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Law And Humour

Lawyers of yesteryears were versatile and had knowledge in several fields other than the law. They were so active in diverse fields such as music and drama

Law and humour

1. Lawyers of yesteryears were versatile and had knowledge in several fields other than the law. They were so active in diverse fields such as music, drama, religion, knowledge of several languages, and intricate knowledge of other sciences as well such as astrology, medicine, etc. Some lawyers were also freedom fighters who led India to independence.

2. Most of them had a great sense of humour. Not only lawyers but also judges which made the practice of the profession very enjoyable unlike what we see in the present day where it is a sort of a hit and run even in the highest court of the land.

3. Madras High Court was known for its humour and satire, possibly attributable to the British era. Such practice and traditions with humour continue in Madras High Court and several Courts.

'Law... is a jealous mistress'

4. It is said that Law “. . . is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by a lavish homage.” 1 But nevertheless, the practice of law requires a sharp intellect and thinking on your feet instantly.  Joseph Story, an American lawyer, and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of USA at a Discourse Pronounced upon the Inauguration of the Author, as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University on the Twenty-fifth Day of August 1829 

5. Lord Brougham defined a lawyer as follows: “A learned gentleman who rescues your estate from your enemies and keeps it to himself.”

6. Law, being a jealous mistress, owes much to the wives of the greatest lawyers. Lord Holt another great law Lord was set to have given his unwavering devotion to law only because of his wife’s nagging propensities. It is a matter of history that Lord Gilbert shut himself in Serjeants Inn for the same reason.

7. It is not as though only the lawyers had great humour. The clients who engaged them also had a good sense of humour.

8. In a suit on forged promissory note, the Plaintiff, who had no hope, succeeded and the lawyer gave a telegram to his client with the following message “Justice Triumphed”. Back came the reply, “Ensure that an appeal is filed”.

9. In Madras High Court, when a serious trial was going on in a suit, the Plaintiff who was suing was making some noise by pulling the bench and frantically searching for something. The judge asked the Plaintiff’s counsel what his client’s problem was. The Counsel after enquiring from his client apologized to the Court and stated that his client had misplaced a valuable jacket which he was searching for. Pat came to the reply from the Judge that “remind your client that many persons have lost their suits itself and that till now your client has lost only his jacket. Ask him to wait for some more time”

Of Lawyers' ingenuity

10. Lawyers are ingenious and charge fees under various heads particularly that of the Supreme Court. They charge for appearances, settling of brief, conferences, and after charging for conferences for reading a brief. They also charge retainer fees for a corporate client for a particular period. Conference charges are by the hour and some also hold conferences in the air (on flights). This was surpassed when a senior counsel sent a memo with a head for “sticking fee” and no one could decipher what it was. The client sought for clarification. The clarification was that since the senior counsel stuck to his seat and did not leave his seat to go out of court, he charged a sticking fee for sticking to his seat.

(Credit: Judges, judging and humour | Jessica Davis-Sharyn Anleu - Palgrave Macmillan - 2018)

11. Smith once cross-examined a young man claiming damages for an arm injury caused by the negligence of a bus driver. “Will you please show us how high you can lift your arm now” asked Smith. The young man gingerly raised his arm to shoulder level, his face contorted with pain. “Thank you” said Smith, “and now, please will you show us how high you could lift your arm, before the accident”. The young man eagerly shot his arm up above his head. He lost his case.

12. The redoubtable G. Ramaswamy often displayed his expertise at repartee and the quick comeback. Once such instance occurred at the Supreme Court when Ramaswamy was attorney general. On the bench were two formidable figures, one of them known as the green judge for his aggressive stance on the environment. An exasperated Justice Kuldip Singh is believed to have demanded of Ramaswamy during the course of the hearing: “You think we are fools?” Ramaswamy replied with much gravity: “My lords have put me a very difficult situation. If I agree I am in contempt if I disagree I commit perjury.” That got even the judges laughing.

13. Irritated by the pittance he was paid in a case, Ramaswamy once said: “How do you expect a petrol car to work when you put diesel in it?”

14. Nothing was a serious issue for GR. At a time when arrack and toddy shops were permitted to operate in Tamil Nadu, he argued a case for admission of an arrack trader before Justice S. Padmanabhan. During the course of his arguments he said, “My Lord, there may be ever so many communities in our State, but they fall under two categories only.” Those present in the court hall expected him to say that they were Brahmins and Non-Brahmins.

The judge asked, “What are they, Mr. Ramaswamy?” GR replied, “My Lord, half the population is Arakhars and the other half is Kallars”. It was a clever play on the words Arrakar (those who consume arrack) and Kallars (those who consume Kallu or toddy). Knowing G.R’s tendency to imbibe, and hoping to corner him, Justice Padmanabhan persisted, “That’s okay, Mr. Ramaswamy, but I have wanted to know this for long."

"What is the difference between toddy and arrack?” With an innocent expression on his face, GR promptly responded, “One minute, my Lord I will take instructions from my counsel on record.” The Ld. Judge laughed and said, “Mr. Ramaswamy, I thought I had laid a trap for you and you have escaped. Hats off to you for your presence of mind.”

15. In yet another case before Justice Venkatachaliah, GR’s client was a company in default of electricity dues. The company was facing the threat of permanent disconnection of electric supply. The special leave petition faced bright prospects of being dismissed. GR therefore valiantly tried a gambit, “My Lord, my client is poor and in hardship.” The astute judge was too quick to contradict him, “Look at the balance sheet on page 63, Mr. Ramaswamy, your client’s turnover just three years ago was over Rs. 50 lakhs!!” GR’s repartee with a deadpan look was, “I know My Lord. That was before they engaged me!” The order that followed was that GR’s client was given the facility of payment through and immediate disconnection was avoided.

16. Immediately after GR had resigned as Attorney General, he was appearing for a private client and was not making much headway and invited a comment from the bench, “Well you see, Mr. Ramaswamy, till the other day you may have been able to find a patient listener to these arguments …” This was an undisguised reference to GR no longer being an Attorney General. Unfazed by the bated silence that engulfed the courtroom, GR paused and said, “I am glad Your Lordship brings this up. Only yesterday I got appointed to a post from which I can never be removed.” Even before those in the courtroom could fathom what it meant, GR flashed his trademark smile and said “The post of former Attorney General of India.”

17. In the Madras High Court, a matter was going on before a bench headed by Sir Lionel Leech. In the midst of a serious argument being made by the Council, a donkey brayed. Sir Lionel Leech remarked to this interruption saying “Gentlemen, one at a time”. The next time, it was Sir Lionel Leech who was delivering the judgment when the donkey brayed. At this, the Counsel this time remarked, “Can my lord repeat the words since it was echoing and was not clear.”

18. Sri Kesava Iyengar, a doyen of the Madras Bar, was once pitted against a senior lawyer whose jaws used to protrude. In the midst of the hearing, the senior lawyer remarked on the arguments of Sri Kesava Iyengar as his “mental exhibition”. Sir Kesava Iyengar who was very sharp, spontaneously replied, “My Lord, my mental exhibition is much better than my learned friend’s dental exhibition”.

19. While arguing a civil case involving a dispute over certain farmlands, the judge asked Sri Kesava Iyengar, “who is in possession of the farmlands?” Sri Kesava Iyengar in his typical style replied, “But of course, the Bull is My Lord.”

20. Once, CK Daphtary while arguing a case before Justice Hidayathulla, who had been recently elevated to the Supreme Court, was interrupted by the judge who said “But Mr. Daphtary, I have already taken a contradictory view, when I was Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.” Pat came the reply by CK “Now My Lord, is your chance to repent.” 

(Credit: Judges, judging and humour | Jessica Davis-Sharyn Anleu - Palgrave Macmillan - 2018)

'Wit and homour not only in courts - also among colleagues at the bar'

21. Wit and humour is not only prevalent inside the Courts but also amongst colleagues at the bar. Following the famous song “Choli ke peeche kya hain?”, the legendary GR used to taunt Soli Sorabjee, another Former Attorney General for India, “Soli ke peeche kya hain?”

22. When once a raw junior in the bar was told by his senior “go and ask for time before the Court”. The raw junior carried out the instructions religiously and when the matter was called out asked the judge “My Lord, what is the time?”

23. Once a lawyer wrote to his client: “Mike, it was you who crossed over the road. But, it wasn’t you. 1/10th of an hour – 30 pounds”

24. A counsel once represented a lady by an unusual name ‘Tickle’. To his luck, the matter came up before Lord Russel who was sharp a sharp judge. The Counsel started addressing “My Lord, Tickle, my client, the Defendant …” Lord Russel immediately replied, “Tickle her yourself, you are as well able to do it as I am.”

25. When Russel was a counsel, the Judge hearing his appeal once said to him “Mr. Russel, you must give us some credit of knowing something.” He replied, “That is all very well my Lord, but that is just the mistake I made in the Court below.”

26. Once when Mr. Russel was asked by the Judge, “Mr. Russel, I have an elementary question about the law to ask you?” Russel immediately turned to his junior and pointing his finger towards the library directed him to go bring all the elementary books in law.

27. Great Irish lawyer Curran was arguing in the Irish Court of Chancery before Lord Chancellor Claire who was instead of listening to the arguments, fondling his dog. Curran stopped his arguing quite irritated at this. However, the Law Lord said, “Go on Mr. Curran”. Curran most politely and in a composed manner replied “A thousand apologies, My Lords, I really took it for granted that your Lordships were engaged in deep consultation.”

28. Tim Healy another great barrister of Ireland was once opposed by Mr. Campbell, who pleaded so pathetically in Court for his client that he himself broke down and wept in front of the jury. Naturally, the Irish jury was very much affected as were the spectators in the Court and moist handkerchiefs were to be seen everywhere. With his opening words, however, the unbeatable Tim completely obliterated the impression made by his opponent and said “Gentlemen, the horrible details of the case have brought tears to the eyes of my learned friend. But really, gentlemen, we have not witnessed such a miracle since Moses struck the rock in the wilderness.”

29. In the cross-examination of an expert witness as to timber classification, Tim asked the age of the witness. The young man replied, 21 years. Tim then asked how long he was in the timber business. The witness replied, 2 years. Tim resumed his seat with a withering remark, “A regular babe in the woods M’Lords!”

'That villainous face...'

30. During one cross-examination one of the questions put to a witness by Serjeant Vaughan a well- known bullying counsel was “Where did you get that villainous face of yours from?” The witness replied, “From my father sir”. “And what did he do?” asked Vaughan. “A barrister sir” came the reply.

31. A judge was so annoyed with a rustic witness, he addressed him as Mr. Baconface and asked him what he was thinking about. Scratching his head, the countryman coolly replied, “I have just been thinking your Honor, what a charming dish my bacon face and your calf’s head would make.” Mr. Justice Hawkins when he was a young barrister was once engaged in fighting with a judge. In the middle of his address, the judges interrupted him with a remark “when you can prove that two blacks make a white, I will listen to your arguments.” Hawkins replied, “I can do that my lord, for I have known a black rooster and a black hen to produce a white egg.”

33. In one particular instance, there was a judge who had been recently elevated from amongst the lawyers (the Bar) to the Judgeship of the High Court (Bench). A book was passed to the Bench from Daphtary when the judge in question objected to the fact that a bug was found squashed in between the pages. Daphtary took back the book and observed the bug, and remarked, “a very ambitious bug, my Lord, to have traveled from the Bar to the Bench!”, a not too subtle dig at the judge!

34. When the Bombay Prohibition Act was passed and alcohol consumption was banned in the State of Bombay, C. K. Daphtary (who was known to enjoy his drink) was reported to have said, “a Republic without a Pub is merely a Relic!” However, when a case challenging the legality of the Bombay Prohibition Act was instituted, Daphtary ably defended the State of Bombay as Advocate General. Justice Chagla during the course of the hearings asked him for a list of alcoholic substances that were banned under the Act. Daphtary listed a number of beverages and then said with a twinkle in his eye, “not all intoxicating substances are liquid though, my Lord… there is a very addictive substance not in this list called ‘Power’!”.

35. On another occasion, Mr. C.K. Daphtary was arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Suddenly, there was an interruption in the power supply. In the dark, the presiding Judge observed: “Look ... where have your arguments led us to?” Almost simultaneously, the lamp on the Chief Justice’s table flickered and ... there was light. Quick came Mr. Daphtary’s response: “My Lords! Light has come where it is needed most.”

36. When Justice Hidayatullah (later Chief Justice of India and Vice President of India, also Acting President on one occasion) was appointed Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, his brother judges had warned him to be wary of C. K. Daphtary, who would never fail to pass a cutting remark. As luck would have it, shortly thereafter, a case was heard in the Chief's Court pertaining to transport permits. Justice Hidayatullah was wary throughout, but at one time slipped and said, “I believe that city buses run on these transport permits, Mr. Daphtary…”. The inimitable C. K. Daphtary promptly responded, “I was under the impression that buses run on fuel, my Lord, but I bow down to Your Lordship”! 

37. Sir Charles was once arguing a criminal revision for admission. The Judge, after perusing the judgment, remarked, "There is nothing in your case", to which Sir Charles promptly replied, "I know there is nothing". The Judge thereupon observed, "Why then did you file in" Pat came to the reply from Sir Charles, "Because the client wanted Your Lordship's opinion and not mine".

'An outstanding Judge...'

38. One of the most outstanding Judges of the Allahabad High Court was Mr. Justice Mahmood, son of the illustrious Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He was a Barrister, so after resigning from the Bench in 1894, he resumed his practice before the Judicial Commissioner's Court at Lucknow. Mahmood was fond of drinks. Once in a less sober mood, he appeared in Court and started arguing against his own client. On hearing his arguments, the client began to feel miserable. The Junior lawyer promptly pointed out the mistake to Mr. Mahmood, who, with great alacrity, shifted his ground and addressed the Judge thus: “Sir, I have said all that my learned friend on the other side could have said on behalf of his client. I would now proceed to demolish these arguments.” With remarkable brilliance, he shattered his previous arguments one by one and ultimately won the case.

'Do you think me a fool?' 'Of course not! But...' 

39. Being cross-examined by Pandit Moti Lal Nehru, a high Military officer, in spite of being warned by the Court, continued to object to the questions on the ground that they were irrelevant or unnecessary. The Military officer finally said to Pt. Moti Lal Nehru "Do you think me to be a fool". Pt. Moti Lal Nehru promptly replied "Of course not", and then quietly added, "But I may be mistaken".

40. The legendary, Mr. Palkhiwala, who then was a young lawyer rose to argue the matter before the largest ever constituted Bench in the Supreme Court – Kesavananda Bharati. Since thirteen Judges started shooting questions from one end to the other, Mr. Palkhiwala’s train of thought was disturbed while he spent most of the first day answering the questions from the Bench and was rather perturbed. He approached the giant CK Daphtary (fondly called CK), who was also appearing in the matter. CK was already aware of the manner in which the proceedings went on and is believed to have encouraged Palkhiwala to prepare and get ready for arguments the next morning and assured him of an uninterrupted audience. The next morning, as the Bench assembled, CK got up and asked for an audience. Since he was a doyen and one of the most senior persons at the Bar, it was easier for him to seek an audience.

CK is believed to have said, “My Lords, yesterday, a 15 young girl accompanied her father to this Hon’ble Court to witness the proceedings of what My Lords would be a landmark judgment of this Court for years ahead.” The Judges were curious and asked him about the relevance of such a visit to the court’s proceedings. CK continued, “and after the day’s session, the young girl asked her father “who was the young man trying to interrupt the thirteen well dressed gentlemen?”

The Court is believed to have given an uninterrupted audience to Mr. Palkhiwala to complete his arguments thereafter and the rest, as we all know, is reported in (1973) 4 SCC 225.


  1.  Humour among the Lawyers by John Aye
  2. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman
  3. Law and Laughter Complied by MR. JUSTICE GYANENDRA KUMAR, High Court, Allahabad.
  4. Tales of the Bench and the Bar by V. J. Taraporevala
  5. Humour, Wit, and Repartee – N.L.Rajah
  6. An article titled ‘What are some of the interesting arguments that have taken place in Indian courts, and have any of them made you laugh hysterically?’ published on the internet by Shayak Chakraborty, Advocate

Author of this article, Mohan Parasaran is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India. He was the former Solicitor General of India. He has also held the post of Additional Solicitor General of India. He has studied his Masters In Law from Cambridge. 

(The views and opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions, and perspective appearing do not reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)

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