Kottayan Katankot Venugopal, or K.K. Venugopal, as he is widely known, might have been talking about gravity, black holes or particle theory instead of adjournments and adjudications had it not been for a turn of fate. A meritorious student of physics at the prestigious Madras Christian College, he was forced to opt for law as he fell sick right before his examinations and was unable to complete his graduation. His father, M.K. Nambiar, a noted lawyer, after appearing in the much-reported constitutional case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, was very keen that his son should take to the legal profession.
“My taking up law was an accident. My father had become well known after the first constitutional case of A.K. Gopalan. Thereafter, he was arguing high-profile constitutional cases in the Supreme Court of India and in the High Courts. He felt that there should be someone in the family who should carry on the tradition of law. I fell ill and could not take my exams. I was sent to Belgaum in Karnataka to join the Raja Lakhamgouda Law College, the only law college that did not require a bachelor’s degree to study law,” recounts Venugopal, who was enrolled as an advocate in January 1954. With his father as his mentor, young Venugopal learned the ropes pretty fast and soon started arguing cases of importance in Constitutional Law and Administrative Law.
Another memorable event of his career was, when he was designed as Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India in 1972. From then on Venugopal’s career saw a rapid upward climb. Over the course of his career, he has argued a large number of cases of Constitutional import, spanning a range of issues of seminal importance.
A well-known proponent of judicial reforms, Venugopal, who served as the Additional Solicitor General from 1979 to 1980, feels that the legal system in India is in need of major overhauling. “We follow the system that we learnt from the English but in England the system has changed significantly. The standard of both the Bar and the Bench needs to improve,” says he. In fact, he is in favour of some drastic changes. Elaborating on his stand, he says, for example, that advertising by lawyers as well as contingent fee should be permitted under strict regulation. “If there is contingent fee, the client is relieved of risking his money on the litigation and the fees payable will be a part of the money that the client will get on winning and if he doesn’t win, then the lawyer also doesn’t get anything. This will be extremely beneficial for the poor villagers who end up in the hands of touts as they don’t know any better,” he clarifies to illustrate his point.
As for the hotly debated question about permitting the entry of foreign lawyers into the Indian market, Venugopal feels that the move should be welcomed by Indian lawyers who stand to gain as the quality of legal education abroad is of a much higher standard. “There will be transfer of knowledge, information and technology. Their technology is superb. The precision with which they present cases is something we can learn from,” he says. “Besides, they do not want to come here for litigation. They don’t want to step into the four walls of our courts.”
The distinguished advocate has been the President of the Union Internationale des Avocats, 1996-97. Union Internationale des Avocats is the oldest among international association of lawyers with its headquarters in Paris.
There have been awards galore in K.K. Venugopal’s distinguished career – the recently conferred Padma Vibhushan in 2015, Padma Bhushan in 2002, the Honoris Causa degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) by the Utkal University, Orissa, in 2010, the ‘Grand Cross’ award and a medal from the Bar Association of Bogota, Columbia, medal and citation from the Bar Associations of Buenos Aires and Matanza, Argentina, in recognition of his achievement in human rights and legal multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism and the Global Award, 2003, from the Chief Minister of Kerala.
In his lifetime, K.K. Venugopal has seen the growth of the nation from the nascent stages of independence to the developing power that it is today; he has lived through the times of the Emergency, and witnessed first-hand the riots of 1984 and the bitter caste-related upheavals in the country. He has closely watched and participated in the development of law and legal institutions in the country, while watching the Supreme Court grow to assume its current mantle of judicial activism. He was also invited to Bhutan as an advisor for the drafting of the Constitution of the hill kingdom.
While his professional life has hardly seen any low points, the death of his wife in 1979 has left a big vacuum in his personal life. However, despite his success, the famed attorney considers spending time with his family to be the greatest reward of his life. Of his three children, his daughter, Lakshmi Kumar, and son, Kannan Konath, live in the United States, while his son, Krishnan Venugopal, is also a Senior Advocate based in Delhi. “Even though we are in different parts of the world, it’s such a joy when we travel together for our holidays,” says Venugopal.
Reading and collecting antiquarian books, besides travelling to far corners of the world to gather new experience are amongst Venugopal’s main hobbies. He has about 500-600 books including rare books from 1600 onwards written in rice paper, woodcuts, copper and steel engravings and lithographs and a collection of three illustrated books on the practice of Sati. Closest to his heart, however, is a passion for horse riding, which he used to pursue very regularly in his younger days at the Riding Club of Madras, but which he had to give up when he moved to Delhi, where the distance to the Riding Club was too much. An appropriate hobby indeed, for as John Scott once said, “To succeed as a lawyer, a man must work like a horse and live like a hermit,” the latter part of which, he jokingly says, is completely foreign to him.