Blog: Rajsoomer Lallah - In Presence of a Luminary’s Absence
Family and friends are mourning the passing away, at 79, from an accidental, yet grievous, spinal injury, of Rajsoomer Lallah, MA, QC, GOSK, former Chief Justice, (1993 - 95), Pro Chancellor and Chairman of Council, University of Mauritius (1977 - 80), Honorary Professor of Law at Reduit from 1980, Chairman of the Commission set up to review Legal Studies (1983), Chairman of the Council of Legal Education (1988 - 94); Chairman of various Commissions of Enquiry, besides membership of the London Court of International Arbitration from 1995, and holder of several other distinguished awards.
Following studies at the Royal College Curepipe, he read Jurisprudence as an Anderson Scholar at Balliol, Oxford (1954- 57), before proceeding to the Middle Temple, London, to become a Barrister-at-Law in 1958. After a brief stay essentially in private practice at the Mauritian bar, Soomer joined the State Law Office (1964 - 70) and also, notably, served at the Electoral Commissioners’ Office, as Mauritius steamed ahead towards independence in 1968.
After a spell as Special Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat (1970-75): where he provided legal advice on resource development, taxation, and on constitutional matters, as well as negotiations, for independence or with multinationals. Soomer returned to Mauritius to become Assistant Solicitor General (1976 - 78), Parliamentary Counsel (1978 - 80), Judge and then Senior Puisne Judge at the Supreme Court (1980 -93) and retired as Chief Justice in 1995.
Both at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Solicitor General’s Office in Mauritius, Rajsoomer Lallah was in constant demand for a whole array of advice concerning the needs of the Government and those of a growing number of parapublic agencies and enterprises, especially those with international connections with, say, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - thus, the Bank of Mauritius, the Central Electricity Board and Air Mauritius. He was among a rare group of Mauritians who played prominent roles therein, often continuing well after official retirement.
While serving as Pro Chancellor and Chairman of the University Council at Réduit, 1977-80, he made the case for the setting up of a School of Law at the High Powered Review Committee, December 1979 meant to cater for the medium and longer term, and chaired by Mr. B. Ghoorah, Secretary to the Cabinet.
More generally, he was to take on board two major potentially-debilitating crises during his tenure at Réduit. The first related to whether the University staff would be allowed to stand as candidates for the forthcoming general elections of 1976. ‘No!’, decided rather belatedly, the Council as employer, and ran straight into an ‘ultra-vires’ visitorial judgement by Mr. Justice (later Sir Victor) Glover, 1977: essentially, the Council had not consulted the Senate, the University’s main academic authority. Thereafter, with sound and fury fast abating, the Council extended those very political rights up to, and including, the 1982 and 1983 General Elections, only for those to be removed in the wake of Pay Research Bureau and the Chesworth Commission reports, 1987-89. Where matters now rest.
The second potential crisis related to student unrest, 1979, which led to the temporary closing down of the Réduit Campus, prior to a carefully calculated set of efforts to reopen the campus, without police presence. There were three interrelated questions necessitating swift answers.
Was the University of Mauritius worth saving at all?
Was the Vice-Chancellor empowered to close down the Reduit campus, even temporarily?
Should a Visitor be appointed to examine the closure, and reopening of the Reduit Campus? (In the event, Mr. (later Sir Marc) David, a distinguished lawyer, who had served previously on the Provisional Council at Réduit was appointed as Visitor and reparted in 1980).
In the background were more questions (and speculations), not least the contention that the Cabinet appeared in majority to be in favour of an outright permanent closure of the campus: who would want a ‘lingering death’? On the other hand, the (then) Prime Minister appeared to have opted to retain faith and trust with the University’s Act and Statutes, Senate and Council, Pro Chancellor and all.
In all of this, Rajsoomer Lallah, who had rushed back from a New York UN meeting, went about, cool, calm and decisive: a line-by-line, clause-by-clause examination of the University Act and Statutes, the Constitution of Mauritius, and of the ubiquitous Interpretation and General Clauses’ Act, decision - minutes of Council, Senate and School Boards, amongst others, all came into play. Then the answers thundered down: Yes!, Yes!, Yes! Not easily; not without passionate discussions, intensive cross examinations and lengthy phone calls. And, above all, - eventually - with enough hope for the future, within the Mauritius 2000 Framework (dubbed MAD 2000 by some campus cynics!) And, not least with the appointment by the Prime Minister in May 1979 of an Ad hoc Committee of Government and University Officials and of Student’s Union representatives to look into employment prospects of Réduit awardees; the committee being chaired by Mr. D. Heeralall, Establishment Secretary.
Picture to yourself, the recurrent scenery: moving deep into each possibility; checking as best you can, possibilities, then probabilities; down, ever down: you miss a few; never mind, there will be the return journey soon, touch the bottom; now move up, zoom on previous misses. Move up, up, up. Got it? No? Try again. Again. And again? Yes! But more also: no recrimination, no retaliation - in short, an honorable paix des braves! Enough to convince the Government as Paymaster General? Yes, at least in the immediate, for 2 or 3 years with swift cutbacks on courses and a gradual resumption of studies on the courses with a more assured future. Years later a Commonwealth Higher Education delegation was to insist on visiting the University of Mauritius to gather first-hand experience of ‘pruning-and-rebudding of new growths’, unusual in University contexts generally: another unsung prowess of the Réduit campus!
Away from there Soomer was to chair the Commission on the Review of Legal Studies, leading to academic studies at the Réduit campus, and of professional Legal Studies at the Council of Legal Education, initially under the aegis of the Supreme Court.
Of course, the latter itself has, inevitably, been a major focus of his professional attention, having to hear and, pronounce upon, a vast array of important cases, subject to appeal, at that Court or at the Privy Council - not to mention the heavy burden that the Office of Chief Justice itself entails.
In one of his historic judgements, he gave special meaning to the term ‘colourable device’. On the other hand, in his Commission of Enquiry report on Electoral Practices in connection with the 1982 General Elections, he went deep into the twilight zone twixt the duties and responsibilities of the State and those of political parties entrusted with the governance of the country: his outward journey to an overseas conference spent writing up his Commission report read one way - which he felt to be less than fair all round; he changed paradigm on the return journey to achieve more fairness. And the rest is history.
And yet for any individual to indulge in such paradigm-shifts is most uncommon - which you can discover by reading any text on the philosophy or history of science. Rajsoomer Lallah has had that rare knack of paradigm-shifting that few others have possessed.
One can almost hear the poet - philosopher - artist, Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931) here:
Oh seekers I am Truth, beseeching Truth;
And your Truth in seeking and receiving
And protecting me shall determine my
Now, in presence of his absence, we, friends and family, Country and Profession, slowly and painfully, attempting to gauge the extent of our loss, deprived by a quirk of fate, from the full extent of his ‘promises to keep’ à la Robert Frost (1874 - 1963), we wish and trust that such intellectual heritage be not allowed to simply wither away.
Si, - l’Oeuvre doit perdurer!