Former Delhi High Court judge Najmi Waziri [Part I]

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Former Delhi High Court judge Najmi Waziri [Part I]

Justice Najmi Waziri

On his last day as a Delhi High Court judge, Justice Najmi Waziri garnered praise not only from the legal fraternity, but also from members of civil society for his humane verdicts and contributions to the preservation of green cover in the national capital.

Through his orders, the judge effectively paved way for the plantation of lakhs of trees in the various parts of Delhi’s ecosystem.

His “green” orders aside, Justice Waziri adjudicated on matters pertaining to civil law, rendering some significant judgments in that domain during his tenure of nearly ten years as a judge.

Bar & Bench’s Aamir Khan caught up with the retired judge to discuss the impact his orders have had on the environment, why he chose law over boxing and much more.   

Aamir Khan (AK): You were called the “green judge” for your judicial interventions in increasing the city’s green cover. At what point did you decide to take up such an initiative?

Justice Najmi Waziri: When a judge adjudicates, he never thinks about titles. This green aspect of the work, which is talked about, was never something one thought about as a direction to take. It was a collateral benefit of initial cases, which came from quashing of FIRs.

What should a person do after the matter has been settled between the parties? There’s no lis pending. They are going their separate ways, all that was a more of a formal exercise to finish it. But then that wouldn’t have been the closure of the case. It would have been a legal closure, but not a personal closure.

Justice Najmi Waziri

So you do a natural thing. Apne aap se maafi mangiye (Ask yourself for forgiveness). That’s where the whole thing started. The plantation of trees is more of an idea to do something that will leave a long-lasting impression. It started from one, to the second and over the years, it just kept on happening. To make them realise that is important to follow the law. 

When they were following the law, it’s best to make them do something for the larger benefit of society, and I found many people were actually wanting to do it. I didn’t know this, but we saw people getting excited about it. They wanted to do something for their city. Every citizen has a streak to do something larger for society.

To do good is an innate human quality. That occasion is not ordinarily given to people. From an adverse circumstance, they suddenly became empowered to do something for their city. Try planting a tree, or a plant, or even a sapling in your neighbourhood park or outside your home. The civic agencies will come and stand in front of you. They won’t let you do that. They’ll assert themselves, but here’s a citizen trying to do something good, and the court’s order only aided that person to do that.

Over the years, people came forward. You had a number of lawyers coming and joining the process and I found the finest human beings in them. They are leaders of the society in many ways.

There are so many people helping out. You have soldiers, Army officers saying, “Sir, you’ve said 100. I want to plan 500”. “Please go ahead,” I said. They said, “I want to water it for the next five, next six months. I’ll pay for the water tanker.” People want their neighbourhoods, their mohallas, their shahar to become better, more khubsurat. Because they have waited too long for the civic agencies to respond.

That’s what has happened in the process. It was a collateral benefit of my regular adjudication. It’s a collective exercise. 

AK: Take us through your initial years in the profession.

Justice Waziri: I joined a college in Delhi and then got into law because my family wanted me to do my Master’s and prepare for the civil services examination. I thought I’ll get admission. But for some reason, that particular year’s MA philosophy got cancelled one day before the interview in the college.

I had nowhere to go. So I took the college to court and I’m glad my lawyer lost the case. I had worked and earned some money that summer. I engaged a lawyer by myself in the High Court. He tried whatever he could, but he lost.

Justice Najmi Waziri

Then I took admission in law school and the rest is history. I graduated and joined a chamber while I was still in law school. After eight years of practicing, I was getting very bored because the kind of work which was happening in those days was not very interesting. 

Therefore, I went and did my Master’s in Comparative International Law of the European Union. It involved comparing that kind of International Law of those 25 countries, where their own national Supreme Courts are second to the court of first instance and the European Court of Justice, with International Law over the rest of the world. It gave me a huge exposure to international trade, commerce, anti-dumping and competition law.

AK: You were also a pugilist before you became a lawyer. How come you didn’t you pursue boxing as a career?

Justice Waziri: There’s a time for everything in life. When you’re young, you’re quite fit. I gave my best in those years. Now it’s only intellectual pugilism (laughs) from this side. And this is very exciting.

The world of intellectual pugilism actually hasn’t hurt anybody. It only expands your mind and your thought processes. There’s no combat here, but it’s actually dealing with issues, different ideas and trying to put them together. And the ultimate winner in intellectual boxing is truth and fairness. The real facts come out. You have to constantly distill all those things and see what is the best, the reality. Once you have reality before you, then you make the right decisions.

Justice Najmi Waziri

That’s the beauty of it. Very often in boxing, you have to duck, you have to move aside, you have to weave through your opponent’s punches thrown at you. Similarly, when you’re doing law or anything else in life, you have to avoid things which will ultimately waste your time and energy.

You have to be nimble on your feet and box. You have to be nimble in your mind and your thinking. You have to keep moving, keep weaving through distracting sentences and ideas. In that moment, I should not get distracted. If an argument is made and put forward, one has to deal with that argument.

Should you accept it or should you look at the weaknesses of that? You have to test that argument. You have to verify the truth of the statement being made. That’s how you go forward. 

AK: Were there any low points or punches you couldn’t dodge during your judgeship?

Justice Waziri: No, there are no low points for any judge in any part. Every case is extremely important for every judge. There is no small or big case. The only thing which is relevant for a judge is justice. What is a big case or a small case, is only subjective.

Justice Najmi Waziri

I have to be fair. A judge has to be fair for that case. And justice is the biggest thing. You have to look at the procedure. You have to look at substantive law and apply it to that facts of that case. And that is all we have to look for.

All judges have to do only that. That is the only objective on the bench. Nothing more, nothing less. Irrespective of who’s appearing before you. You have to look at what is being said, not who is saying it. It makes no difference who the personality or the petitioner is. That is what a person would expect from a court of law, which is supposed to be fair, nothing more.

AK: After your orders pertaining to preservation of the green cover in Delhi started getting highlighted in the media and in social circles, did you feel a heightened sense of responsibility?

Justice Waziri: One is not influenced by these things. What is written in the media should not and does not bother me. It should not bother a judge and it never bothered me, frankly speaking. 

If somebody thinks that there is something worthwhile in it, they print it, whatever they may think, that’s for the people to do. A judge’s job and work stops the moment he puts his signature on paper.

AK: A lot of trees were planted post your verdicts. Did it give you a sense of satisfaction?

Justice Waziri: A judge has to look only at what is before her or him in a case. If you look at anything beyond that, then we’re dealing with possibly unnecessary things. Judges are not people who pick policy.

Justice Najmi Waziri

We adjudicate on the basis of law. That by itself may create a new jurisprudence, which is taking it forward, where you marry the inherent powers of the court into something which brings about a healing process in society. 

It may be purely coincidental, never thought out, but it’s at that moment, when the judge decides that it can be good and that’s what has happened. Nobody does it with an intention. It just happens in that moment. How it plays out is another story.

AK: On the day of your retirement, you said penning a judgment takes time. Given the huge backlog of cases, how do you propose a balance between that and timely verdicts?

Justice Waziri: It’s an issue which is troubling a whole lot of people in the judiciary, because the numbers are huge. They are still very small compared to the large population. The numbers in terms of the ratio of population to the number of cases filed is not so much. But look at the cases filed compared to the number of adjudicators. Judges numbers are very small. It can’t be possible to do it all in a hurry. 

There’s not much a judge can do in terms of the pendency. When it comes to a person who’s got 60 matters or 80 matters or 100 matters, if it’s just being called out per case, it’ll take an hour or two hours just to go through that or to adjourn the matters.

In the morning between 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM is the most crucial time when the mind is fresh and you can pass the best orders. Sociological and psychological studies have been done on this. That’s the best time for fresh arguments to come in.

But at the end of the day, the judge has to do so much more. The day’s dictation has to be cleared up, then the signing, and then the next day’s work, etc. Plus long orders. So it becomes very difficult on the person. How will the numbers reduce? That is another story.

People have to find solutions, lawful solutions outside the court processes, alternative dispute resolution systems, whether it’s mediation or arbitration and so many other ways. Very often, matters go there and judges also nudge a bit, look into this, put the parties together, ask the lawyers to sit together and talk. One has found that it has achieved a solution. It is happening.

But the large pendency, I don’t know how to say this, they are huge numbers. It’s not likely to happen in a hurry with the kind of strength we have today.

Justice Najmi Waziri

The courts have reached almost every home and become accessible. There’s greater accountability for the professional. A number of people didn’t know how the courts used to function. They understand it better now. And people are looking at the pressures that there are. The numbers are mind-boggling. So how to do it? You have to look at other ways of resolving disputes in society. By litigation, it will not necessarily happen.

AK: The gender ratio in the higher judiciary is highly disproportionate. In the Delhi High Court alone, there are only 9 women judges of the total strength of 45. How can this gap be bridged? 

Justice Waziri: It’s a figure which people would want to increase. Women’s representation should be more. There are very bright counsel, at least in Delhi. There are a lot of women lawyers coming in from all over the country. It’s a very exciting place to work. The city has so many judicial and quasi-judicial fora to come and practice before. It gives you that much experience and exposure, and the competence is tested. I think the numbers will grow.

I don’t know much about other states, but it depends a lot on the Bar. What is the representation of women members in the Bar? How many are there? These are the issues to be taken up. All I say is, give people an opportunity to grow. When you have an opportunity to grow, there will be experienced counsel coming forward and you will necessarily want them to come on the Bench. The system will respond. The system is responding.

It takes time, it takes a process to get there. I remember when I joined 38 years ago. There were very few women members. Now there are huge numbers if you go to any court. In the district judiciary, there are many women judges.

AK: Do you think there is a need to revamp or repeal certain laws to keep up with the times?

Justice Waziri: Something that affects your economy and your world of business, there’s a huge need to respond to that in an agile system, keeping in mind what’s happening internationally. 

If the legal landscape does not accommodate or keep up with what’s happening elsewhere, then people will start looking to that elsewhere. People look for the best systems in which they feel secure and feel that their disputes will be resolved quickly, effectively and fully. 

I think we are almost there and these changes which are being proposed now, these amendments will be most welcome. Those amendments will keep us abreast with the best practices and the best processes, which which are needed for today.

AK: Is there one case or a memory you will always carry with you? 

Justice Waziri: There are so many things. But one thing is listening to the person sitting in the last row, the quietest person, who is waiting since morning. It’s possible that they have not been heard for the last five years or six years. Shayad us shaqs ka hausla hee toot gaya (Perhaps that person had lost the courage). It’s just out of habit that the person is coming to court. Maybe the lawyer has lost interest or has not turned up. So, sometimes I would look up and see who is that person sitting there. An old lady, an old man, someone who’s just tired. So one would ask,

Aapka case kya hai? (What’s your case about?).”

That person would speak up, and very often, the crux of the case was narrated to you in a few seconds and the matter was resolved. Sometimes they got an occasion to speak and felt liberated. One has found the same person changed for the first time after they got a chance to speak and ease all their burden of anguish hidden inside them, and then they’re ready to even settle the matter. That voice had to be heard. Very often, one has found that once you’ve heard them and they can go back home, they’re just not bothered as to what happens next.

Everybody wants to be heard. It is very important to hear that last person. And one has seen them going back smiling from the heart. That is the satisfaction one gets. Sometimes, they just accept the verdict and that verdict is good enough, even if it goes against them. People want closure. Jhagda kisi ko nahi pasand hai (No one likes to quarrel). It goes against human nature.

We are supposed to be in harmony with each other; with nature; with our fellow beings; with plants and animals and birds. That’s how we are made. We are not supposed to have constant friction unnecessarily. That’s also in a social life and business life. Nobody wants to have friction. 

Disputes with neighbours over pending monies, about children, about inter-personal relationships, about office, about employment, about banks, finances — everybody wants a solution. With a solution, they’re very happy. This is what I have felt very often. You can see it in the face of the person.

Justice Najmi Waziri

Courts exist for the poorest of the poor; the weakest of the weak. Those who really can’t afford a lawyer. The ones with deep pockets can afford the best lawyers.

Of course, there are complex ideas. The world of commerce, finance, international trade, requires a separate different kind of competence and you’ll get the best lawyers. That’s also very exciting. There are new challenges. How is trade happening? How is finance happening? How are industries being set up? What are the things to look for? How is it conflicting with the movement of people, shifting of houses and factories coming up? Balancing environment with road development, infrastructure development, industrial development, emissions, etc. Water requirements, movement of labor, medical health, medical facilities, education of the children who will be studying in coming in new complex. A whole new city is being set up. There’s a huge migrant population. There has to be financial closure to these things.

There’s a whole new world coming up. The economy suddenly gets a kickstart when the policy is made of creating an industrial park or zone. That requires a separate kind of assistance of the finest brains on the commercial side.

So these are challenges which come every day, so you have to balance from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich and you have to be alert as to what’s happening. That is the exciting part of being on the bench.

Stay tuned for Part II of the interview, where the former judge tells us why artificial intelligence can never replace a judge and shares his thoughts on the art of judging and more.

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