Rajat Mathur is a lawyer, practicing in the Delhi High Court, Supreme Court of India and the Subordinate Courts of Delhi, since 2010. Despite gaining experience in Civil and Tax Law, he has worked extensively on the criminal side and has represented bureaucrats and Government Servants in matters related to the ‘Coal Block Allocation Scam case’. At 33 years of age, Mr. Mathur got the controversial acquittal of former Coal Secretary, Mr. H. C. Gupta, a decorated IAS office (now retired) in the high-profile case.
Q. After finishing B.Com (H) (SRCC, DU) and thereafter LLB (Law Faculty, DU), you started practising in 2010. Where did you start working?
Initially, I worked in District Courts, because I wanted to learn the basics. Then, I joined Mr. Sidharth Luthra, Senior Counsel for Appellate Court in late 2012 till early 2014 which coincided with his tenure as Additional Solicitor General of India (ASG). With him, I worked on all kinds of matters under the sun ranging from taxation, service, constitutional and variety of criminal cases. His practice is very fast-paced so I learnt a lot. In mid-2014, I started my own practice. After 5-6 months into my independent practice, I got the opportunity to work on the coal scam matters.
My office comprises of me, my father, my sister and our team of junior associates.
Q. How was the experience to work on such a high-stake matter at such a young age?
The coal scam case was a great learning experience for me. We took the brief in the year 2014 on pro-bono basis. In the beginning, I was assisting my father in the matter, however, 2018 onwards I took charge of the case. That’s when I got the opportunity to not only argue but earn my first major acquittal. Prior to this case, I had no experience of a criminal trial. This case had an added responsibility to defend an honest officer, who was known especially in IAS circles that “unhone kabhi kisi ki chai tak nahi pi” during his entire tenure. Also, when his name cropped up first time in this case, the then PM, Dr.Manmohan Singh also spoke in his favour as a dead honest, decorated IAS officer. Additionally, it was indeed a very voluminous brief as our client was named in number of cases to the extent that our office was all filled up with its papers.
There were various hurdles in the case throughout, at every stage, and was a great learning curve for me especially when you are up against CBI as prosecuting agency and an ever vigilant Court. Also, it was a great opportunity to work on this matter, as in the process, I managed to work alongside and brief top legal luminaries on criminal law, including great Late Ram Jethmalani. In fact, I worked with every decorated senior on this case, except my mentor (Mr.Luthra) despite my best efforts (laughs).
The final arguments in our first two matters were conducted by Senior Counsel, Mr. Mohit Mathur, who not only argued very effectively, guided me but laid a strong foundation for all the matters to come. Our client suffered initial partial convictions on few charges and acquittal in major charges (which are subject matter of appeal now in High Court) until in the third case, where I got the opportunity to independently argue the case, for the first time. When I argued coal scam matter, the final arguments went on for few days. When the arguments were concluded, my client was satisfied, which brought me a big sigh of relief. After waiting for almost five years, we got an acquittal for my client in the fourth case, which was the second matter I argued. It was the first acquittal on all charges in the coal scam case. Finally, I got my first big break in this profession which was made possible with the sincere guidance and well wishes of my seniors.
This case taught me a very important lesson and that is you re-construct the prosecution case and prick weakness in their case and cull out your defence from it at the very first possible opportunity or to present an alternative reasonable view to the prosecution version, backed by evidence led during the course of trial in your support, as ultimately, every case turns on evidence led by parties, of course by good & necessary cross examination, which forms the basis of the judgment. By this way, you stand a very good chance to save your client from prosecution.
Q. Could you talk about some other cases that you have worked on?
I have worked on different facets of law. I’ve now conducted number of trials, more so on the criminal side. I recently argued a case where a person was falsely implicated in a murder case and was acquitted after 25 years after a full-fledged trial. This was my first experience in murder trial and I got an acquittal, thank god! It was a very satisfactory experience.
Additionally, I have been appearing for Legal Aid for the past 3-4 years in Patiala House Courts, for New Delhi Legal Aid Service Authority. There, I give lectures and provide sensitization to school children and police officers on various facets of substantive criminal law. I’ve realised that police officers are good at procedural aspects of law but they need to be continuously updated with the substantive knowledge or their interpretation. Where my lectures are meaningful to the police officers is that they get legal knowledge, in addition to procedural aspect which they are already good at. It’s a good experience for me too, to share their working experience and apprise myself with the procedural side of criminal law. It’s great to connect with cops who deal with society on the real side.
I also worked as a ‘Remand Advocate’ for Legal Aid Society, ibid, and assisted Courts by representing indigent people who cannot afford services of a lawyer on short notice and assist them when they are presented before Court from Judicial Custody for first time or its extension and etc. Remand is a vital aspect of criminal law practice though most times under-rated. I also worked on small, petty offence matters for poor people for violations under Motor Vehicles Act and etc., and helping people in filing challans, compound petty offences through intervention of Lok Adalat and etc. You don’t make money in such cases but every such small experience is a learning curve.
Q. What advice would you like to give to young lawyers and law students?
I am too young in this profession to give any advice, but I feel that litigation practice is very challenging. Every day is a new day and a learning experience. You need to keep upgrading yourself and continue to work hard and be patient. It’s important for a lawyer to give some amount of time on reading judgments, journals, articles and publications, as you gain a lot of knowledge through reading.
Also, as per my understanding on criminal cases, 90 per cent of convictions happen because of inability of defence lawyer to do necessary, effective and meaningful cross examination. Trial, especially on the criminal side, is like a game of chess. Each and every step taken from beginning to end is important in a case. One has to foresee the possible case as made out by the prosecution and be one step ahead of them at every stage of a criminal case, as it is they who have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. Job of defence is to create reasonable doubt in that case. Every step taken in a case has to be viewed from end result perspective. Also, a good criminal lawyer formulates defence in advance in the light of law as applicable. One has to foresee the propositions of final arguments in advance and prepare line of cross examination based on them. In other words, if you are able to perceive and weave your final arguments foundation from the evidence led by you in trial through effective cross examination, then you are in a good fight.
Q. What are the challenges that you face?
For me as a person, it’s important to know the truth of every case and step into the shoes of the client, as client is the master of his case and most importantly, of facts. It is also important to weigh all pros and cons in advance and being absolutely thorough with the facts and defend your client to the best of your ability as per law, which is the best service you can do for your client, irrespective of outcome. Also, it’s a difficult job I feel for a lawyer to take up cases that go against public perception.
Q. What are the problems you face as a lawyer in the judicial system?
Earlier, we had a rule of certain minimum work experience as eligibility criteria to sit for entry level judiciary exam which in my opinion made a lot more sense, which gives a broader and better perspective for a person to act as a judge, though there are always exceptions of people who are good anyways even without any experience, but I sincerely feel that certain practice experience at the bar (how so ever less may be) always helps. It should be brought back for good in my view.
The eligibility criteria to enroll as a lawyer with the Bar Council should be improved and be made competitive in view of changing times. You need to have filtered and better lawyers at the Bar in line with the global standards.
Q. Do you think legal technology and Artificial Intelligence can help lawyers?
In earlier times, lawyers had legal digests and used to read them year by year basis in order to pull out a research point. There was limited access to computers and technology for research. But that’s old school now, because there is tech-savvy legal research now with the click of a button through various research tools available.
If you know the proposition to be searched clearly, then you lay ground for a good research. Of course, with the present day legal research tools like Legit-Quest, especially the ‘iDraf’ feature and other tools etc., you can do quick research in no time. With this tool, one can easily read judgements and reach to the ratio/finding portion of a ruling much faster. LQ bifurcates judgements, breaks them down threadbare into Facts, Issue, Contentions of parties, Court Observations, Ratio/findings and Decision, so that one can focus more on required search instantly.
As I said earlier, you need to upgrade yourself daily as a lawyer, as in present times, no amount of knowledge of law is sufficient. Technology in legal research in present time has a lot of scope and way to go forward. This is just the beginning, I think.
Q. What are your future plans?
I plan to sit for judiciary exam in near future, if opportunity and time permits. I also wish to write publications in the future, as it is another way of gaining more knowledge and also gives me an opportunity to pen down my thoughts on subject, topic which interests me. Also, I want to get back to my cricketing days, as in present time of our legal profession, it is an added venue of socializing and connecting with new people which also helps in our legal profession.
Q. What are your other interests? What do you do in your free time?
I like to travel as it opens all your six senses though haven’t travel for quite some time now (as there was real shortage of money …—- laughs). I like cars and love to go for a spin or long drives whenever I find time. I like to read autobiographies. I like watching television in free time to un-clutter my mind from work.