Tarannum Cheema has been working as a lawyer for the past 10 years and she specialises in criminal law. She has appeared in several white collar crime cases as defence counsel as well as public prosecutor including the 2G and coal block allocation scam cases. She has represented various politicians including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Lalu Prasad Yadav, O.P. Chautala, Virbhadra Singh, etc. She has appeared and continues to appear as a Prosecutor for the CBI as well as the SIT in the 1984 anti-Sikh riot cases.
Q. Tell us about your educational background.
A: I graduated in Economics (Honours) and did my Post-Graduation in media content. Then I worked in the field of public relations (PR) for a couple of months, after which I took my law entrance. I went to the Campus Law Centre at Delhi University.
Q: Why did you want to become a lawyer?
A: I wanted to explore everything (as a career option). I was interested in economics so I did Eco (Hons). I was interested in writing so I did the media course. I was working really hard when I started with PR, I was putting in really long hours. I thought that If I am putting in the long hours, let me just take a shot at being a lawyer because I had seen first hand — my grandfather was a lawyer and my father is a lawyer.
Q: Was it parental pressure as well because you come from a family of lawyers?
A: Not really, in fact my father completely discouraged me from being a lawyer. He was more interested that I go into academics.
Q: So, was it your decision?
A: Yes, it was my decision. Actually, my father first wanted to see if I could work for long (hours) so when I was working in PR he saw that I could endure the pressure. That’s when he was on board.
Q: Did you learn under another senior or you started working with your dad right away?
A: I have had the opportunity to brief a lot of seniors but I haven’t really worked under any senior. I started out in 2009 with my father. I started at the Punjab and Haryana High Court so I was there for a couple of months and then my dad was appointed as the Special PublicProsecutor in the 1984 riots case. He needed somebody to be in Delhi to monitor the case on a daily basis. So I moved here and then I was pretty much on my own. Even for my father I am only briefing him on case-to-case basis. It’s not like I am working under him.
Q: So you take up your own cases as well?
A: Yes, I take up my own cases mostly.
Q: Tell us about some of the most challenging cases you have worked on?
A: I think the most challenging has been by far the 1984 (anti-Sikh) riots case because that’s where we were faced with the challenge of carrying on a prosecution which started in 2010 for an incident which happened in 1984. So that was the biggest challenge, for instance, to get the witnesses to depose. And then in 2013, one of the persons got an acquittal and then carrying on with the appeal in the High Court and then finally securing a conviction. I think that has been the most challenging case that I have done.
Q: But that was mainly something your father was working on. So you were assisting him?
A: Initially when he was doing the trial then I was assisting him but I was present (in court) on a daily basis. And when it came to the Appeal then I was independently engaged by the CBI and now I am doing another case independently as a Special Public Prosecutor where Sajjan Kumar is an accused in the 1984 cases so that’s how it happened.
Q: What are some other cases you have worked on?
A: The 2G trial where I appeared for Sanjay Chandra. I was representing Sanjay Chandra in that and in the case of the Enforcement Directorate I was representing Kanimozhi. So that was also very challenging trial because that was my first day to day trial. It was six-and-a-half years of daily gruelling trial court work. We were practically stationed there from 10 in the morning to 4 in the evening and the result was brilliant and we couldn’t have asked for more.
Q: And what about some not very high profile cases? Would you like to talk about some cases that people don’t know of? If you’ve worked on something that’s small but has had a big impact or a case that’s been close to your heart.
A: I would say, you know, the acquittal we got for the Maruti Workers. In Manesar, Haryana, there was a conflict between the labourers who were working in Maruti and the management. There was a fire and one person lost his life for which 147 persons were behind bars for about three years until only 33 of them were convicted. And only 13 were convicted for graver offences and the rest all of them got out. In a country which is labour intensive and a lot of people are working as daily wagers, to have 147 people charged with murder of one person which actually happened because of a fire, (the case) was very challenging. And they belonged to very poor families. They couldn’t even afford lawyers. So to take up that matter and to work on that was very challenging.
Q: Coming back to your personal life. You and your father, both being in the same challenging profession, how has that affected your relationship as a father-daughter duo?
A: I think we discuss a lot of work at home which we shouldn’t. My brother is also a lawyer so that leaves my mother out and she gets irritated when the three of us are sitting and discussing mostly work. But otherwise I think I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, to have somebody at home to look up to.
Q: So do you have arguments or disagreements on legal issues?
A: Yes of course we have a lot of disagreements on legal issues. But mostly we reconcile.
Q: So your younger brother is also a lawyer. How is the sibling rivalry as far as being lawyers is concerned?
A: We really haven’t experienced (a professional sibling rivalry) because we are practising in different spaces. I am based in Delhi and he is practising in Punjab and Haryana. So it is more like if somebody needs a lawyer in Chandigarh, I’ll give them his reference and if his cases need somebody in Delhi then it will be referred to me.
Q: And also, talking about your father and your grandfather, they have been successful lawyers and you are also on the same path. Do you feel that no matter how well you do in life you will always be overshadowed by them? And that you will always be judged as their prodigy and you will always be compared with them?
A: I think the comparison is very natural. But so far as being overshadowed by them is concerned, it takes time to come on your own but now I feel a lot of people recognise my work for what I am doing than being somebody’s daughter.
Q: A lot of people say that lawyers whose parents have been lawyers or judges, they get a platform in the legal profession and they automatically have an edge over people who are first generation lawyers. What do you think?
A: See, I’ll be lying if I say they don’t have an edge. When you join the profession you already have an infrastructure in place, you have interacted with a lot of people in the profession because you have literally grown up meeting them and stuff. But then eventually it comes down to how hard you can work and how you can build a niche for yourself. There are a lot of kids of lawyers and judges who were recognised because they belonged to that family but eventually you know they just couldn’t work upon it. To reach a certain space you have to work hard but of course there is an edge which you get when you start off, like you have an infrastructure in place, which for an individual starting off without any legal background I would say is very difficult in this profession because the competition is too much, there’s a lot of people who are coming out as lawyers each year.
Q: And what about women in the profession? You are a very young woman who is in litigation. Have you faced certain difficulties which you feel is only because you are a woman and have you seen other women suffering just because of their gender?
A: I have seen a general attitude in the court specially in the lower courts in Delhi where there is still a long way to go for women lawyers to do well. But, because in the lower judiciary we (now) have so many women presiding judges, that is changing a lot now and I think for me it’s been more because I am practising criminal law. So for a rural client who is coming from a village in Haryana or Punjab, I would have to convince the client more to give me the brief, for them to understand that yes, she can handle a criminal law case or she can handle a murder appeal.
Q: And, what about urban clients? Are they a little edgy about you?
A: I don’t think so. With white collar crimes, not really. Not in Delhi because there is a fair mix of women presiding judges in the lower judiciary, in the High Court but still the representation in comparison to the other gender is far lower.
Q: What is the biggest difficulty you face as a lawyer?
A: I think the biggest difficulty as a lawyer you face is procurement of work, because there are people from everywhere who want to clinch on a client. In case you are not lobbying or going out of the way to ensure that the clients are coming, and you’re mostly working on the fact that the range of work is good and they will come anyway, that’s the biggest challenge.
Q: Probably your experience in PR works that way.
A: I try ,but Delhi is a very competitive environment.
Q: Do you think Artificial Intelligence and technology can make things easier in legal research?
A: Definitely, I think with legal research that is available to us in the present day scenario I think we can go places. I remember my grandfather had to remember citations. Imagine, remembering every citation of the case you want to refer to! My father would have this little diary which would have case law written on every subject. He still calls his clerk and says give me a judgement on law subjects because they are already there. But for us it (technology) has been very helpful. Your research engine (LegitQuest) can take you places, and I have been a user of LegitQuest since the beginning.
Q: So LegitQuest is helping you in your research?
A: And I think the filters you have (iDraf) are very different from the ones that other portals have. So the filters (iDraf feature) is really cutting edge!
Q: You keep a very low profile. Though people in the legal profession definitely know you but you are not somebody who wants to be out there. So, if you have to describe yourself to somebody, who is Tarannum Cheema? How would you describe yourself?
A: I would describe myself as believing in the hard work that I put in and ensuring that my clients are getting the best representation possible and I don’t believe in marketing myself as a lawyer. A lot of that (marketing, lobbying) is happening with Delhi lawyers but when you actually see them in court, then there is zero substance. If your work is good it will speak for itself.
Q: Apart from law, what keeps you busy? What do you like to do when you want to take a break from all the legal stuff?
A: Mostly, travel. I am very lucky that I am in this profession and I am litigating because we have our holiday calendar in the beginning of the year and we can really plan. So every holiday I have is planned, and that’s my passion.
Q: And apart from that you like to read stuff that’s not legal?
A: I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction. These days I am reading these essays of George Orwell. I really like these compilations that people do, like short stories of writers that you actually have read novels of.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I would definitely like to expand and I would like to make my practice as one of a kind criminal law practice in Delhi which caters to every court. You know, when you come to think of lawyers you are always thinking of that I need somebody for the lower court, or I need somebody for the High Court. I would like to give a one-stop solution for all courts. That’s the endeavour. Let’s see. I used to think that I have come here for one trial, and I have sort of stayed on and done a lot of trial work and it is immensely satisfying.
Q: Do you like working in Delhi better?
A: I think there is more opportunity in Delhi, especially in terms of white collar crimes like ED cases and high-profile CBI cases. I don’t think you will get that opportunity in smaller towns.
Q: So you enjoy that kind of work?
A: A lot of work that I do now is that kind of work. I quite enjoy it.