Musings At Law- XXIII
It was a Original Side Suit for recovery of a very high sum- running to over Rs.80 crores, against the owner of an ocean-going vessel. Justice S A Kader (Sampath and he went a long way back and they made the cutest pair in Court- for Sampath rarely argued beyond minutes, and Justice Kader never tolerated arguments beyond minutes, as he was so quick on the uptake). Date had been fixed for the final hearing of the suit. A Senior Advocate from the then Bombay, had come with a battery of his juniors, and a host of authorities were lined up meticulously, on the table, to respond.
Kader: “How long would you both take? I will discharge the rest of the Board, as others need not unnecessarily wait.” Sampath, “Milord knows me well. I am incapable of arguing beyond a few minutes, whatever the nature of the cause or stakes. Not only that, my Senior H M Small had always told me to be short and sweet, as that is what the Judges are looking to, and not the long and boring. This is a simple suit. I entrusted a consignment of goods to the defendant carrier. The vessel went via Colombo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and then Botswana, the destination. My geography is as bad as my law, so your Lordship, may check the route the vessel took. The vessel reached Colombo, where the goods were unloaded and reloaded, as is the practice, and then again in two more ports, until it reached the destination. There are in all 4 manifests, starting with the commencement of voyage in Madras Port. The vessel carried 9 items of value and first three manifests disclose that there was no shortage. The last of them discloses a shortage of 2 and that is the value of the suit as per the invoice.”
He turns to me and asks me to identify the Exhibits for the learned Judge. I do. Sampath: “Your lordships just keeps the manifests, namely the exhibits, one after the other. Your Lordship gets the shortage by sheer common sense and logical inference. It requires no rocket science and surely no law or the host of citations and authorities my learned friend from Bombay, has threatened to swamp us with. Heaven help your lordship, for I will leave my colleague here to take down notes, and if need be, I shall be back for the same 5 minutes. For the sin of having entrusted the consignment, to my Bombay friend, I am before your Lordship, claiming the value of the 2 items, which were not delivered. I rest my case and I am sorry if I have taken more time than what your Lordship usually permits.”
Kader: “Counsel, you can now reply to Sampathkumaar. I have already read the papers and the brief submissions have succinctly captured the primary issues in this suit. I can give you the entire session up to lunch time, if you want. But not beyond, even if you may have flown all the way to Chennai, as a gesture of courtesy.”
The Bombay Counsel was totally aghast. His face and body language disclosed that he was totally unprepared, for such a brutal welcome. He took more than a few minutes, to digest what had happened and mustering sense, he said, “Mi Lord, I am extremely sorry. But I am truly shocked that my learned friend has suggested that he has closed his submissions. It is not so simple. There are discrepancies between the manifests explained by oral evidence, and more particularly, the changes in law of each Port and State vis a vis Hague Visby Rules as modified by Hamburg Protocol, with due reference, of course to Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, 1930. Surely the principles of bailment and contractual obligations arising from the documents on record and statutory principles of British vintage, need to be traversed, before my learned counsel reached the conclusions he reached. He has simply polevaulted above all these issues, and made it out as if it was such a simple suit for recovery. No, it is not. I was under the impression that my learned friend would take two full days, and thereafter, I could take time to respond for two days, at the very least. I surely never bargained for this short shrift to facts and law, and a hurried job that my learned friend has rendered. I am sorry. I am truly flabbergasted and caught totally off guard.”
Kader, “Counsel, I do not understand your grievance. What is your problem? Let us assume Sampathkumaar has miserably failed to make out a case. That should suit you. You should be dancing and delighted that your job has been made easy. Kindly use the glorious opportunity, till luncheon, and blast his case, with all your might. I am eager and willing to listen to your exposition on the various protocols. And even patiently consider the host of authorities you have piled up. No issues at all. If you are so keen, I can accommodate you in the afternoon session also. We are used to Mr. Sampathkumaar, he tries to make it easy for us, and the number of clients he has, proves that such a strategy works for him. So, why blame him or complain that he did not argue, as well as he ought to have, according to your expectation, in the wake of such a high stake suit claim?”
Bombay Counsel was truly dumbfounded. He discussed with his colleagues, for all of 15 minutes, as Justice Kader took a recess. Bombay Counsel, “Mi Lord, I am sorry I am unable to argue today. My rhythm has been completely upset, and I need to gather my wits. And it would appear that this court is also not unhappy with the submissions of the other side. I need to be cautious and move with care. Please grant me an adjournment by a week. I will come back with written submissions in the meanwhile, and may I request your lordship to ask the plaintiff also to file their written submissions. In my 3 decade experience, I have never been hit by a weapon like this ever before. I am not able to digest the fact that a suit worth Rs.80 crores plus and which lasted over a decade, has been argued in less than 10 minutes flat and it is something I have never encountered before. So, give me some breathing space, to work out my strategy. I am sorry it has turned out this way. I shall be back next week, and take it that I only need to argue to the submissions of the plaintiff, as they have rested their case.”
Two days later, the Bombay firm came up with a proposal for compromise of the suit claim, less a few crores and no interest and costs. Sampathkumaar sat on the head of our client, drilled him with what pendency before Court was, and that ‘50% settlement was any day better than a 100% best judgment’ and the suit came to be compromised. Bombay counsel never came back to Madras High court, for that case or any other.
Sampath was a true blue Abou Ben Adhem, those that law loved, than those that loved law. Sampathkumaar was probably the foremost among the contemporaries in terms of success in the profession ‘despite his limitations’ (his words). His success lay in being ‘responsive’ and ‘responsible’ as he put it. His arrest during the Emergency, owing to his affiliation to RSS, was challenged and a Bail application moved. Bar and Bench were shocked at this development. The Bench could not understand how Sampath could be a threat to national security and bombarded the Public Prosecutor with an array of arrows. This was in the early days, after the proclamation of Emergency on 26th Jun,1975, and the first case of its kind in India. The Public Prosecutor was Mr. Habibullah Badsha. The suave, affable gentleman lawyer got up, as anxious eyes and ears of the Court and the assembled, were locked into him…
(Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)