It is said that a good advocate is one who seduces and seizes the judicial mind to a pre-determined end. Fali S. Nariman is perhaps the best proponent of this art with “75 per cent hard work, 25 per cent court craft” as his recipe for success. Nariman is said to delve into the most complex aspect of a case and present it in a manner that it would sound obvious to the judge. The celebrated constitutional jurist and authority on international arbitration is also known for his humility, humour and eloquence. In fact, he holds that it is best to “be humble before the court” and “not suppress a fact even if it’s against you”.
Admired for the originality of his thinking, he is an optimist to the core. Even at the final appellate stage in the Supreme Court he has been known to come up with a totally new angle or point overlooked by others.
One of the greatest legal luminaries of India, Nariman is perhaps most revered for his impeccable integrity. He has been the only public officer in India to resign (1975) from the post of Additional Solicitor General of India (a post to which he was appointed in 1972) in protest of Internal Emergency.
Nariman, who enrolled as an advocate in the High Court of Bombay in November 1950, started out his career at Payne & Co. Solicitors, as a trainee. The next year he moved to the famed portals of Kanga Chambers and started work under the legendary Jamshedji Kanga and K.H. Bhabba. The Kanga Chambers have been home to Nani Palkhivala, H.M. Seervai, Harilal Kania, the first Chief Justice of Independent India, and Soli J. Sorabjee. It was here that Fali understood that the art of advocacy was to simplify the complicated. He left Mumbai to practice in the Supreme Court in Delhi in 1972 when he was appointed as a Law Officer of the Union of India.
It was after 30 years into the profession in 1981, that Fali made it big with the Needle Industry Company case. His client had lost in the Madras High Court to H.M. Seervai’s arguments. However, when the case reached the Supreme Court, it was Nariman’s defence that won the case.
Fali’s perseverance, of course, had been evident way back. With just a year’s experience behind him, Fali had been entrusted by Palkhivala to hold the brief in a pretty hopeless matter under the Bombay Land Requisition Act, as Nani had an engagement in another case. When Fali was asked by the then Chief Justice Chagla, whether he knew the matter, he nodded ‘yes’ and argued the case – and lost! Nani happened to walk in at the time of delivery of the judgment, and interrupted Chagla. Much to Fali’s satisfaction, the judge said that the case was so well presented that nothing more could have been added to the case, even by Palkhivala!
The only child of Banoo and Sam Byramji Nariman, Fali was born in 1929 in Rangoon. His father was in insurance and Fali had a happy, albeit uneventful, childhood. However, the bombing of Burma during the Second World War forced the Narimans – father, mother and son – to evacuate. They arrived in Delhi in February 1942 after a two-month long overland trek. Having arrived here, Fali was admitted to Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. On finishing school he pursued B.A. (Hons.) at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, and then went to Government Law College, Bombay, for his LL.B., standing second in the final university examination.
Having met his wife, Bapsi, in Bombay, the couple decided to tie the knot in 1955. Says Fali of his wife, “She has been my support in good and bad times.” Bapsi, on her part, chips in with a laugh, “It is not easy being a lawyer’s wife!” She has decided to keep herself busy with voluntary work. A well-known cookbook author (seven publications to her credit), Bapsi is prominent in the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association. The couple has two children. Son, Rohinton, is a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court of India. Earlier, he was the Solicitor General of India from 2011 to 2013 with a very successful career as a practicing advocate. Daughter, Anaheeta, is a well-known speech therapist who lives in Mumbai. Speaking of Anaheeta, Fali recounts the times when he was offered a High Court Judgeship at the age of 38. He had to refuse for financial reasons, much to his daughter’s disappointment. The little girl had then pleaded that she would cut down on chocolates and sweets to save on expenditure!
Fali, who had been the President of the Bar Association of India for 19 years since 1991, was a member of the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) from 1988. He has also served as President of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA) since 1994 for two terms, and was Vice-Chairman of the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in Paris from 1989 till 2001. He was also a distinguished nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha, in addition to the committee-chair of the International Commission of Jurists, and advisory member on the UNCTAD Board.
He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991) and the Padma Vibhushan (2007). He has also been the recipient of the Gruber Prize. NDTV and the International Bar Association have honoured him as a living legend.