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Supreme Court judge steps out of RIL-RNRL gas case

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Daughter with firm advising RIL; Bench reconstituted, fresh hearings to begin.

Controversy in the court case between the Ambani brothers over gas pricing ratcheted up a notch today with Justice R V Raveendran dramatically recusing himself from hearing the case, saying his daughter was associated with a solicitors’ firm called that was advising the group on other global projects. The incident caused opposing counsels to trade charges over the incident.

Group (ADAG) counsel suggested that the Mukesh Ambani-controlled company had pressured the judge owing to “inconvenient questions” he was asking. “RIL was aware that a lawyer from the same firm AZB & Partners was not only attending the hearings but was also advising RIL in some matters. It was their plain duty to disclose this before the hearing,” Jethmalani said in a lengthy statement.

In reply, RIL counsel Harish Salve said Jethmalani's comments were an attempt to create a new controversy to derail the case. "Justice Raveendran is one of our most respected judges and appearing before him has been and will be a pleasure. Questions always bring the best out of me; it is far from being inconvenient, rather it is very helpful," he said.

Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Meanwhile, Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan nominated Justice B Sudershan Reddy to replace Justice Raveendran. According to court practice, the new three-judge bench will have to hear the case from the start. The hearing will resume on Thursday and then again next Tuesday, after a four-day break.

Justice Raveendran said he learnt of his daughter’s association “only yesterday” and that his daughter has been associated with ABZ Partners since September 1 this year.

The high-voltage case between RIL and Anil Ambani’s Ltd (RNRL) is over the pricing of gas from Krishna-Godavari basin on India's east coast. RNRL is seeking gas from RIL at rates 44 per cent lower than government-approved price. RIL says it cannot honour the commitment made in the 2005 family agreement due to the government's pricing and gas policies.

Mukesh Ambani Justice Raveendran was nominated by the Chief Justice who was earlier hearing the case along with Justice Sathasivam. On the opening day, the Chief Justice declared that the case should be heard by a larger three-judge bench in view of the wide ramifications of the issues involved after which Justice Raveendran was inducted.

But when the hearing started two weeks ago, Justice Raveendran declared that he had shares in companies owned by both the brothers in equal numbers. Counsel did not protest and they expressed confidence in his fairness. “My conscience is clear and I feel that justice should not only be done but seems to be done. That is the tradition of this court,” Justice Raveendran said.

“I am sorry that six days of valuable time of this court has been wasted,” Justice Raveendran said, adding, “I wish that somebody should have brought to our notice earlier about my daughter’s association with the firm.” “Till now only RIL was advancing the arguments and RNRL has not started. So it is not late to dissociate myself from hearing the matter,” he said

In a statement, Reliance Industries Limited said it was "neither aware nor AZB 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 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."

RNRL counsel Ram Jethmalani, however, made a stronger statement. The statement read: “On Friday during the course of conference with my clients and lawyers I was informed by one of them that RIL had been in touch with the press and asking them to be present in the court on Wednesday because there is going to be a sensational development.

We were wondering what it would be. We never imagined that what would happen is the recusal of one of our excellent judges from the bench hearing our matter. I have a strong conviction that RIL had been upset with the newspapers reporting that Justice Raveendran was asking some inconvenient questions not to the liking of RIL, that is when they decided to find a reason for making the judge recuse himself. My conviction is strengthened by the [fact that] the counsel for RIL and the government [made] no effort to persuade the learned judge to change his mind. RIL was aware that a lawyer from the same firm AZB & Partners was not only attending the hearings but was also advising RIL in some matters. It was their plain duty to disclose this before the hearing.

The Mukesh Ambani side had argued six days from October 20. Today Salve was ready to start the third week of his arguments, but the surprise recusal of Justice Raveendran has upset the schedule. Salve has now the burden of arguing all the sophisticated nano points again. There are hidden costs to the public as well.

Earlier, the hearing was speculated to end by the third of week of this month. Now counsels will be racing against time to finish their arguments before the second week of December. Otherwise the long year-end vacation will interrupt the continuous hearing.

There are five appeals against a judgment directing Mukesh Ambani controlled Reliance Industries Ltd to supply gas from the KG basin at a subsidised rate to Anil Ambani’s RNRL. They include the new one by the central government claiming that gas is national property and cannot be shared in a family arrangement.

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