Editor’s Note : Like father, like son. Fali S Nariman gives a classic and unbelievable example of an episode in the Court, between the great Advocate Viswanatha Sastri (his portrait hangs in the Advocate’s Lounge in the

Editor’s Note :
Like father, like son. Fali S Nariman gives a classic and unbelievable example of an episode in the Court, between the great Advocate Viswanatha Sastri (his portrait hangs in the Advocate’s Lounge in the Supreme Court) and Justice R.S. Bachawat, a great Judge. While Sastri was arguing in his inimitable ‘soft-but-sure’ manner, Justice Bachawat reminded Viswanatha Sastri that the proposition he was affirming in his argument was directly contrary to what the Privy Council had said in another case. There was silence in the Court. What would be the response of Viswanatha Sastri ? After all, except Justice Bachawat no one (including other two brother Judges sitting with him) would know this decision of the Privy Council, thought everybody. But here is the reply from Viswanatha Sastri:

“Yes, Mi Lord, and that is the only decision of the Privy Council that has been adversely commented on in “Halsbury’s Laws of England” in volume [such-and-such.]”. This was too much for Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar, a scholar Judge sitting in the Bench who suspended the proceedings and ordered that the books be brought to the Court. Sure enough there was the judgement of the Privy Council as Justice Bachawat had recollected and equally surely there was that passage in “Halsbury’s Laws of England” which commented adversely on the opinion of the Privy Council!

That was the father. What of the son? You can substitute the names of the entities, you can have the son, if you had the opportunity to interact with him as an advocate and appear before him as a Judge. He was very learned with an elephantine memory and power of recall to stump the best in the business.

Justice Viswanatha Ratnam died on 23rd May, 2020, all of 88 years. (1932-2020). “He was not a chip of the old block. But a chipped whole block”, said Justice V R Krishna Iyer, when he saw Justice V Ratnam pro actively associated with Legal Aid activities.
Ratnam was born a Judge. Born in Thanjavur, schooled in P. S. High School, Mylapore, on to Presidency College and then Madras Law College, saw him become a lawyer, he was destined to be. He apprenticed under G R Jagadisan (Judge to be) and then upon enrolment, tutored under S Ramachandra Iyer (who became Chief Justice).

It was only a matter of qualifying to be a Judge as he was made a Permanent Judge on 25th Jan,1979. He was Acting Chief Justice, Madras High Court since 15th Nov,1992 until he was elevated as Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh, on and from 28th Jan,1994 till his retirement on 1st Aug,1994. Interestingly, he was Governor of the State of HP for 19 days, during his tenure.

Justice V Ratnam was a prolific writer of judgments. His ability to marshal the facts and apply the law was legendary. He ’hardly required any assistance from the lawyers, which proved to be both an asset and a disadvantage”, said Senior Advocate S.Sampathkumar. The Judge had a presence. He sat tall in his position and added lustre to it and not the other way around. And his booming voice which filled the unairconditioned halls, even the larger ones as the 3rd court hall, was a pleasure to behold.

As he walked in the corridors to the Court by himself or with a brother judge, he let it be known that a JUDGE was on his way to his COURT. Senior M R Narayanaswami once said, “Ratnam seemed arrogant and aloof. He literally looked down upon from above. To my generation used to the cleverest among them, he was confidence personified. Such presence mattered for he was truly the lord of all he surveyed in his court and that is as it ought to be”

He was perceived as a terror to those who were ill prepared. It did not matter to him whether a raw junior appeared or a grey haired Senior appeared. He did not suffer fools. There was an element of majesty in the slow manner in which he entered the Court hall with his huge frame and climbed the stairs to the Bench. He elevated the status of the Court hall as a place of reverence and respect. And as he sat down and picked up his sharpened pencil, the court was in the serious business of being in session. There was no practice of mentioning or seeking adjournments. Aware of the strict practices, the Bar adjusted itself as complaints did not matter.

His ‘arrogance’ came from his pedigree. Even Thiruvalluvar does not decry such arrogance which inheres from erudition. He never put down juniors who appeared before him with confidence and a sense of well preparedness. Tales were spread in the corridors that he was schoolmasterly. Yes, he was. That was because he valued his time.

It would be a tiring effort to identify his landmark verdicts. There are so many. Let us say that on the civil side he gets relied upon every other day. And when puisne judges see who the author was and it was he, it gains credence/ That is the legacy he has left behind.

Some of us who were fortunate to be born in the right generation, were delighted to appear before his court. There was nervousness in the air but that was enriching not enervating. It was like the start of a new test match on a new pitch and having to face fearsome fast bowlers in tandem with the new red cherry. Butterflies in the stomach enhanced the occasion. Every day was a new day. And if one passed the crucible before the Ratnam Court- you ‘had nothing to fear except fear itself’ as Roosevelt famously said, in the profession .It was cake walk before other Judges.

His death is a huge loss to the legal profession, Judges and lawyers included. One can recall even today in the mind’s eye the tall gangling judge sitting on this throne in the 3rd Court and booming, “Call the next case’. Or he being seated in his Chambers on the 2nd floor looking out into the open windows, to the Port Trust premises on the eastern side, as you took permission to enter. With ceiling fan on, there would be three more table fans whirring along to dampen the heat of the times, and his powdered face shouting out, ”Ennada” as he called out and smiled. You felt comforted to be awe-struck to be in his presence. What a Man! What a Judge!

Om Shanthi

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