The death of C. Padmanabha Reddy last month at the age of 83 marked the passing of probably one of the greatest criminal defense lawyers this country has ever produced. Article 22 of the Constitution mandates that every person who is arrested has a right to be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice. The word “of his choice” does not mean that the accused is entitled to any lawyer – he or she is only entitled to a lawyer who is available. Not for Mr Padmanabha Reddy, who believed that every accused has a right to be defended by a competent lawyer and poverty was no ground for denial of effective legal representation before a court of law. And that’s how he went about his life right from the time he entered the bar in the early fifties.
Padmanabha Reddy defended every person who was convicted or acquitted by a trial court, irrespective of his ability to afford a lawyer. He was the Abraham Lincoln of the bar. He provided legal aid much before legal aid became formally institutionalized in 1987. For over six decades, he was the de facto legal aid in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh. In the Bar, one would often hear anecdotes as to how many accused in prison got in touch with him after requesting the jailor to put them in touch with a competent lawyer, and the jailor would have no choice other than suggesting Padmanabha Reddy. Consequently, he commanded more than half the criminal defense work in the AP High Court. He would devote the same amount of energy to defend an indigent accused as he would for any other person. As a lawyer, I saw him scribbling on post cards the status of a case and mailing them himself in the post box at the end of the day in court. When quizzed about it, he would say that for the poor convicts in the jail, the appeal in the High Court is the only ray of hope and it is important to keep them updated about their case.
Rich, poor, Left, Right
Padmanabha Reddy’s services were used not just by the poor, but also by prominent politicians cutting across all parties and at one point of time he was defending communists and capitalists at the same time. The identity of the client never altered the amount of time and energy he would spend on a case. His only commitment was to the case and this is what drove him to attend court from 10.30am to 4.15pm punctually tending to each of his cases for over sixty years.
Padmanabha Reddy was never known to demand fees as a pre-requisite for taking up a case. Even for those who could afford him, he would never charge high fees. A junior advocate briefing him on a case would often find himself in a delicate position – the junior’s fee was higher than the senior’s fee! It reminded one of what a judge told Abraham Lincoln after hearing about his fee, “Lincoln, your picayune (petty) charges will impoverish the Bar.”
A friend of the Court
Adv. Reddy did not even let age come in the way of his zeal to represent the underprivileged in the Court. When his eye sight was faltering, he would ask in briefing sessions for the name of the trial judge and the nature of the case, and based on that information alone, he would be able to point out the mistakes usually committed by that trial judge while deciding those category of cases! He made up for his poor eyesight with his elephantine memory carefully built over six decades.
Padmanabha Reddy’s arguments in the Court were never flashy, and in his last days, it was sometimes difficult to hear him, but what one could never miss was his carefully constructed argument. The Courts often used his experience in the courtroom and this is demonstrated in the record number of appointments as amicus curiae (friend of the Court) in important criminal cases. The law reports bear testimony to his contribution for the development of criminal law jurisprudence.
For Padmanabha Reddy, who never used to preach to anyone about anything, his life itself was a message. In the theatre of law, his would be a hard act to follow.
(Vivek Reddy is an advocate practising in the Andhra Pradesh High Court; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)