The Devil’s Dictionary (of Law)

First published at :

The times are dreary and before you stop reading, my dear reader, let me assure you, this is not another article on ‘Law of Force Majeure’. Trust me, I’d never do this to you and I’d never lie to you! We are friends. Also, this is not an introduction or an invitation to another webinar on ‘Tech and Law’. I know you’d stab me in the abdomen (and slowly turn the knife) if I did that. This is existential. It is the truth and you must read on. So, as I was telling you : the times are dreary. More so because we, as judges and lawyers get to see humanity mostly at its very worst. This can be rather unnerving and disillusioning; especially for a young lawyer working hard to practice the noble profession, with great idealism but at a stipend that is less-than-minimum-wage. As old as it makes me sound : this column is dedicated to you, my young underpaid-struggling-lawyer friend, and an ode to your indomitable spirit, and your enthusiasm to laugh (visibly) at the terrible PJs that sometimes pass-off as humour in our Courts. This is a dictionary that you couldn’t find in your college library. You couldn’t find it – not because I just wrote it but because it was officially outlawed by the ‘Let-not-the-young-lawyer-find-out-the-real-deal-about-the-profession’ society. But truth has a way of getting out, and since we are all dying anyway, without further ado, let me present to you : ‘The Devil’s Dictionary (of Law)’, written in the spirit of Ambrose Bierce’s profoundly amusing and honest satire: ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’.

Please note: Any resemblance to any lawyer, judge or institution, dead or alive, is purely co-incidental. No judges, lawyers or institutions were hurt in the writing of this piece.

Here goes:

Acquittal. Technically – an exoneration, but given the fact that, in India, the process itself is a punishment, it is a victory that is more devastating than defeat.

Adjudicating Authority: An authority set up under a special law to decide disputes. But for all practical purposes, an authority so over-burdened with work that it neither adjudicates nor has much authority. It is, for want of a better description, a victim of its own success. Also, a specialised court/tribunal providing a post-retirement employment opportunity, both for the forward-looking and the ones looking-forward.

Accomplice: A co-accused. Also, a future client, if you argue the case better than your co-counsels. Scratch that : Certainly your next client, if you simply make more noise than the other side or if you channel your inner Sunny Deol and pull out a Tareekh pe tareekh moment. (See-what-you-learnt-in-your-first-internship: ‘Clients like aggressive lawyering!’).

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Also, A for ‘Appreciation from the Judge in the open court’: Wow! Well done……Not really! What this really means, novice, is : ‘You are losing the case; better luck next time!’

Bail: A state of temporary release from jail only to be confined by one’s own possibilities in life.

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Bankruptcy: Something that will stay with you forever – as a lawyer: In the initial few years of practice – you will work hard to avoid it yourself, and, if you sail through (and not join family business) work harder to successfully procure it for your clients.

Biased: Something that you accuse the judge of, if he doesn’t share your world-view and ideology.


CPC: Cumbersome Procedure (in) Courts. Also, Civil Procedure Code. A tail on a dog; A tail so powerful that it has not only started wagging the dog but is now openly and unabashedly strangulating the dog. Procedure : 1. Substantial Justice: 0.

Confirmation Bias: A state of mind in which a young lawyer, raised on an unwholesome diet of Suits and Boston Legal, refuses to get over the romanticism of the profession, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Date: Difficult for a young struggling lawyer to get, both inside and outside the Court.

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Dasti: A copy of the order judicially directed to be supplied to the counsel/party, without them having to apply for a certified copy. Also, an order, the obtainment of which from the court master/staff- teaches the junior counsel valuable lessons in ingratiation, charm and small talk.

Ex-parte Order: An order as difficult to get as getting a PG in Delhi as a young struggling litigator.

Ex-parte Stay: as all discretionary orders, best sought right after breakfast or lunch, and when the judge has enough glucose in his blood-stream and is not suffering from decision fatigue. (PS : Offering the judge a chocolate bar before hearing may get you (dis)bar(ed). So – don’t try this at court!)

Fraud: An allegation frequently levelled, seldom proved. An enemy of ADR. If given a veneer of seriousness by clever drafting, a stratagem to make an ‘arbitrable dispute’ magically turn in-arbitrable, or, given the judicial delays, inarbitrable – at least for some time.

Fugitive: A creature who commonly owes his freedom to the investigating authority’s initial slumber and subsequent inability to make out a case for extradition.

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Garnishee: It’s a truth universally established:
An enemy of your enemy can be made a friend,
Fret not when a debtor can’t pay-
Court will have the debtor’s debtor attend….

Hostile Witness: Who says : crime doesn’t pay; it does, should you change sides.

Investigation (Criminal): Often an exercise in valuation of assets. An exercise through which an officer finds out the depth of the pocket of each of the stakeholders in a criminal case, and depending on the objective evidence of their assets, follow it up with a charge-sheet or a closure report, as the case may be.

Judicial Activism: To keep strengthening one arm and stop using the weak arm, till it atrophies away and dies, totally and irrevocably.

Kesavananda Bharati: A case that a lawyer quotes more often than any other case and still gets away without-ever reading in full.

Learned Friend: The epithet that you use to describe the lawyer on the opposite side, prior to the act of his total destruction by your sophisticated legal reasoning and oratory. Also, a term used to refer to one that you know for a fact to be neither learned, nor a friend, but, ‘kya karein, bolna padhta hai!’.

Leading Questions: Questions that demand ‘Yes!’ or ‘No!’ responses to Catch 22 (and-impossible-to-answer-in-yes-or-no) questions such as: “Have you stopped beating your husband?”

Minimum Wage: An amount that the young litigator tries to secure for his client, but possibly not for herself.

Moot Court: Something that one wishes one had done more of, in law-school, when one ends up calling the judge “Sir” or “Madam” on the first day in Court.

Necessary Party: A party that a young lawyer must necessarily have, in order to cope up with the stress of the profession and retain at least some semblance of sanity.

Obiter Dicta: Observations made by the judge because, well, he could!

Para-Wise Reply: A highly sophisticated exercise of taking everything in the plaint and pre-fixing it with “It is denied that….”

Proclaimed Offender: An accused who runs away, often taking the property of the complainant, and leaving the lawyer’s unpaid bills.

Quantum Meruit: Payment of an amount, which, though not contractually agreed upon, is commanded by the “merit and effort” of a person. A principle that a junior lawyer often invokes to ensure payment of just compensation for a client but pretty much never for herself. (See: ‘no-stipend-internships-because-well-working-with-me-is-honor-enough’ and other similar horror stories).

Review Petition: Another bite at the cherry. Also, something that you convince the client to pursue, if not for any other reason, but for the sheer pleasure of being able to say stuff like :“Melords, finality is good, but justice is better!” in the court and turn around and exit the court (real slow and stylish). All of this, though, in an over-optimistic attempt to get the judge to admit (on record!) that he was wrong the first time around. Good luck with that!

Registry (Court): Please write to the author if you figure this one out.

Senior Advocate: The reason that you didn’t go to engineering or med school and came to law school instead. The carrot part in the ‘carrot and stick’ of legal profession.

Transfer Application: An application filed seeking a change of bench/court on the ground of the inexcusable insistence of the judge to apply the law fairly and squarely.

Undertrial: Somebody who has kissed his rights and the constitution good-bye at the prison gates. Also, one with a bad case or a bad lawyer, or both.

Vagueness doctrine: A vague criminal law is usually open to a constitutional challenge and you may, provided you’re doing this on billable hours, safely advice your client(s) : what happens in vagueness, stays in vagueness.

Witness: A temporary-condition-of-being for a person about to give evidence in court, before being won-over (or run-over) by the opposite side. Also, a poor creature that you hammer – should you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having neither the law nor the facts on your side.

Witness Protection Programme in India: Error 404. Webpage not found!.

(e)Xception: Of a departure from the rule, just like this entry in the dictionary.

Y: “Your honour…..Hmm….Quick question?….. Am I winning?” Never ask the judge this. Ever!

Zombie Firm: A company/firm that is neither dead nor alive, which moves about with the help of the nourishing blood of subsidies, and one which is intent on biting the healthier companies too, and with it, the health of the sector. If you encounter any of these, dear reader, please contact the NCLT nearest to you or dial 911-IBC immediately!

The Author is a Partner at a leading law firm here in Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.

Bharat Chugh

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