Legal Luminaries

Soli Sorabjee

“Law is a profession, not a trading business. But today the trend is to treat law as a commercial activity. This is not a business. This is not about demand and supply.”

Thanks to television news channels, Soli Sorabjee is a name that most of us have come to appreciate. But for those not in the know, Sorabjee was appointed Attorney-General in 1998, and served as the chief legal adviser to the Vajpayee Government till 2004. An icon for liberal viewpoints he is the Chairman of Transparency International and Convenor of the Minority Rights Group.

Speaking about the prevalent state of affairs with the Indian legal community, he asserts, “Law is not a money-making racket.” He continues, elaborating further, “Law is a profession, not a trading business. But today the trend is to treat law as a commercial activity. This is not a business. This is not about demand and supply.”

To this end, he wants to talk to young lawyers to expose them to the values of the profession. “I want them to imbibe the right values. You don’t take exorbitant fees. It is important to do pro bono,” says Soli. Blaming the Bar Council for failing in its regulatory role, Sorabjee says it is time to bring lawyers under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act.

It is not difficult to understand Sorabjee’s distaste towards commercialization of the legal profession.

Born Soli Jehangir Sorabjee, law has never been about making money for this legal luminary. “My maternal grandfather was a businessman. But I didn’t want to go into business. It was not congenial to me. Instead, I took up law because it was an independent profession; it was a service-oriented profession: I could do something for society,” says Sorabjee. Consequently, his has not been a career of commercially rewarding returns but one that has helped us safeguard our greatest treasure: freedom.

He has unfailingly fought to uphold Constitutional Law as well as freedom of speech and expression from the day he joined the Bar in 1953. Even during the draconian days of the Emergency, he was one of the few advocates who showed the courage and took “inconvenient briefs,” representing detainees and victims of Press censorship.

And even in today’s atmosphere of rising intolerance and disharmony, the octogenarian remains a strident voice of caution against injustice, speaking up for tolerance and human rights. “Tolerance is imperative to our society, if we want to keep our democracy vibrant. A liberal democracy is one in which all groups in the country accept the fact that, in a free country, people can have different opinions and beliefs and shall have equal rights in voicing them without fear of legal penalties or social sanctions,” says Sorabjee. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in March 2002 for his defence of freedom of speech and the protection of human rights.

This legal eagle has been Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, a member of the United Nations Sub-commission on prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities since 1998. Sorabjee also served as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 2000 to 2006.

He is also the President of the United Lawyers Association, Vice President of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association and Vice President of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association.

Of his four children, Zia Mody is a lawyer and amongst his seven grandchildren two are likely to don the black rob on completion of their studies. Zia is Managing Partner at AZB & Partners. A Bahai by faith, wife Zena Sorabjee has authored a book for children on Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She is also the Vice Chairperson of the Guild of Services and Chairman of the Bahai House of Worship.

With a career that would have demanded all his time and more, it is difficult to imagine Soli would have time left for anything else. But surprise of surprises, this grand old man is not just all about law. He is a poetry lover and a jazz buff, complete with a music room. Soli’s love affair with jazz started in 1948, when as a young man he went to buy a record of Brahms’s Hungarian dance but ended up with Benny Goodman’s Tiger Rag. “I kept playing it over and over and over again,” declares Soli. Not only did he learn to play the clarinet, gifted by Goodman, he, along with other jazz lovers, started the Indian jazz festival – the Jazz Yatra in 1978.

Even today, on many a cold evening, the raptapping beats of a jazz rhythm can be heard pulsing through the foggy by-lanes of New Delhi’s Neeti Bagh. With Soli, the phrase ‘all that jazz’, perhaps, takes on a very different meaning.

We acknowledge “100 Legal Luminaries of India” by Lalit Bhasin (Lexis). The multicolour coffee table book printed on art paper in Harbound is priced at `5995/- as is available at Universal Book Traders,
C-27, Connaught Place, New Delhi-110001.

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