In Conversation With Senior Advocate Jayant K. Mehta

In this captivating and thought provoking conversation with Kaustubh Mehta, Editorial Lead, BW Legal World, Senior Advocate Jayant K. Mehta talks about his experience with legal stalwarts, mantra for success and the interface between economy and law.

Mr. Mehta, what inspired you to pursue law as a career? How has your journey been? 

Law as a career choice for me, was a function of both, inspiration, and reason. My inspiration was the lawyer’s ability to and opportunity of raising and articulating issues that have social and financial impact and importance. Lawyering, for me, was (and is) an endless exciting exploration.

As far as reasons are concerned, this was a choice made more out of my disinterest in what were the then commonly available career fields, i.e., engineering and medicine. Another consideration for me was that law appeared to be a safe sanctuary, with two previous generations of my family being lawyers. In a lighter vein, at least, they could not fault me for choosing law. My choice was also influenced by my liking for debates and public speaking in school.  

The journey so far has been greatly enriching, inspiring, and satisfying.  

It has enriched not only my knowledge but has also shaped my personality and interests which continue to diverge as more and more newer subjects interact with the law.  

It has been inspiring because as a first-generation lawyer in New Delhi, practically unconnected with my roots in the native state, I have had the privilege of assisting and being encouraged by the stalwarts, both at the bar and the bench. Without knowing me personally, they allowed and encouraged me to learn from them. Some of them have left an indelible imprint in my mind.

My professional journey has been satisfying for two reasons. First, having spent more than twenty years at the bar, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of my colleagues at a personal level and having the assurance that the bond between them and me is there to stay. Second, I have been fortunate that distinguished members of the bar, senior and junior, have often acknowledged my preparedness level/arguments. As a litigator, this feeling is unmatched.

What has been your mantra for success? What is your advice for young litigators in the profession?  

In my view, there can be no one mantra for success. It depends upon many factors, like the definition of success for an individual and his/her willingness to work for it. My advice to young litigators in the profession is to follow their own mantra, their own Ikigai. It is like the talisman in Kung Fu Panda, the movie. The secret is an empty canvas for each of us to paint.  

That said, the mantra that I have always tried to follow is: preparedness, being honest with the court, having respect for your adversary, solution-oriented approach to arguments and a disconnect with the result. Considering the enormous work that our Hon’ble Judges put in every day, I feel, it is important to also focus on problem solving rather than simply its iteration in the court.

It is important to remember that a lawyer is engaged for correct and precise legal articulation. Therefore, a litigator needs to work both - the brief and the manner of its best articulation in the shortest possible time. This is a constant journey.  

It is also important to remember that the result is not in one’s hands and the world does not end with an adverse result. Each case presents its own unique opportunity and experience. Lastly, I would say that each litigator must work to remain like Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita, disconnected to the outcome and focused only on efforts. This is difficult but not unachievable. If nothing else, it keeps you light-hearted and less stressed.

What according to you are the emerging trends in the legal profession?

According to me, the emerging trends are the dynamic interfaces between technology and law and economics and law. The interface between technology and law is throwing up newer challenges, even questioning what one assumed to be as fundamentals such as formation of a contract, etc.  

The interface between economics and law, although quite old, has gained more significance in recent years. Recent legislations are having a more prominent economics angle to it, and at the same time, courts these days are more inclined to interpret a statute considering the economics behind it.  

Another trend that I see assuming importance these days is time management by the courts. But this is more institutional and requires litigators to be ready to deliver their arguments in a shorter time. Not only does this save precious judicial time, but it also levels the playing field between the senior and junior members of the bar.

Tell us about one of the most memorable cases that you appeared in.

To date, the most memorable experience for me was arguing before the Supreme Court for Progetto Grano SPA in Shri Lal Mahal Limited v. Progetto Grano SPA, (2014) 2 SCC 433. I was more of a greenhorn at that time and was facing a very respected Senior Advocate, Mr. Rohinton F. Nariman (later, an Hon’ble Judge of the Supreme Court), as the adversary. This was coupled with the fact that one of the Hon’ble Judge hearing the matter had already rendered a judgment that went substantially against the case that I was furthering. However, both, the Court and Mr. Nariman, created a great comfort zone for me and allowed me to articulate my points fearlessly. The reward was that Justice R. M. Lodha (as his lordship then was) overruled his own view taken in a previous judgment and gave a landmark judgment on the enforceability of foreign arbitral awards in India.

How do you think the problem of judicial pendency can be resolved?  

This is as hotly debated a topic as the India-Pak cricket matches. Each one of us has our own views about what can be done better. Here is my bit. I feel that the problem of pendency is not just a court’s problem. It is much wider. It is systemic and requires approaches at various levels. We need to focus not just on reducing the number of dockets coming to the court but address the reasons for which they multiply.

First, a better legal education and stricter thresholds for practising law resulting in more meritorious individuals, having calibre, entering the legal profession, and correctly guiding their clients. This will ensure that disputes which do not deserve judicial time are not filed out of ignorance or incorrect advice.  

Second, legal reforms are required in terms of better expressions from the legislature. For example, the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code, 2016 has already seen so much litigation due to uncertainties/ambiguities in its operation. Despite it being only a six-year-old statute, it has already seen several amendments. We seem to get back to the core purpose of the law – certainty.

Third, limiting the right to appeal or making the appeal procedure unreasonably time-bound is only window dressing. It overlooks the fact that in our country it takes time for an ordinary litigant to seek precise legal advice. I feel that a better way is to address the issue is to eliminate inconsistency in judicial approaches to the legal issues. This makes the original as well as the appellate remedies a matter of chance for a willing litigant, begetting unnecessary litigation. If the legal position is doubtlessly certain, I am sure a lot of unnecessary litigation can be avoided.

Four, more judges and better infrastructure – human and institutional. I feel that the courts should have professional managers for listing and scheduling of matters. This can aid the Hon’ble Judges in better time-management. For example, we can have a system of each party indicating in advance the time it proposes to take. This can (and should) have a bearing on the legal costs that the courts consider granting to the winning party. Once the process becomes cost-heavy against a misadventure, a lot of unnecessary litigations would subside.

What are your expectations from the changed leadership of the Supreme Court with Chief Justice U. U. Lalit at the helm?  

CJI U. U. Lalit is a sterling exemplar of great professionalism, simplicity, humility, and ability. I have been lucky to have seen him perform as a counsel and have first-hand witnessed the amount of hard work he used to put in in the preparation of every matter. He remained unruffled and extremely polite even with an adverse bench. He was extremely approachable and humble. These were his hallmarks. I see the same approach in his role on the bench.  It is no wonder that we are seeing more reforms in the working of the Supreme Court within a few days of him taking over as the CJI than seen in several years. As a litigator, my expectation from him is to ensure a clearly defined and time bound system of listing of matters and consistency in the court’s approach to the legal issues.

Can you tell us about one favourite book which you have read, and you would like to recommend to our readers?  

A book that is very dear to me and which I have read several times is “The Court and the Constitution” by Archibald Cox. It is a great insight into the American Constitutional history and the role played by the academia and lawyers in shaping it, Mr. Cox being one of them. I would recommend that book to every student of law.

To those interested in the Indian political history, I would suggest reading V.P. Menon’s “Integration of Indian States”. It is an eye-opener on the amount of work our forefathers, particularly, Sardar Patel and his team, put in to make our republic. I would also recommend reading books on legal humour, an art we need to resurrect.

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Senior Advocate Jayant K. Mehta

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