On November 15, the grueling monotony of my long-drawn winter break finally came to an end. It had been a bad time to be handed holidays – a period when my acquaintances that were not from the legal fraternity were plagued with exams, rendering me marooned at home with only the television for company. While the first week of this lifestyle was a welcome change from the frenetic pace of life at N.A.L.S.A.R., it became unbearable after. I eagerly waited for my internship to begin.
For a period of three weeks, I had the opportunity to intern under B.M. Chatterji, Senior Standing Counsel for the Department of Taxation, Bombay in the Bombay High Court. He is a respected lawyer with numerous feathers in his cap, the latest being the verdict in Vodafone International Holdings B.V. v. Union of India. Working hours were strict, and extended from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Work in court mostly involved assisting Mr. Chatterji while he argued in court, keeping his documents in order and sitting in on his meetings with clients. Through this aspect of my work, I was able to watch him and other eminent lawyers at close quarters. Over the duration of my internship, Mr. Chatterji was involved in several appeals against the orders of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, heard before a Division Bench of Justices J. P. Devadhar and R. M. Savant. These proceedings, held in Court Room Fifty-three, were usually long-drawn and exhausting, with the bench grilling the advocates from morning to afternoon with only a one-hour break for lunch. Most matters heard before the Bench had been pending for five to six years, and invariably, numerous documents were missing. Therefore, the observable trend was a repetitive process where the advocate would plead forgiveness for the missing documents; the Judge would chastise his carelessness and then rule that the matter was to be heard again in two weeks.
Another matter in which Mr. Chatterji was involved in was a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Cuffe Parade Residents’ Association, heard before Justice D.K. Deshmukh. The matter involved some land reserved for a children’s playground, which had been illegally usurped by a local trust. It was a revelation to hear Mr. Chatterji and Mr. Aspi Chenoy argue the matter with such alacrity, skill, and dexterity that the case of the respondents was completely decimated. Justice D.K. Deshmukh’s understanding of the matter, coupled with his astute knowledge of the law, ensured that the petitioners received a favourable verdict. My role in the whole process was to sit in the proceedings and take down copious notes of the proceedings, which Mr. Chatterji perused in his chambers later. Often, members of the respondent trust, seeing me scribbling furiously in my notebook, assumed that I was one of the journalists reporting the matter and tried to sway my understanding of the case in order to read a favourable article in a newspaper the next day. I often played along, debating over the right of the Trust to usurp the impugned public property before finally disclosing my identity as Mr. Chatterji’s assistant, at which they would beat a hasty retreat – the things we do to keep ourselves entertained in court!
Mr. Chatterji was also kind enough to introduce me to several senior advocates. While I was awestruck and speechless on finally meeting stalwarts like Aspi Chenoy and Mahesh Jethmalani, they were mostly affable and genial, asking me about my interest in taxation law, and my experience as an intern with Mr. Chatterji.
Court work was incredibly hectic and I had worn out a good pair of shoes running up and down the winding stone steps of the Bombay High Court building. With the ongoing Kasab trial, the building had begun to resemble a fortress and therefore, it was important to have valid identification on you at all times, as I learnt to my dismay when I was refused entry to the court on my very first day, till Mr. Chatterji’s personal intervention. My internship also co-incided with the dispute over the eligibility of two Indian Premier League teams to play in the tournament. When I had an hour free, I would attend these hearings in Justive Vazifdar’s courtroom, often finding myself sitting next to some celebrity or the other.
The second leg to my daily routine began after work in the courtrooms was over and done with. It was then that I, laden with voluminous paperwork, retreated to Mr. Chatterji’s small but comfortable chambers. While I had usually surrendered to fatigue by the time we were back in the chambers, Mr. Chatterji amazed me with his energy as he conducted all of his daily affairs with the same levels of energy that he started the day with.
Despite my inexperience in the subject, he entrusted me with a lot of research to be undertaken in order to answer the numerous legal queries of the Income Tax Department. Although he had the final say, he granted me considerable freedom to explore the resources at his disposal, and develop an answer to the query on my own. During my stint, I was the sole intern in Mr. Chatterji’s chambers, though he often takes up to three students as assistants. I could not complain though, as I had the very entertaining company of Vaishali the typist, and Bhima, who seems to be Mr. Chatterji’s Man Friday. Bhima, in particular, made my life very easy, acquainting me with the filing process and ensuring that I had a steady supply of snacks coming my way, all the while regaling me with pictures of his weightlifting days, a visual that I could have done without. After fifteen years in Mr. Chatterji’s service, Bhima was well known to everyone in the High Court and is certainly the person to ask if you needed to navigate the intricate corridors of the High Court administration.
(Devdeep Ghosh studies in the second year at the N.A.L.S.A.R. University of Law, Hyderabad.)