This article on top 10 criminal lawyers in India and what makes them stand out is written by Mohammed G A pursuing M.A. in business law from NUJS, Kolkata.
“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent sufferer”
– Sir William Blackstone (1765)
In India, a man is presumed as innocent until proven guilty. It is said that ten criminals may be acquitted, but no innocent person should be convicted. Presumption of innocence is a principle which is enshrined in Indian criminal jurisprudence. Innocence and guilt is to be determined with references to offences or crimes, so it is not appropriate to use the terms when we speak of civil matters. It has been held that it is trite law that presumption of innocence is a human right and cannot be overthrown. But it has to be applied subject to certain exceptions. (Noor Aga v. State of Punjab (2008). Further, in Vinod Solanki v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held:
“It is now a well-settled principle that presumption of innocence as contained in Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a human right although per se it may not be treated to be a fundamental right within the meaning of Article 21 of the Constitution of India”.
It is not sensible for a lawyer to refuse to defend a person on the ground that people believe him to be criminal and in such cases lawyer himself is guilty of professional misconduct. The defence of a criminal is a professional duty of an advocate and special rules have been framed by the Bar of Council of India under the Advocate Act 1961. The Bar Council of India Rules says that “an advocate shall defend a person accused of a crime regardless of his personal opinion as to the guilt of the accused, bearing in mind that his loyalty is to the law which requires that no man should be convicted without adequate evidence”. Hence, it is a professional/ethical duty of the lawyer to take up the case of a client based on his consciences and try to defend him.
Criminal Lawyers and their attributes:
According to William S. Burroughs “Criminal is one of the few professions where the client buys someone’s luck. The luck of most people is strictly non-transferable. But a good criminal lawyer can sell all his luck to client and the more the luck he sells the more he has to sell.
The qualities/attributes to become a successful criminal lawyer is, one needs to be dedicated, willing to put in hard work, have lots of stamina and loads of perseverance. These four qualities and integrity are fundamental to a successful career in criminal law. It has been believed by people that criminal law involves limited drafting and that the workload is not heavy. But be it a trial strategy, a bail or a cross-examination, one has to put in long hours of research before work begins in court. Further, according to Clarence Darrow, “to be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated, and lonely person – few love a spokesman for the despised and the damned.”
Top Criminal lawyers in India
This article highlights the profile of top 10 criminal lawyers in India and their contribution to the development of criminal law jurisprudence in India. However, coming up with any kind of list is fraught with danger, especially a list of the country’s top ten criminal lawyers! I will almost certainly be accused of acts of omission and commission. This selection of the lawyers in the top 10 criminal category is based on the consideration of various factors such as their rankings on various newspapers/magazines surveys; by asking fellow colleagues for their opinion on top criminal lawyers; number of high profile/landmark cases in which they are either defending or arguing a case in the Supreme Court or any other high court of India; their contribution to the development of criminal law jurisprudence, amount of fees they are charging for their legal services; comparing their knowledge, acumen and skills with that of others; their ability to persuade a judge that is diametrically opposite to his initial proceeding; how they have reshaped the perceptions of government, the judiciary and the public.
The lawyers in these in this top 10 category are regarded as most sought-after lawyers in criminal cases and whenever a dispute or controversy arises in politics, business, sports or even in the private lives of public personalities makes headlines, top lawyers of the country cannot remain away from the headlines.
- RAM JETHMALANI: A LEGENDARY CRIMINAL LAWYER
Mr. Ram Boolchand Jethmalani (born 14 Sep 1923) is the best veteran criminal lawyer in India, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and Emeritus professor of law. He has served as India’s Union Law Minister and as chairman of the Bar Council of India.
He is the highest paid lawyer in the country; he charges Rs. 40 lakh for taking up the case and Rs. 10 to 20 lakhs per appearance thereafter. However, he claims that 90 percent of the cases he has fought are free of cost. At the age of 93, he has the distinction of being one of the oldest active lawyers of the country and at 18 he was the youngest member of the bar. An exception was made out for him to enable to enable him to join the bar the age of 18 because the minimum age for enrolling as a lawyer was 21 then.
He is very best at cross-examination of witnesses and his skills as trial lawyer are enviable. He has defended for clients whose political ideology is vastly different from his own, and he has represented people from extremely different social backgrounds. Mr. Ram Jethmalani has several high profile defense cases to his credit. From appearing in famous KM Nanavati vs Maharashtra government case in 1959 to 2G accused in multi-crore 2G spectrum scam in 2011, he has represented all kind of matters. He extended his support to the ex-servicemen on the “One Rank One Pension” and assured that he will lead their legal battle in the apex court without charging any fees.
Some of the high profile cases where Mr. Jethmalani appeared include:
- Jethmalani had defended for Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, convicted for the assassination of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and challenged the medical evidence (PMR) given by T D Dogra on Indira Gandhi.
- Jethmalani also argued for Rajiv Gandhi assassination killers V Sriharan alias Murugan. He had recently stir up a controversy with his remark that the suicide bomb attack in May 21, 1991 which killed the former prime minister was not a crime against India.
- He had appeared in Harshad Mehta’s and Ketan Parekh defence in stock market scam.
- In Hawala scam, he had argued for senior BJP leader LK Advani.
- Jethmalani was also the lawyer of Manu Sharma, convicted in Jessica Lall murder case.
- He defended underworld don Haji Mastan in smuggling cases.
- He appeared for Amit Shah in several fake encounter cases including Sohrabuddin Sheikh Encounter case.
- He defended the Gujarat government in the 2002 riots cases.
- He argued for the 2G scam accused Kanimozhi.
- Jethmalani appeared to bail out 72-year old Asaram Bapu, accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year old girl in his Jodhpur ashram.
- He appeared for Ansals in Delhi’s Uphaar cinema tragedy.
- He argued for Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, convicted in the disproportionate assets case.
- He argued for Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s special leave petition on stay for CBI probe on money laundering in his companies.
- He argued for Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam.
- He argued for Subrata Roy in Sahara-SEBI case.
- He had defended former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa in an illegal mining case.
- Recently he defended former Siwan MP Mohammad Shahabuddin, a murder convicts bail in the apex court.
- GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: CONTROVERSY’S KING
Gopal Subramanium, aged 56, is a Senior Advocate who practices primarily in the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi High Court. He has served as the Solicitor General of India from 2009-2011 and also served as Chairman of Bar Council of India during his stint as the Solicitor General. He was the key person responsible in the introduction of the All India Bar Examination, a mandatory test for law graduates to be eligible to practice in India.
In 1993, Mr. Subramanium was designated a Senior Advocate suo-moto by the Supreme Court, one of the youngest to be so designated in the Supreme Court’s history. Gopal Subramanium charges a fees of Rs 7 to 15 lakh per appearance in the Supreme Court and for appearance before the Delhi high court he charges Rs 11 to 16.5 lakh. And in case of tribunals, he charges at Rs 25 lakh per hearing.
He is a highly acclaimed lawyer, who represented the government as a lead counsel in a wide range of matters involving complex questions of criminal law such as:
- He represented the State of Bombay as Special Public prosecutor in the terrorist attack case in Mumbai in which Kasab’s death sentence was confirmed
- Acted as lead counsel for the union government in 2010-2011 in litigation concerning irregularities in allocation of 2G radio-spectrum bandwidth to various private telecom operators
- Represented the government of India in the matter of Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India, wherein he defended state-sponsored reservations for Other Backward Classes of persons in India.
- He is also appeared on behalf of the state in the 1993 Bombay blasts case before the Supreme Court.
- Acted as amicus curiae to the Supreme Court in the case of Bachpan Bachao Andolan v. Union of India, where he presented a report on the realities of trafficking of children in India and assisted the Supreme Court in framing guidelines to deal with the menace of trafficking.
- He assisted the apex Court as Amicus curiae in many cases including Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.
After resigning as a solicitor general, he appeared in a case against the appointment of SEBI chief. The UP government fielded him when a petition against grand prix Formula – I race was filed just ahead of the event. He represented Novartis in the case Novartis v. Union of India & others concerning ever-greening of patents.
- K.T.S TULSI: THE PHILANTHROPIST
A former additional solicitor general of India and Supreme Court senior counsel K.T.S Tulsi is a legal luminary. He worked part time as a lecturer (1973-76) before beginning a successful career in criminal law. He has authored 2 books- Tulsi Digest of Accident Claims Cases and Goswami and Tulsi’s Landlord & Tenant Cases. In 1976, he was appointed a reporter of the Indian Law Reports (Punjab Series).
Though the pen remains his favorite weapon he gradually drifted to the field of criminal law on his appointment as a Special Prosecutor against terrorists in Punjab, Delhi and Assam. While terrorism was raging in Punjab and no lawyer was willing to come forward and prosecute the terrorists, Mr. Tulsi accepted the onerous responsibility of prosecuting ‘A’ grade terrorists including the cases of Operation Black Thunder, attempt on the life of Mr. JF Rebeiro, Talwara Bank Dacoity case etc. After his appointment as ASG he represented the state before more than 10 Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court, in several important cases, including the constitutional validity of the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, cases arising out of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Bombay Blast case, the Calcutta Bomb Blast case as well as important cases against various terrorist organizations such as JKLF, LTTE, PWG, etc.
His ethics set him apart from other lawyers as seen when he made headlines for refusing to argue cases for the Gujrat government in the Sohrabuddin encounter case. Despite his high fees of 5 lakh per appearance, he is known to provide free assistance to needy people. For example, he was responsible for the successful prosecution of the Uphaar tragedy case on behalf of the victims against the Ansals lasting for a little less than 10 years. Mr. Tulsi has set new standards of public service amongst lawyers and has revived public faith and confidence in the legal community. Tulsi recently took up the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar who is facing death sentence for a terror attack in Delhi. The idea was not to re-open the case but to save Bhullar from the gallows. He has sought commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of inordinate delay of eight years by the President in deciding his mercy plea.
A nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, he has proved his dedication to public service time and again. He was elected as president of criminal justice society of India and continues to hold the position till date. His humanity is what distinguishes him as a successful lawyer.
- SUSHIL KUMAR: THE SHERWANI-CLAD
A sherwani clad leading criminal lawyer seldom goes unnoticed in the corridors of the apex court. A senior advocate of the Supreme Court Sushil Kumar is seen as the “only one” who can always manage to make holes in the prosecution theory and win his client the benefit of doubt. “There are many who can get notice on an appeal but when it comes to final arguments on merits, one needs Kumar to get an acquittal” say his juniors.
A spiritual person at heart, he is greatly influenced by the teachings of Krishnamurthy, a renowned philosopher. As he rightly once said “ I must love what I am studying” and no one proves this more than Kumar who is known to read court cases even in his free time.
He is seen as the go to person for high profile criminal cases and he has commendable record to show for it. Some of his clients include parliamentary attacker Mohammed Afzal guru, 2G accused A. Raja and Kanimozhi; CWG scam accused Suresh Kalmadi; terrorist Abdul Naseer Maudany. He also defended for Ansals in the Uphaar fire tragedy case and appeared for P Rajagopal, a restaurant owner who was facing life sentence for murder. His fees of 5.5 lakh for per court appearance is enough to convince anyone of his skill in the court room.
- Shanti Bhushan: Former Law Minister of India
Shanti Bhushan (born 11 Nov 1925) is a former law minister of India holding office at the ministry of law and justice under the Morarji Desai ministry. He is a very senior advocate of the Supreme Court. At a time when both the bar and the bench are under a cloud, the illustrious sixty –year career of Shanti Bhushan is a source of inspiration for young advocates.
He was witness to the formative years of the Indian republic. As the law minister he introduced forty fourth amendment of the constitution of India which repealed many provisions of the forty-second amendment of the constitution introduced by the Indira Gandhi govt. His dominance in the political field is matched by his mastery in court. Some of his landmark cases include the Keshav Singh case of 1964 which led to the first stand-off between the judiciary and executive; Indira Gandhi election case which unseated her as prime minister leading to the imposition of emergency, the habeas corpus case where supreme court declared that during an emergency there is no right to life or liberty and hence no recourse against illegal retention. He appeared for two of the defendants accused in the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts case. He represented Shaukat Hussain in 2008 for an appeal against his 10 year conviction for his role in 2001 parliamentary attacks which resulted in an acquittal of all charges of conspiracy but convicting him on a charge for which he was never accused. He defended V.S. Achuthanandan in the Apex Court in the Idamalayar Dam corruption case against UDF leader R. Balakrishna Pillai and others. He also appeared for Transparency International in the Provident Fund scandal case of Ghaziabad and for H. D. Deve Gowda in a petition related to allocation of land for Bangalore – Mysore Infrastructure Corridor.
Known to be vocal against all manners of injustice, he became one of the founding members of center for public interest litigation, a non-govt organization that conducts litigations on all matters of public interest. His activism during the lokpal bill campaign resulted in him joining the drafting committee of the Jan lokpal bill, constituted by government of India, representing the civil society.
Shanti Bhushan, along with his son Prashant Bhushan have been involved in pressing for accountability in the Indian Judiciary by setting up Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reform (CJAR) The father-son duo are currently facing charges for contempt of court in Supreme Court of India for their statement about corruption in higher judiciary specifically, former chief justices of Supreme Court. During a hearing on the running case for contempt of court in November 2010, Shanti Bhushan went on to say, “The question of apology does not arise. I am prepared to go to jail.” His fiery passion for the law gives some hope of justice to the common man.
- MAJEED MEMON: NOTED CRIMINAL LAWYER
Majid Memon (born 12 Dec1945) is a leading criminal lawyer and leader of Nationalist Congress party. He has appeared for various Indian personalities including politicians, human rights activists and film actors in criminal matters.
Memon has defended several persons detained under The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), in many high profile cases, including those related to bomb blasts in Mumbai. His landmark case was arguing for 1993 convict Yakub Memon but could not set him free. He also appeared for Raj Kundra, Rajasthan Royals co-owner who was facing allegations of betting in the Indian Premier League matches; represented for musician Nadeem’s extradition trial in the Gulshan Kumar murder case. He also gave this opinion in the trial of exiled Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
His typical legal style of arguing in the court is by keeping his right leg on a chair. According to India today, his fee per day is believed to be Rs 10 lakh and charges Rs 2 lakh for just securing a bail in a session’s court.
- UJWAL NIKAM: A MAN WITH LION HEART
A Padma Shri awardee Ujjwal Nikam is a public prosecutor in the true sense. In the history of India’s legal system, his name will always be written in golden words. He is not just a lawyer, a public prosecutor, but he is a man with lion heart. He started out as district government public prosecutor of his native district (Jalgaon) but soon made headlines after taking up the role of public prosecutor in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case and subsequently brought all the culprits to justice. Soon after he was involved in similar high profile cases like – Pramod Mahajan murder case, Gulshan Kumar murder case, Ajmal Kasab trial case, 2013 Mumbai gang rape case etc. In Dec 2010 he represented government of India in the worldwide convention on terrorism held by UN, New York.
His 30 – year outstanding legal career has revived faith in the Indian judiciary system which otherwise seems very outdated and slow. His integrity and values instilled in him by his father Deoraoji Nikam of standing against all ills make him one of the most respected members of the legal community.
He is known to enjoy the publicity garnered by his cases rather than shun it. His peculiar style of courtroom mannerisms make the most boring cases full of drama, for example in the case against Ajmal Kasab, he used the media to incite public outrage to influence the trial. Despite his high success rate he is underpaid i.e. approx. Rs. 40,000 per appearance compared to other lawyers of his rank, the reason for this he says is not fame but the allure of being a household name that drives him.
- L. NAGESWARA RAO: SOFT-SPOKEN CANNON
From a humble beginning as a small time lawyer in Hyderabad to being selected directly from the bar for direct appointment as a supreme court judge Lavu Nageswara Rao has travelled quite a distance in his career. He was also a senior advocate and additional solicitor general of India. Rao (46 years) started out as one of the many struggling lawyers in the Andhra Pradesh high court. But after a decade of chequered career, he hit upon the idea of moving to the Supreme Court “If I have to compete with the best in the country, I thought I must be I Delhi”, he says of his shift. Known for his reserve and soft-spokeness, he says” Performance cannot be a flash in a pan, it should be consistent. In the Supreme Court lawyers are our clients and convincing a layman is easier than a lawyer”. Rao has successfully handled some tough cases involving the chief minister of Assam (former), Prafulla Kumar Mohanta; appearing for the speaker of Haryana in an anti-defection case, the excise case in Kerala etc. He scripted the return of J. Jayalalithaa as Tamil Nadu chief minister after her acquittal in Karnataka high court on corruption charges.
Another feather in the cap for the celebrated lawyer was his appointment into the Mudgal committee to look into the IPL spot-fixing and betting scandal. His reliability is reflected in the cases he handles and rightfully charges 3-3.5 lakhs for an appearance in the Supreme Court.
- SATISH MANESHINDE: ELSEWHERE JUNIOR OF RAM JETHMALANI
Satish Maneshinde is a top notch criminal lawyer, who had originally came to Mumbai in 1983 as a penniless law graduate from Kawar, Karnataka. For 10 years, he worked as Junior of Senior counsel Ram Jethmalani, practising both civil and criminal law. He became famous after he secured a bail for for Sanjay Dutt in the Bombay blast case and for Salman Khan who allegedly killed one person while driving drunk.
He argues calmly in court and looks straight into the judge’s eyes. Some of the high-profile cases/clients represented by Mr. Maneshinde include: securing bail for Salman Khan in drunken driving case where he allegedly killed one person; Supercop Daya Nayak (in a disproportionate assets case), top bookie Shoban Mehta; ganglord Chhota Rajan’s wife Sujata Nikalje in a case under the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act; representing Rakhi Sawant when a youth committed suicide after she called him namard (impotent). According to India today, his fee per day is believed to be Rs 10 lakh.
- Shrikant Shivade: Cross-examination expert
The man who prefers not to be called a celebrity lawyer. “My father was with the police force. I have seen the worst of it and it is probably why I defend the few who have been falsely implicated,” he says. The lawyer has been defending persons implicated in TADA cases.
Shivade’s first and most “interesting” celebrity case was the Bharat Shah case, the trial of a diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shah and others who are facing charges of aiding underworld don Chhota Shakeel. The 81-year-old Jadhav, who had known Shivade for over 20 years then, says, he was “one of the best cross-examiners for criminal cases”. Bar Council of India has suspended for three years the licence of advocate Shrikant Shivade who has represented bigwigs like diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shah and former Mumbai police chiefs R D Tyagi and R S Sharma. Shivade whose promising career graph had taken off when he became Bharat Shah’s lawyer in the Bollywood-underworld nexus case in 2001, had been assisting noted defence counsel V R Manohar in many high-profile cases, including the Telgi scam. He recently represented Salman Khan in hit & run case and helped him in securing a bail.
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