Inordinate delays in the turning of the wheels of justice – Memoirs

Inordinate delays in the turning of the wheels of justice – Memoirs

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Thakurdas Choithram Pagarani (08.06.1914 to 19.03.1992) has made substantial contribution to our lovely city of Indore. Choithram Hospital and Research Centre (a 500 bedded super specialty hospital of international standard), Choithram College of Nursing (providing training up to post graduation standard), Choithram Netralaya (a charitable eye hospital), Choithram School (a reputed public school probably the first in Indore with CBSE affiliation present strength : 3000 students), Tirathbai Kalachand Higher Secondary School with 1500 students affiliated to M.P. Board of Secondary Education, Choithram International School affiliated to the International Baccalaureate and a centre for Cambridge International Examinations, London are only six out of the sixteen institutions run at Indore by the trusts established by this great philanthropist. Unfortunately his great contribution to this city has eluded public recognition so far. The number of people acquainted with this name is meager less than 100 in the city. He was a real philanthropist and loved anonymity. All trusts and institutions established by him bore the name of his father Choithram with only first alphabet of his own name “T” prefixed.

This case related to the succession of his enormous estate spread over several countries and the claimants were fifteen. It is memorable for me for the lesson I learnt that if a person has progeny and property both in abundance, he is sure to leave a legacy of litigation. This case also illustrates the snail’s speed with which chariot of civil justice moves in Indian Courts and the swiftness with which Courts outside India function. It is memorable also for the unusual complexity of legal issues of private international law involved therein.

Thakurdas was a devout Hindu. He was married to Lalibai in India in 1928 and was blessed with six daughters from her. He owned a big residential house in Pagnispaga (29, Godha Colony), Indore. In 1937 he migrated to Sierra Leone (a small country in West Africa) and settled there. His wife Lalibai with her daughters continued living at Indore. The daughters were married subsequently in due course. He established a flourishing supermarket business in Sierra Leone and in several other countries. In 1944 he went through a ceremony of marriage with Virginia Harding at Sierra Leone. This union bore him seven children, three sons namely Mohan, Kishor and Lekhraj and four daughters. All these children were christened and brought up as Hindus. Till 1980 he remained in Sierra Leone and also enjoyed the honorary assignment of being consulate (Ambassador) of that country to India. He used to come to Indore frequently, at times with members of his Sierra Leone family and the relations between members of the two branches during his lifetime were apparently cordial.

The businesses carried on by Thakurdas were outstandingly successful and spread over widely throughout the world. They were usually named “T. Choithram and Sons” and were often known simply as “Choithrams”. In 1989 he gave corporate appearance to his ventures by forming four companies and distributed their share capital between himself, his sons and few other relations. Thakurdas throughout his life was outstandingly generous in his charitable giving. His gifts to charities amounted to many millions of US Dollars. He made large charities at several places in the world and set up a foundation “T. Choithram Foundation” to serve as an umbrella organization for those charities by executing a trust deed drafted by reputed solicitors of London and executed there on 17.02.1992.

Thakurdas has constructed a majestic residence for himself at Dubai and started residing there since 1980. On 8th March 1992 Thakurdas was admitted in ICU of Wellington Hospital at London and eventually expired there on 19.03.1992. This was the starting point of a fierce litigation between his seven Indian heirs and eight Sierra Leone heirs.

On 11th August 1992 his youngest son Lekhraj obtained letters of administration to the estate of deceased Thakurdas from the High Court of Sierra Leone. The Indian heirs moved an application for its revocation challenging the validity of marriage of Virginia with Thakurdas and asserting that she was a mistress and the seven children born to her from Thakurdas were all illegitimate. Both sides led oral and documentary evidence in support of their assertions. After trial Justice S.A. Ademosu of High Court of Sierra Leone by a judgment dated 13.10.1993 dismissed the application for revocation filed by Indian heirs and upheld the validity of Virginia’s marriage and legitimacy of her seven children. This judgment was not challenged further and attained finality. It is of outstanding quality in appreciation of evidence and elucidation of law both. It decided complex questions of domicile of deceased Thakurdas, the law applicable for succession to his estate and the validity of Virginia’s marriage. I feel that the Indian heirs committed a blunder in challenging the marriage of Virginia and legitimacy of her children without considering that it was not possible for them to lead any evidence to prove this and that law always favors legitimacy and frowns against bastardism. By raising this extravagant and baseless plea they permanently alienated judicial sympathy in all proceedings.

Two partition proceedings were started raising both these issues of validity of marriage and legitimacy of children and also challenging the validity and effect of trust deed dated 17.02.1992 in courts at Dubai also.

While these proceedings were pending, the Indian heirs moved an application for grant of letters of administration of the entire estate left behind by Late Thakurdas in the Court of District Judge, Indore along with an application for appointment of receiver as interim relief. The case was transferred to XIV A.D.J., Indore and was registered as Probate Case No. 1/1993.

Shri S.N. Kohli, Advocate represented the applicants (Indian heirs). I appeared for the Sierra Leone heirs along with Late Shri J.W. Mahajan, Late Shri R.P.C. Sanghi and Late Shri B.M. Masani Advocates. Shri Ashok Chitale (Senior Advocate) appeared for the interveners namely Choithram Foundation Trust and the companies incorporated by Thakurdas. Arguments went on for several days on the application for appointment of receiver. As the stakes involved were very high the Sierra Leone heirs had appointed a London based solicitor to monitor and coordinate all the proceedings going on in several courts. A lady barrister Mrs. Radia came to Indore from London twice with a keen desire to hear arguments in the case before the learned Additional District Judge. It was frustrated once on account of lawyer’s strike and again on another day on account of closure of court work pursuant to some obituary reference. On both the occasions she was frustration personified and presented an unforgettably terrible sight of agony. The case was a matter of amusement in the barroom and many lawyers aspired for appointment as receiver in this matter which was sure to provide an opportunity of free world tour. Eventually the A.D.J. passed an order directing all three contesting sides to submit a complete and detailed list of all movable and immovable assets left behind by Late Thakurdas which were in their possession.

This order was challenged by the intervener trust and companies in the High Court by a revision petition under Section 115 C.P.C. (C.R. No. 416/1994). In view of the complexity of the questions involved in the main application, admission and stay of further proceedings was not problematic. This revision petition was dismissed on 08.01.1997. The matter was then carried to Apex Court by SLP(civil) No. 9384/1997 by the interveners which was dismissed on 30.10.2000. During all this period the proceedings before A.D.J. remained stayed. The preparation of inventory of all the assets of the deceased spread over more than thirty countries including USA and UK was not an easy job and the matter was adjourned conveniently for all at the request of one party or the other even after 30.10.2000. Thus, in courts in India it took more than seven years to determine finally that as a first step towards disposal of interlocutory application for appointment of receiver all the assets left behind by the deceased should be inventoried.

As against this, the case instituted in Sierra Leone for revocation was finally decided by a Single Judge of Sierra Leone after full trial on 13.10.1993 within a year. The original proceedings pending in Dubai were disposed of in 1998. First appeals (153/1998 and 158/1998) preferred against this judgment were disposed of on 26.11.2000 directing partition amongst all the surviving claimants according to Shariat Law. This decision was challenged in appeal before Judicial Committee of Privy Council. It was disposed of within three days on 29.11.2000 by a Bench of Five Law Lords. They allowed the appeals and held that Thakurdas after making provision for his large progeny has validly executed a trust deed by virtue of which his entire estate after his death vested in surviving trustees of the trusts for the benefit of charities. As a consequence the claim of heirs for partition of the estate was dismissed. The Judgment is reported in 2001(2) All ER 492.

I recollect having been consulted by the clients regarding the efficacy of this Privy Council judgment as res-judicata in the proceedings pending before Indore Court. The progress made in these proceedings was dismal and I was thoroughly pessimist about their final outcome by last court of appeal in any foreseeable future. The possibility of execution of any decree outside the country looked remote. The parties were also tired of litigation in Indian Courts. They settled it. The proceedings at Indore came to an end as withdrawn.

All that ends well is very well. This is a case where delay led the parties to a practical and wise resolution of their dispute which was not possible through court proceedings in India during the lifetime of that generation of all the heirs of Thakurdas or of the team of the lawyers representing them. So far as the lawyers of Sierra Leone branch are concerned, I am the lone survivor. In India it would be day dreaming to contemplate final disposal of a partition dispute by preliminary and final decrees both (if contested up to last court of appeal), during the life span of one generation. At least I have not come across any such miraculous disposal. Nor I have heard of any other person having a progeny of thirteen children and making charities of such enormity.

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