Champion lawyer

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

The authors research on the Nortons of Madras, particularly Eardley Norton, is noteworthy.

THIS book, written in commemoration of the 150th year of the Madras High Court, provides a good history of the Bar and Bench and brief biographies of its more famous judges and lawyers. But the omission of M.K. Nambyar, who appeared for the Communist leader A.K. Gopalan in the Supreme Court in its first major case and propounded an argument that the court accepted only 27 years later, is inexplicable.

The author has taken great pains to trace rare books. Copious references and rare photographs add to the value of the work, which is considerable. The result is more satisfying than A Century Completed: The Madras High Court (18621962) by V.C. Gopalaratnam (Madras Law Journal Office, 1962) but for one difference. It had brief resumes titled Notable Cases.

The volume under review is far richer in other respects, especially its research on the distant past. Particularly noteworthy is the authors research on the Nortons of Madras. Eardley Norton was the most famous of them. India has forgotten this early member of the Indian National Congress and champion of civil liberties.

Eardley Norton was born in 1852. Educated in Brussels (Belgium) and Oxford (United Kingdom), he was called to the Bar in 1870. He began practising in Madras only in 1879, around the same time as his close friend R. Sadagopachariar. He had also practised in Calcutta. His forte was cross-examination, marshalling of facts and quick repartee. In 1927, Chief Justice Coutts Trotter said of him while unveiling his portrait in the High Court: No one could be in his company for ten minutes without realising that he was in the presence of a very remarkable man accomplished alike as a scholar, lawyer and, to honour Goldsmiths apt phrase, a citizen of the world. Of how many lawyers of today or of recent decades can one truthfully say that?

Eardley Nortons grandfather, Sir John David Norton (1841-42), was Judge of the old Supreme Court of Madras. His father, John Bruce Norton, was once Advocate-General of Madras (1863). Eardley was described in an obituary in The Times of London as undoubtedly the foremost English advocate in India (July 16, 1931). He wrote a column for The Hindu under the pseudonym Sentinel. The title of the column was Olla Podrida, an aromatic Spanish stew. Its trenchant comments were aimed at the high and mighty, especially the regimes yes-men. He distinguished himself as both trial and appellate lawyer, in civil as well as criminal cases. The reader will find a fund of information about him in the book.

I wish here to share with the reader some writings and an episode in a famous trial. His autobiography My Reminiscences deserves to be reprinted with a competent biography and detailed accounts of his more famous cases.

In January 1889, Eardley Norton published from his residence at 4, Theatre Road, Calcutta, An Open Letter to Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, the Viceroy. It was published by the Calcutta branch of the Bengal National League for free distribution. It ran into second edition. The address would suggest that he also had a house and chambers in Calcutta. For, it was written at Dunmore House, Madras, in December 1888.

Dufferin had at a dinner in Calcutta attacked the Congress and its founder Allan Octavian Hume. Nortons reply would have been envied by the master of political invective, Junics.

His Foreword to B.K. Boses book The Alipore Bomb Trial is noteworthy. He led for the prosecution. Aurobindo Ghose was defended by C.R. Das and was acquitted. His brother Barin Kumar received a savage sentence. Norton was attacked for accepting the brief. Not long after, he led C.R. Das in the defence of Nirmal Kanta Ray, who had killed a police inspector and another person. In 1919, Norton was prohibited from entering Punjab to take up the defence of political prisoners.

Norton wrote:

In the committing Magistrates Court Counsel for the Crown received his first letter threatening to blow him out of existence. When the Court rose I went up to the Dock and asked Barendra if he approved this promise for my extermination. He courteously informed me that there was no personal objection to myself but that I was an obstruction to justice from the point of view of the accused and that much as he would regret my disappearance he could not forbid it. Then thrusting aside my insignificance, for after all, as he reminded me, I was but small fry, a mere parasite, he ventured to predict that those behind the scenes would fly at higher game, a Commander-in-Chief and a Viceroy. I pointedly objected that Britons would no more consent to being intimidated than they would to being slaves, and that there was an indefinite number of noblemen to whom the position of a Viceroy and his emoluments would more than overcome the dread of assassination. Barendra assured me that the supply would in time prove insufficient to meet the demand. He spoke without heat, not as one directing murder but as a philosophic politician in mental touch and sympathy with the view of his countrymen

However misguided Barendra was, he was obviously honest and chivalrous. His holograph confession sought to take the whole blame to himself and to exonerate his colleagues. He declined to apply, though a European British subject by the accident of his birth, for a trial by jury before the High Court, and though he declined to make any admissions, he instructed his Counsel R.C. Bonerjee not to deny the writing or signature to the famous sweets letter on which his brother Arabindo was acquitted by mistake.

Laws Affecting the Rights and Liberties of the Indian People (1921) (Mohan Brothers, Calcutta; Rs.7.50) is a compilation of repressive legislation during the Raj. It was compiled by Akshaya K. Ghose, a barrister, with an Introduction by Eardley Norton.

Nortons Introduction was written at Temple Chambers, Calcutta, on April 15, 1921. Its contemporary relevance is not astonishing. Only we have little of the rigorous analysis or elegant censures of repressive laws.

His letter to R. Sadagopachariar from Kodaikanal on December 31, 1920, makes poignant reading. It described the falling standards in judicial courtesy. That was in 1920, nearly a century ago.

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