New Delhi: The legal battle between the Ambani brothers in the Supreme Court may end up lasting longer than initially expected, with one of the three judges hearing the case recusing himself from it.
On Wednesday, in a sudden and unexpected development, justice R.V. Raveendran stepped down, citing possible conflict of interest because his daughter works with law firm AZB and Partners, which works with the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) on issues related to global acquisitions.
Raveendran’s move means the hearings will start afresh from Thursday. He has been replaced in the three-judge bench by justice B. Sudershan Reddy. The other two judges on the bench are Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and justice P. Sathasivam.
A senior Supreme Court lawyer decried the waste of time.
“It is a criminal waste of time. I wish the judge had recused himself from the matter in the beginning itself,” said Prashant Bhushan, advocate, Supreme Court of India. India’s legal system is choked with cases, with an estimated 52,592 waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court and another 4,017,956 in the various high courts across the country.
Raveendran, who had earlier offered to step down from the case because he holds shares in RIL as well as Reliance Natural Resources Ltd (RNRL), the company with which the former is fighting the case, said his daughter has been associated with AZB’s Bangalore office since 1 September and that he came to know of the firm’s association with RIL only on Tuesday.
RIL and RNRL, the latter controlled by Mukesh Ambani’s estranged younger brother Anil Ambani, are fighting a legal battle over the supply of gas from the former’s D6 block in the Krishna-Godavari basin to the latter.
While RNRL has sought the apex court’s intervention in a special leave petition for immediate supply of 28 million standard cu. m a day of gas at $2.34 (Rs110.21) per million British thermal unit for a period of 17 years, RIL has opposed this, saying the price is 44% lower than that mandated by the government and that it cannot supply gas at a price not approved by the government and to a user not listed in its gas utilization policy.
This is the second reconstitution of the Supreme Court bench hearing the case. On 9 October, the apex court’s case list showed justice B.S. Chauhan as part of the bench. However, when the actual trial began on 20 October, it was Raveendran who sat on the bench.
“I know my conscience is clear. But justice should not only be done, but also seen to be done for upholding the respect and dignity of the institution,” Raveendran said on Wednesday. “I wish somebody would have brought it (AZB’s association with RIL) to my notice earlier.”
RNRL counsel Ram Jethmalani, who sought to convince the judge to stay on the bench, saw a conspiracy in the move. He claimed that last week, “in the course of a conversation with my clients and lawyers, I was informed by one of them that RIL had” asked the press “to be present in the court on Wednesday because there is going to be a sensational development”.
Terming Raveendran an “excellent judge”, Jethmalani said he was convinced that “RIL had been upset with newspapers reporting that justice Raveendran was asking some inconvenient questions” that weren’t “to the liking of RIL” and that this could be when the company “decided to find a reason to make the judge recuse himself”.
“My conviction is strengthened by the two counsel for RIL and the ministry making no effort to persuade the learned judge to change his mind. RIL was aware that a lawyer from the same firm AZB and Partners was not only attending the hearings, but also advising RIL in some matters,” Jethmalani added.
RIL counsel Harish Salve downplayed the allegations. He said AZB had erred in not informing “us that Raveendran’s daughter is working on RIL projects”. Salve added that the firm would have informed the court had it known of this earlier. He also said that by stepping down, Raveendran was only following the established precedent of a judge stepping down in case of a conflict of interest.
“Reliance Industries Limited was neither aware nor AZB and Partners informed us that Honourable Justice Raveendran’s daughter is associated with the Bangalore office of AZB. This fact came as a surprise to our senior counsel and us. AZB and Partners, who have been advising us from time to time, should have informed us of this fact and RIL regrets that six working days of the Honourable Court were lost,” RIL said in a statement.
AZB’s Bangalore office confirmed that Raveendran’s daughter Sunitha Rajesh had joined AZB as a partner on 1 September as a part of a merger between the firm and Anup Shah’s Bangalore-based law firm. The law firm, however, declined comment on the issue.