might have known him since his days in the Delhi Bar. Then I mustered the courage to initiate a conversation with him by mentioning being a classmate of his principal law clerk cum researcher Ms. Veda Singh, an outstanding legal brain par excellence in her own right. Not only did he and his spouse thank me humbly before heading back to their residence by boarding the car, but later, the next day when I told Veda about the incident, she was able to quickly recall and told me to my utter astonishment that he mentioned my name to her. Shows that he was a judge who walked with kings but did not lose the common touch.

Counsel appearing before his Court were assured about timing of their matter being taken up based on perusal of the cause list as he conducted his court in such a manner that he ensured giving almost equal time to every matter listed in the cause list of his Court. Rarely one will observe that his Court discharged remaining matters of the day. In recent months, we all saw him sitting often in Court 5 and Court 6 of the Supreme Court.

He judicially pioneered the way towards our disability jurisprudence being more inclusive and viewing disability vide social model of disability instead of medical model of the disability. In commercial disputes also, he took a very balanced approach instead of imposing personal socio-political predilections in his adjudication. He has taken a pro-arbitration approach judicially, showing his deep understanding of our commercial dispute resolution system.

His innings at the Supreme Court might have been completed but the legal community is certain that he will now be contributing towards legal scholarship as a Distinguished Professor at Dr. Ambedkar National Law University, Sonepat, and our arbitration jurisprudence as an Arbitrator.

Author is a Counsel, Supreme Court of India. The author acknowledges the research assistance of Ribhu Saihgal, a law student at RGNUL Patiala, in this work.