J.D. Inverarity – A Centennial Tribute

Update: 2023-12-05 07:13 GMT
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John Duncan Inverarity was one of the most eminent men of law. He was both an astute lawyer and a forceful advocate. There is no better and more comprehensive pen-picture of him than what is contained in P.B. Vachha’s Famous Judges, Lawyers and Cases of Bombay: Inverarity who practised in Bombay for 53 years from 1870 to 1923 was the greatest, ablest and most powerful advocate that ever practised in the Bombay High Court. This writing has drawn extensively from that work. This December 5 marks the 100th anniversary of his demise. It is but proper that we remember him and take inspiration from his life and work.

He was born at Byculla in Bombay in about 1847. He became a Barrister in 1869 and almost immediately came to Bombay to practise law. He spent the whole of his active professional life in Bombay. He was unimpressive in looks but his commanding talents, massive intellect and powerful advocacy enabled him to build up a very extensive practice on both sides of the High Court in civil as well as criminal cases as also in the mofussil. Within five years, he distinguished himself so much by his abilities that Sir Andrew Scoble, a leading practitioner and sometime Advocate General selected Inverarity as his junior when Scoble was to conduct the prosecution to try Maharaja Malharrao Gaikwad of Baroda for an alleged attempt to poison Col. Phayre, the then Resident at Baroda. Thereafter there was scarcely any case of importance in the High Court of Bombay in which he did not appear for one side or the other.

He had a colossal memory on which he relied entirely without making any notes. His was an amazingly alert, active and comprehensive mind that enabled him to do several things at the same time. Having read and put aside a file he could draw up pleadings without any reference to the file and without any corrections remembering not only the facts but also the dates and names, while he sat through an evidence or arguments and did his part when his turn came and did it astonishingly well with ease and finesse. It was a common sight to see him draw a pleading from a voluminous brief while plunged in the midst of a case. He would write the plaint or the written statement in his own small clear hand without a scratch and when all thought that he was absorbed in his drafting he would suddenly jump up and object to an improper question put to a witness; and no sooner the opponent sat down, he began cross examining the witness as if he was all the time concentrating on hearing the evidence. His photographic memory enabled him to find out or recall anything that he had once seen or read, whenever he wanted it. He advised young Bhulabhai Desai, who was reading and making notes, to learn to trust his memory. Bhulabhai took the advice to heart and practised it to perfection.

Inverarity once led Sir Chimanlal Setalvad in one of the longest trials in the Bombay High Court. The evidence ran to about 800 typed pages. As Inverarity was held up in some other court, he asked Setalvad to go on with the matter at the appellate stage. One day during the hearing of the appeal when Inverarity was passing by that court he was surprised to see everyone seated and turning the pages. He went in and enquired of Sir Chimanlal as to what was happening. They were searching for a statement of a particular witness and could not locate it. Inverarity at once mentioned the page and, even more, the exact part of the page where the statement they were looking for could be found. And he had not read the brief after the trial court judgment which was six months prior to the appeal reaching hearing. Such was his astounding memory.

One of Inverarity’s remarkable qualities was his forensic courage. He was a fighter who fought fiercely and resolutely but always fairly and with clean arms, never taking advantage of the weakness or inexperience of the judge or his opponent. He wielded the arms of a warrior, not an assassin. He had a well disciplined and equable temper and unfailing good humour by which he disarmed his opponents and hostile judges in a manner which few could emulate. Firm and fearless, he was never offensive or insolent to the court or rude or arrogant towards the junior most opponent. “He was never showy, shallow, confused, angry or blustering in his manner: Though deep, yet clear; gentle yet not dull; strong without rage; without overflowing full.” He was a thorough professional. He was singularly free from racial, political and other prejudices and no extraneous consideration interfered with his work as an advocate.

The display of his forensic courage was not by constant truculence but by sticking to his point and driving it home with extraordinary skill, resource and adroitness without any direct collision with the bench. There was power in his advocacy but no bluster. All his great qualities manifested themselves when fighting an apparently hopeless case. One instance illustrates this.

A wealthy and respectable citizen of Bombay was charged with attempting to bribe the Municipal Commissioner of the time. He was prosecuted; and the evidence against him appeared to be overwhelming and unimpeachable. For some mysterious reason he was acquitted in the lower court, which so much incensed the authorities that a Government appeal was at once filed. The Advocate-General, Strangman, was briefed for the Government. The appeal came on before Sir Norman Macleod and Sir Lallubhai Shah. The case appeared to be so clear and so black against the accused, that the Bench after hearing the Advocate-General for some time, stopped him and called upon Inverarity, who was for the respondent. The judges seemed to have made up their minds, and the situation was so grim and disheartening that almost any other counsel would have found it difficult to face it with any degree of assurance. But Inverarity rose equal to the occasion. As soon as Strangman sat down, he got up foursquare against overwhelming odds. Without opening his brief but with supreme self-confidence and matchless courage, he handled an apparently hopeless situation with exemplary power, resource and skill, meeting and demolishing every point and every piece of evidence which appeared to support the prosecution; and step by step, by inches as it were, he drove the bench into a corner, and forced it ultimately to hold that the case against the accused was not free from reasonable doubt. The appeal was dismissed.

When an appeal before Norman Macleod, CJ in which Inverarity was briefed was called on, Inverarity was not present in court being engaged elsewhere and the counsel- Kelkar who had briefed Inverarity requested the Chief Justice to take up the appeal later to enable Inverarity to be present. The Chief Justice said that they (the judges) had read the papers and there was nothing in the appeal which seemed to be hopeless. Kelkar replied with the sly look of mischief and humour: “My Lord, that is why I have briefed Inverarity.”

K.M. Munshi in his book (Bombay High Court-Half a Century of Reminiscences) says that Inverarity was the most uncanny lawyer. His superiority over others lay in his wonderful equipment, his stupendous memory, his thorough grasp of facts, his unerring mastery of the legal principles and a rare talent of presenting facts. When he restated the facts of a case they fell into a pattern and the case became the simplest one with all points in his favour. His cross examination, consisting of short and direct questions, was devastating. It is said that he had the genius of picking the only point which could win a case - indeed a sign of the most exceptional talent. Once Munshi bubbling over with a junior’s enthusiasm went to Inverarity with several authorities and said that there were quite a few good points on which the suit could be won, only to be told sharply: “Young man, there are always ten good points in a case. Keep only one for yourself and leave the other side to discover the rest.”

He was so much in demand that after the long vacation solicitors from Bombay waiting to brief him on the reopening of the court would meet him at Aden, on the journey back by ship. A large number of briefs- pleadings, cases for opinions, heavy suits and appeals awaited his arrival at Aden.

Strangman, who was Advocate General of Bombay speaking of Inverarity says, “Possessed of a prodigious memory, a natural aptitude for thinking legally, tenacity, courage and tact, he was both a great lawyer and a great advocate. His was one of the rare intellects which combine the robustness of the male with the subtlety of the female.....Although deadly in cross examination, he attached far more importance to good examination-in–chief, whereby his client’s case would be brought out in a natural and convincing form. How few realise that far more cases are won by this method than by spectacular cross-examination.”

Referring to the prodigious memory, Strangman says that Inverarity’s memory never failed him in court. He would open or sum up a long and complicated case, or cross-examine an important witness, without a single note, and yet omit nothing material or introduce anything immaterial. His recollection of what a witness had said days or weeks before was always correct. Whilst he never took an unfair advantage over his opponent or the court, no one ever got the better of him except old Chhabildas Lallubhai, a well-known litigant, hard-headed, truculent, eccentric and unconventional in his manners and methods. He once foiled Inverarity completely in cross—examination. Inverarity was appearing for the Official Assignee in a case in which the O.A. sought to set aside the sale of a property as having been made at a gross undervalue, in fraud of creditors. Chhabildas was the purchaser. He had paid Rs. 25,000 for the property which the O.A. contended was far more valuable. Inverarity asked Chhabildas if he was prepared to sell it for Rs. 30,000. No, said the man. 40,000, again, no; 50,000, no; 60,000, the same dogged negative. “Well, Mr. Chhabildas, you will admit that you got the property at a gross undervalue? asked Inverarity triumphantly. “Certainly not,” said the witness. “Then why don’t you sell it for more than twice what you paid for it?” “Chhabildas never sells a property he has purchased. He only buys.” But Chhabildas was a rare character-unscrupulous, ready-witted, outspoken, wide-awake and not very choice in his vocabulary. There was no end to his brazen-faced candour and impudence.

Inverarity has remarked in his Reminiscences that everyone of his European contemporaries at the Bar rose to be either Advocate General or judge or both, except himself. The fact remains that within a decade of starting his practice he had so distinguished himself that he could have had any office for the asking. He never cared and in all likelihood refused all offers. During his long and illustrious career he figured in so many cases, it is difficult to single out anyone for illustrating his talents and inimitable methods of advocacy. He was an advocate, first and last who fought all cases big or small with equal zeal and vigour, and what is more, a great sense of humour and fair play.

He invariably relieved a tense situation by giving it a humorous turn with some ready and apposite remark. Once when he was addressing Beaman, J in a rather intricate matter there were constant interruptions because of gunfire in the Oval opposite where some military exercises were on. Beaman was disturbed by the repeated roars of canon and in exasperation asked,” “Is there no remedy against this infernal nuisance?” “There is, my Lord,” said Inverarity, “it is clear contempt of court and Your Lordship might haul up the commandant for flagrantly interfering with the course of justice.”

Chandravarkar, a very well-read and able judge was prone to quote from literary classics even on the bench. Once when he quoted St. Paul from the Bible, Inverarity’s response was, “My Lord, better leave St. Paul alone, or else we shall never get along.”

Inverarity was once sitting in court and reading his brief particularly the observations written by the solicitor. He turned to find out which solicitor was attending to the case when a young man walked up to him. Inverarity spoke to him sharply calling him a bloody fool and saying that his observations were worthless and of no help. The young man felt miserable. Inverarity realized that he was not the solicitor but the Managing Clerk. He immediately apologized to him and said “…Please tell your Master he is a bloody fool and he doesn’t know how to write observations.”

An incident is worth mentioning: One evening after court hours the Chief Justice, Sir Charles Sargent suddenly went down the stairs and walked into Inverarity’s chamber which was on the ground floor. Inverarity was taken by surprise and said that the Chief Justice might have sent for him. Sargent replied that it would be wrong because he had come there not as Chief Justice, but as a client to consult Inverarity on a legal point regarding Sargent’s own personal affairs. What great traditions!

Law was not his only passion. Inverarity was ardentely fond of bridge and was an inveterate player. He played it with the same tenacity he showed in arguing cases. He would be so immersed in the game that he would not allow himself to be disturbed at any cost. He was willing to play for any stake and to any hour.

It is said that Moos, a well- known solicitor, related an amusing incident while a bridge party was going on at the Willingdon Sports Club and he was opposed to Inverarity. While the party was in the midst of a game, an old Managing Clerk of a firm of solicitors came with a brief, and being an urgent matter rushed to the card-table, and flourishing the roll of papers before Inverarity’s eyes constantly disturbed the game. Inverarity intent on the game paid no heed to the clerk repeatedly showing and withdrawing the brief. Inverarity lost the rubber but refused (jokingly) to pay the stakes, observing that he had been disturbed and the opponents had gained an unfair advantage. Moos said he too had been disturbed by the clerk’s meddling. Inverarity immediately turned to the clerk and asked him: “For whom is this brief meant?” “For you, sir,” replied the clerk. Turning to Moos, Inverarity said, “You had no right to be put out by a brief meant for me, unless you were appearing for the other side.”

On another occasion, Kanga the then Advocate General was giving a reception to the Civil Justice’s Committee at the Bar Gymkhana and was keen that Inverarity should be present. Inverarity said that he would come in the morning and play bridge till the Committee arrived for the reception in the evening. What happened is best described in Chagla’s words:

Kanga fixed up a game for Inverarity at 11 o’clock. I happened to be there, but I was not one of the four. One Mr. Gupte, living in far-off Bandra, was to have come to play with Inverarity, but he did not appear in time, and I was asked to take his place till he came. As bad luck would have it, I cut Inverarity as my partner and I had to face the full consequences of his obstinacy as a caller at bridge. With almost every deal Inverarity paid a big penalty, and I was praying for the quick arrival of Gupte. I think we lost quite a fortune in the one rubber that I played with Inverarity as a partner. When evening came and the members of the Committee arrived, Kanga came to call Inverarity from the bridge table to come and meet the members. Inverarity in his gruff voice said, or rather barked, at Kanga: “Don’t disturb me, I am playing bridge. And if those johnnies want to see me, let them come here and I will meet them.” Inverarity stuck to his table, and the members of the Civil Justice’s Committee were brought one by one to meet him and talk to him.

Inverarity was endowed with as much physical as moral and forensic courage. He spent many vacations on lion-hunting expeditions in Africa. Strangman observes: “Inverarity was a great Shikari. He had more tigers to his credit than almost any man in India.” He was on one occasion mauled all over the body by a wounded lioness in British Somaliland. It was a miracle that he survived the resultant blood poisoning.

Every year he used to go to England regularly. He would leave about the beginning of the long vacation in April and return by the opening of the November term thus spending about six months in his native Scotland playing the prosperous laird. He did not interrupt his voyage even during the perilous menace of the German submarines during the First World War. It is said that about 1916 there came a report that the boat by which Inverarity was returning to Bombay was torpedoed. R.D.N. Wadia observed that if Inverarity was in the boat it would never sink and sure enough the alarm turned out to be false.

Inverarity used to stay at the Byculla Club and it is said that when some solicitor or his clerk went to deliver a brief, he would receive it sitting at his desk–stark naked. He held his conferences there. The Club was then meant exclusively for Europeans and no Indian lawyer could enter it through the front gate but had to go in from the rear to get to Inverarity’s room. Even Kanga, an eminent lawyer, but as Chagla said one without any political sense or strong belief about racial relations, would use the rear gate whenever he had a conference with Inverarity. There is an interesting sequel to non-whites not being let into the Byculla Club. It is said that Lord Willingdon as Governor of Bombay had invited Sir Mahadeva Bhaskar Chaubal, an Indian member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council to a lunch at the Byculla Club. But when the guest arrived he was refused admission because Indians were not let in as per the Club’s regulations. Lord Willingdon was furious and decided to establish a club where a man of sufficient social position could be admitted without any distinctions. As a result the Willingdon Sports Club was established in 1917.

Though he had made a fortune at the Bar, Inverarity was quite close-fisted. Kanga and Inverarity used to travel often to the muffosil to appear in a case on opposite sides. At such times they would share the drink and the payment too was fifty-fifty.

It appears that late in his career when Inverarity was hard of hearing he was granted the indulgence of a place near the judge so that he could follow the court proceedings better. Giving evidence in a case before the Admiralty Judge, the Captain of the ship said, ‘............and the ship was slowly sinking...’ Inverarity in spite of sitting close to the witness and the judge did not hear the statement correctly. He stood up and asked in a loud voice, as to who was drinking. On being told by his junior what the Captain had actually said, Inverarity sat down. Fali Nariman says that Kanga used to narrate this story and that there was a moral to it-when you are old and infirm, you must stop practising. Jamshedji practised what he preached, he stopped arguing in court when he was in his eighties but never missed attending his chambers.

Inverarity was treated badly by Justice Marten who did not like the idea of special treatment for Inverarity and refused to speak loudly or repeat himself. Inverarity had a very high sense of the traditions of the Bar and of his own self respect and after a particularly bad case of ill-treatment refused to appear before Marten.

As P.B. Vachha, the distinguished and delightful chronicler of the Bombay High Court, vividly recollects Inverarity’s last day in the High Court–4th December, 1923:

.. As I was going to the court of Mr. Justice A.L. Shah, he met me near the central staircase. “Are you going to Shah’s court?” he asked me. I said, “Yes.” “Well, take this brief and give it back to the solicitor. If he is not there when the suit is called on, hold it for me. I am going down as I feel some pain in the chest.” He then descended the stairs for the last time. The pain increased, so much so, that he could scarcely get into his chamber on the ground floor; and stood with his head resting on the wall outside his chamber. There he was observed by a solicitor, Mr. F.N. Bunsha, who helped him into his chamber and put him on an easy chair. As by this time he was very ill, Mr. Bunsha, with great promptness and presence of mind, took him to St. George’s Hospital, although Inverarity was all the while insisting on being taken to his room in the Byculla Club. He passed away early the next morning and was buried at Sewri. The High Court was closed for the day at the request of the Bar by Chief Justice Macleod, who, as his cousin (Inverarity’s mother and Macleod’s mother were sisters), followed his coffin to the grave as chief mourner. A very large number of lawyers also attended his funeral.

K.M. Munshi says that when Inverarity was laid to rest, all felt that the High Court of Bombay was no longer the same.

The Advocate General, Sir Jamshedji Kanga in a moving reference in court recited Sir Walter Scott’s words on the death of William Pitt: Now is the stately column broke/ The beacon light is quenched in smoke; / The trumpet’s silver voice is still/ The warden silent on the hill.

As Vachha says in a warm heartfelt tribute, “ This great and gifted lawyer who seldom lost a case and never his temper passed away on 5th December, 1923, holding a brief to the last day of his life, after the longest, most varied and most successful career of 53 years in Bombay. Here was a Caesar! When comes such another.”

It is significant to note that Inverarity took in his chamber C.K. Daphtary who rose to be Advocate General of Bombay, the first Solicitor General of India and the second Attorney General for India. Daphtary’s junior was S.V. Gupte whose junior was Ashok Desai, both of whom in their turn were Attorneys General; and the chamber of each of them was a nursery for great lawyers. What a pedigree!

Inverarity was in a class by himself, unique in many ways. It would be difficult to find another like him. Progress depends on retentiveness. Without living in the past its recall is important, for it inevitably foretells a future. We cannot forget the abiding relevance of the past and its torch bearers. It is in that spirit that we remember and light the memory of one the greatest advocates of all time on the centenary of his passing. Adapting some lines from Walter Savage Landor would be a fitting epitaph for Inverarity: He strove with none, for none was worth the strife, /He warmed his hands at the fire of Life, /It sank and he was ready to depart.

Author is Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India.

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