(This tribute appeared in the Indian Express on 27 July 2010)
When Atul Setalvad passed away last week, the legal fraternity, particularly the Bombay High Court Bar, lost a giant whose contribution to the law was immense. An extraordinarily industrious worker, Setalvad contributed to the profession in manifold ways, spurning the limelight and fanfare that today appear an essential part of a successful litigator’s accoutrements.
Setalvad built on a matchless legal pedigree and enriched the traditions of the bar as a top-flight lawyer, a concise advocate and a contributor to legal scholarship that few of his peers were able to match. The path he trod and the example he set, harked back to an earlier time when his grandfather Chimanlal Setalvad and his father Motilal ploughed their own deep furrows on the landscape of the law.
Drawing on a rich vein of traditions imbibed from the chambers of Homi Seervai, the constitutional expert, Atul Setalvad rose to become, in the early ’80s, the most sought after senior advocate in the fields of administrative law, indirect taxation and wherever government action required checking by recourse to the writ jurisdiction of our high courts.
Long before environmental litigation was fashionable, Setalvad led a band of energetic young lawyers who rendered free services to the Bombay Environmental Action Group in the formative years of public interest litigation. He helped set essential benchmarks for the healthy growth of PILs: a case was never accepted unless both the cause and the person espousing it were genuine; no fees were ever charged in a PIL; once accepted, the PIL brief was invariably given a higher priority than paid briefs, lest it be said that the pro bono work suffered at the hands of a commercial assignment. Happily, many of the junior lawyers raised in the Setalvad stable and who worked with him continue this tradition in a metropolis that has few friends willing to strike a blow for orderly development.
For a lawyer who battled mostly against government, he rendered great service to the state as well. He was the lead lawyer for the custodian in the wake of the Harshad Mehta scam and built a formidable team of counsel that matched in skill and tenacity their better rewarded counterparts who appeared for an assortment of scam-tainted individuals, corporates and banks. Earlier, he led a team of advocates for the appropriate authority under the Income Tax Act and helped diminish the massive black money component that had long sullied property deals in Mumbai.
For a junior lawyer, assisting Setalvad was a delight. He treated you as an equal, acknowledging graciously the contribution made, cleaning up with his fountain pen the clutter in a verbose draft and finally projecting the client’s case in court with dazzling precision. His economy of words and refusal to repeat an argument were premised on a rare regard for the ability of the judge.
Recently, Atul Setalvad revived his interest in legal writing. Early in his career, after earning a doctorate that never prefixed his name, he edited Mulla’s Stamp Act and Mulla’s other classic on the transfer of property. In the past decade, Setalvad wrote with characteristic polish an elegant introduction to law and textbooks on conflict of laws and the sale of goods. He wrote the authoritative volume on contract law in the Halsbury’s Laws of India series. The sheer breadth of Setalvad’s scholarship and his contribution to legal literature put him in a select league of practitioner-scholars who excelled at both pursuits. Reading these texts, in their fluent style, is like sitting across the table and conversing with the master.
Atul Setalvad was a lawyer’s lawyer, pursuing his craft with an exemplary commitment to ethical values and showing by example that success in the field of law can be attained without compromise.