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Humour and wit are great companions deployed in the art of debate. This author writes on role of jokes in courts. It’s a good thing that writers dead since 1870 can’t be sued for libel. Otherwise, good old Charles Dickens would have found himself in a pickle for ‘defaming’ lawyers.
According to an article in the New York Times by Joseph Tartakovsky, ‘Lawyers appear in 11 of his 15 novels… Uriah Heep (“David Copperfield”) is a red-eyed cadaver whose “lank forefinger,” while he reads, makes “clammy tracks along the page … like a snail.”
Mr. Vholes (“Bleak House”), “so eager, so bloodless and gaunt,” is “always looking at the client, as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes.”
And, this is what Samuel Johnson said about lawyers in general: “A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause.”
There was a time when debate was the civilised way to duel.
Today, as the recent Trump-Biden Debate showed, it’s reduced to name-calling and mudslinging. When it came to the Great Debate, the narrative to follow seemed clear from the word go. Hectoring from Trump saw Biden call the president a ‘clown’. The saving grace in the Trump-Biden debate was that no one showed the other the middle finger. Thank God for small mercies!
Here in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceded in August 2014, “the growing absence of wit and humour in Parliamentary proceedings.’’ The point is that there is a dearth of humour—and repartees — in all spheres. Courtrooms are no exception.
Legend has it that an exasperated Justice Kuldip Singh asked Ramaswamy during the course of the hearing: “You think we are fools?” Ramaswamy, tongue firmly in cheek, replied: “My lords have put me in a very difficult situation. If I agree, I am in contempt, if I disagree I commit perjury.”
One of the reasons for the paucity of courtroom humour could be that most Indians find taking the services of a lawyer and going to court to be an agonising and frustrating experience. Everyone is aware of the famous dialogue from a Hindi movie: Tareekh pe tareekh.
The movie, Court, by director Chaitanya Tamhane captured realistically the experience of litigants trapped in the Indian legal system. Another reason could be that a quirky sense of humour could land you in big trouble. Having said that, there are some great examples of courtroom humour – though, I think it’s restricted to the higher courts.
Top of mind is a famous instance that is relished by the connoisseurs of a verbal duel. It involved G Ramaswamy, reputed for classic comebacks, during his days as Attorney General. Legend has it that an exasperated Justice Kuldip Singh asked Ramaswamy during the course of the hearing: “You think we are fools?” Ramaswamy, tongue firmly in cheek, replied: “My lords have put me in a very difficult situation. If I agree, I am in contempt, if I disagree I commit perjury.” Needless to say, the courtroom burst into peals of laughter.
Then there is the instance when during a serious trial in a suit proceeding held at the Madras High Court, the plaintiff, who was frantically looking for something, caused a lot of noise in the process. This disturbed the judge who inquired of the plaintiff’s counsel the reason for the disturbance. In turn, the counsel apologised to the Court and said that his client was searching for a misplaced valuable jacket. The judge, sardonically, asked the counsel to remind his client ‘…that till now he has lost only his jacket while many persons have lost their suits itself.’
This is another case that’s in a class of its own. It concerns one of the Justices of the Bombay High Court. Justice G.S.Patel was known for his dry sense of humour and sarcasm. In 2016, a case was brought before him by the owner of GoAir Ltd., seeking direction to remove the prefix ‘go’ from their rival airline, Interglobe Aviation Ltd.’s web address ‘goindigo.in’. Introducing the case, the Justice wrote, “GoAir believes that Indigo should not use the domain name GoIndigo.in; it has intellectual property issues with Indigo’s chosen prefix Go in its domain name (though apparently not with the trailing go, small mercy as it happens, for that might be a demand that Indigo should be rechristened Indi.)”
Interestingly, Google India Ltd. was also made a defendant party in the suit by Go Holdings Pvt. Ltd. When Advocate Amit Jamsandekar for the plaintiff granted that it was not because the word ‘Go’ was also part of Google’s corporate and domain name, Justice Patel quipped, “That is all to the good, for the alternative is unthinkable — we might otherwise be forced to ogle the web.”
This one should certainly have you rolling on the floor laughing! Fali S Nariman narrated an incident that took place in a US court. “I have in my study some pictures of an American courtroom where the judge, apparently bored by the counsel’s argument, has gone to sleep. So the counsel leans forward and tells the court clerk: “Charlie wake him up.” Charlie cheekily responds: “You wake him up, since you put him to sleep in the first place.”