Being a Public Prosecutor in India: The Realities

Being a law student interested in criminal justice, you must have considered public prosecution as one of the potential career paths. However, before actually following your passion, it’s always good to understand the ins and outs of that field and then make an informed decision.

Guiding your way:

Divyang Thakur

Public Prosecutor with the Government of NCT Delhi, he graduated from NALSAR in the year 2011 and has been practicing as a litigator since.

He is an aspiring systems thinker with a vast experience in conducting trials and directing police investigations

Fiction plays a huge role in painting a picture of any field of profession in a sugarcoated manner making it all charming and interesting, and it often becomes one of the reasons why a student decides to pursue a career path. So, talking on the same lines about a career as a public prosecutor, what is it really like to be one in India? Let’s find out.

Pursuing this career path: What is it like?

1. Fiction vs. Reality

The reality of life itself in comparison to fiction is quite grim. A career as a Public Prosecutor is no bed of roses, though there is a common perception that as they don’t have to answer to an angry client or worry about the amount of work, that Public Prosecutors have it easy. Again, it all depends on your own personal predilections.
It is also a thankless job. Lawyers often highlight their acquittals as a success; when a client gets bail, it is a cause for celebration. Their reputation in the market increases and monetary and professional progress often follows. I have secured convictions in more than hundred cases in the last 4 years but no one said “Good job”, even though meeting the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” is no small feat considering the state of our Investigation Agencies. It is not that I crave recognition, or that lawyers should not highlight their successes, I am just saying, if someone wants all that fame and recognition, then being a Public Prosecutor is not a good fit for them. If you want approval of your work from seniors, then this is really not the place for you. There are no big promotions or awards, no parties or get-togethers, no billion-dollar deals, no recognition of your work, period.

But personally, I find it very satisfying because I get to protect the constitutional values of life and liberty every day. I think working with the criminal justice system is an extremely important job because this system is the bedrock of modern civilization. Without this, you don’t have a functioning democratic state.
However, life as a Public Prosecutor will be extremely simple and monastic. Monetarily, you will have a stable income but nothing like what you get in corporations or litigation, though much better than what juniors get in the first 5-10 years in the profession on an average.
As for portrayals in fiction, they are mostly inaccurate and poorly researched, especially in Indian cinema. Either the prosecutor is a villain or a super detective; no shades of grey or nuance. However, I liked the portrayals in “When They See Us”, “American Crime Story: OJ Simpson Trial” and “Fracture”.

2. The Effect: Both Personal and Professional

As a lawyer you are not expected to keep the interests of the opposite party in mind at all times and your duty lies primarily to the Court and your client. As a Public Prosecutor, it is your primary duty to balance the interests of the accused, victim and the State. Moreover, the interest of the State is a notoriously difficult concept to grasp, but it exists and is the basis for the office of the Public Prosecutor. Being a Prosecutor, you learn to search for the nuances in the law that allow the Court to reach a just verdict keeping the above in mind.
Professionally, for lawyers looking to specialize in litigation and criminal law, there are few other places where you can get this kind of experience. The sheer volume of cases you get as a Public Prosecutor means that you have no option but to learn everything quickly. You must be skilled in arguments and court craft as you have to argue multiple matters on an everyday basis. You must be skilled in the law of evidence so that you can understand whether the evidence that is being led is admissible. You must be skilled in cross examination – which you end up doing multiple times in one day.

As a Prosecutor there have been days (pre-Corona!) where I have examined and cross examined more than 15 to 20 witnesses, argued multiple matters on charge and bail, and ended the day with final arguments in multiple cases along with other administrative work.
Contrary to popular perception, the work load is heavy and because of this even someone who was not previously well versed with trial court procedures becomes an expert provided they keep an open mind. Practice does make perfect.

Consider: Before pursuing this path

1. Whether you’ll like this path or not

If you have a passion for litigation and criminal law, and wish to build a career in the trial courts, have spent 3-5 years in litigation, then this might be a good option, as you can build your litigation skills while having a stable income and not have to bother about dealing with clients.
As I have noted, the volume and variety of criminal cases that you will get as a Public Prosecutor cannot be found anywhere else. However, it is important to realize that you will be working independently, there will be no “team” or “team work”. You will be faced with making multiple snap decisions throughout the day with nobody to tell you whether you are right or wrong. There will be no other junior to brief you. If you like being completely independent in your practice, then this could be the right fit. If you like working in a team then this is definitely not for you.

2. First Rule: Don’t shy away

In terms of qualities, a Public Prosecutor needs to be bold; respectful but not shying away from conflict with the Defence Counsel; he needs to be patient and to be able to take constant stress. As a Public Prosecutor you simply need great stamina. While the Defence counsels will attend to their matter and leave, a Prosecutor will be continuously engaging with the Court.
I have had the experience of appearing in as many as 70 matters in one day. While you are in Court, you simply cannot relax and lose your presence of mind for even one second. You cannot be overawed or intimidated by the many senior counsels that appear for the Defence. You must also be able to handle the misery and suffering of others by being sensitive to it but not losing your impartiality at the same time. You must not become so inured to suffering that you do not take the concerns of the victims and witnesses seriously.

3. Avoiding mistakes and retaining standards

Know the facts of the case inside and out. Don't make a submission out of thin air which you cannot subsequently defend. Always know the stage of the case and the purpose of the hearing even if you want to take an adjournment. Concede a fact gracefully where required so that you don't waste the time of the Court. Don't interrupt the judge and opposing counsel when they are speaking. If you don't know something, say so immediately.

In conclusion,

Don’t study the law just because you don’t wish to study engineering and medicine. Don’t pick a career track just because somebody told you that this is the trend. It might not backfire immediately but it will come back to haunt you in the long term.

Most importantly, be honest about your own motivations. Be honest with yourself. Even if you want to work as a Public Prosecutor, remember that the competition in these exams is quite tough nowadays, vacancies are few and far in-between, so you will have to be extremely thorough with the basics. Early preparation during law school, focus on judgments, and a good reference book is important.

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