Harjas Singh Chhabra is an Independent Practitioner from Madhya Pradesh. He completed his BSL LLB from DES Law College, Pune University and has been practicing as an Advocate for the last 10 years. He has been the Standing Counsel for the Economic Offence Wing of Madhya Pradesh before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh.
Since his college days, he has harboured a keen inclination towards Criminal Law and as an Advocate, he has had the distinction of representing the State Government of Madhya Pradesh in many notable matters. He recalls one of his memorable cases as one where the issue involved adjudicating on whether the State Government has the power to invoke the National Security Act (NSA) against an individual charged under the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) 2006 for selling adulterated food. The question challenges the previously held view that NSA cannot be invoked with respect to charges under FSSA, 2006 and is currently pending adjudication before a larger bench.
He has also had the opportunity to appear as an Amicus Curiae before the Hon’ble High Court of Madhya Pradesh in a matter having important consequences for the occupational safety of industrial labourers working in Coal Fired Thermal Power Plants in Madhya Pradesh.
Speaking from his wide experience in Criminal Law, Harjas believes that it is important for lawyers today to be curious about the world around them and incorporate learnings from diverse fields into their legal practice to be a better lawyer.
In this interview with Legal Bites, Harjas Singh Chhabra shares his views on our queries.
Legal Bites: Sir, you pursued BSL LLB from Pune University and have over 10 years of experience as an Advocate. We understand that you are currently practicing independently before the Madhya Pradesh High Court and have also been Standing Counsel for the Economic Offences Wing (EOW), Madhya Pradesh before the Madhya Pradesh High Court. What caused your inclination towards this specific field of Economic Offences over any other area in the field of law?
Mr. Harjas Singh: I remember during my college days Professor H.P Deshmukh used to teach us the Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Penal Code. He was a man of great repute and I vividly remember students of different colleges coming over to listen to his lectures. He had his own style of teaching and making the students understand the nitty-gritty of the criminal side of the law. It is at that time I realized that I am more inclined towards criminal law. The Economic Offence side being a field within criminal law was more of a happenstance where with time as I got cases, I developed the inclination towards it.
Legal Bites: The past decade has seen a rise in the economic offences committed in India. Owners of giant companies have siphoned off billions from this country and have fled. They have been still been living luxuriously abroad. Do you think there is a need for a change in the laws related to this illicit act?
Mr. Harjas Singh: If we look at the figures then as per the Ministry of External Affairs, India has Extradition treaties with 43 countries which are binding between the two countries and Extradition Arrangements with 11 countries, in which party countries agree to assist mutually in legal procedures though these arrangements are non-binding in nature. So, the first way forward according to me is that India needs to enter into Extradition treaties with as many countries as it can. Notably, if we see the number of Extradition treaties that other counties have entered into, for instance, the United States of America, which has around 100 extradition treaties, then we are surely laggards with only 43.
Further, the foremost reason why these fugitives move abroad and live a luxurious life is the fact that they are aware of the manner in which the whole extradition process is designed and the slow pace at which it proceeds.
One way by which the whole process can be expedited is to have a dedicated wing that specializes in complying with the extradition treaties and is also acquainted with the laws of the treaty country.
Recently, the Legislature came up with a new piece of legislation titled “Fugitive Economic Offenders Act 2018”. This act addresses the primary concern of offenders evading the process of law with its stringent sections, such as sections relating to Attachment of Property, Powers to search and seizure, and once a person is declared a fugitive economic offender then the Special Court can direct for the confiscation of property. Hence, with the advent of the Act of 2018, the Government has taken a positive step that does address the need of the hour, but what remains to be seen is its execution.
Legal Bites: Sir, the case of Prashant Bhushan related to the contempt of court has been a matter of much debate lately. While some defended the statements of Bhushan as mere criticism of the judiciary, others took it as a statement that maligns the image of the apex body. Do you think there is a necessity for the court to define certain rules or guidelines pertaining to the discussion of such issues on a public forum?
Mr. Harjas Singh: In my opinion, the more codified and explanatory a law is there are lesser chances of its misuse. But we must bear one thing in mind that if we read the definition of “criminal contempt” as contained in the “Contempt of Courts Act 1971”, it is couched with words that give it a very wide interpretation. Interpretation of such words in the Act cannot be put in a straitjacket formula by formulating Rules and thus their interpretation shall always be open to different elucidation.
Having said that, the guidelines that the Honorable Supreme Court laid in the case of “In Re S. Mulgaokar” are quite exhaustive and aptly balances the right of free speech and public criticism vis-à-vis actions which may amount to scandalizing the court. These guidelines lay down broad contours regarding when the Court should exercise its powers under Contempt of Court.
Legal Bites: Sir, you have represented the government of Madhya Pradesh in legal proceedings and are undoubtedly the best at what you do. But has there been a case that has been very challenging and enriching for you?
Mr. Harjas Singh: If I have to mention a particular case, then it will be a case that was registered by the Economic Office Wing (EOW), Madhya Pradesh where I was appearing for the investigating agency before the Hon’ble High Court. However, since the case is still sub-judice and the accused persons are being tried before the Trial Court, thus without mentioning the details of the case, I will mention the broad issues, which were before the Court.
The case related to interpreting certain provisions of the Information and Technology Act. The case had its own challenges as the accused persons while committing the crime had allegedly used the Virtual Private Network (VPN) of an organization in an unauthorized manner, furthermore, the case also dealt with the alleged use of Digital Signature Certificate to manipulate documents and its interplay with the definition of “forgery”.
It was a steep learning curve in terms of learning about the nuances of these technologies and the complexity of economic offence when it has undertones of cybercrime. Given the realities of the digital age, cyber crimes are going to become more rampant which will have a perennial effect on economic offences and thus we need to be more equipped to understand how to nip them in the bud.
Legal Bites: What advice would you like to give to the budding lawyers of our country?
Mr. Harjas Singh: I would advise them to just keep reading. Law these days is not merely about knowing the latest judgments but about having knowledge of other fields.
Another important advice is to always be attentive. You may be sitting in a courtroom waiting for your matter but there a lot that one can learn while waiting. One should always be watchful and listen to how a Senior Counsel is presenting herself/himself before the Court, for instance, the way they address the court, the way they tilt the judges in their favour, to mention a few. To no stretch of the imagination, I mean that a young lawyer should imitate them, but it’s more about learning court craft and how to conduct the affairs of a court.
During our nascent years as lawyers, we are sometimes emotional about our cases and we may react in a particular way that may not go down well with a judge. We just need to control our emotions while in the courtroom and learn to respect the judgment passed by the Court even if we do not subscribe to that view.
Legal Bites: Thank you so much for talking to us.