Ashok Desai: The Public Interest Lawyer

Lawyer Career Story: Focus on Public Welfare

For those with an eye set on a career in Law, here is a career story of an eminent lawyer since the 1950s – Mr. Ashok Desai.

Mr. Ashok Desai completed his education from institutions in India and England. He remained in India for his schooling and the first degree post school. He attended the Ferguson College, Pune and the Government Law College, Mumbai. He graduated with a degree in Law in 1952. With Corporate Law as one of his core areas of work, he completed a degree in Economics from the London School of Economics.

Career Timeline

Mr. Desai’ work focused on public welfare and hence, public interest litigations (PILs) are the ones that his office takes up on behalf of the public in general. PILs are heard in the Supreme Court depending on the kind of significance the case has in terms of its impact of social welfare.

Starting his career in 1952, it was not until 1977 that his perseverance paid off and he became a Senior Advocate offering counsel to those seeking legal refuge in the Supreme Court of India. His ethical persona and concern for the man on the street got recognition from the Government with him being made the Attorney General from 9th July 1996 to 6 May 1998. Government’s confidence in him was further reflected in his position as a lawyer representing the Government receiving a fillip with him being further granted the Government office in the legal arena, a notch above the former, of that of the Solicitor General of India from 18th December 1989 to 2nd December 1990. This was during the V P Singh era. He was a Legal Correspondent for the Times of India from 1963 to 1969. Mr. Desai was a Professor of Law in the Law College, Bombay from 1964 and a Lecturer in Law in the Bombay College of Journalism from 1967-1972.


Mr. Ashok Desai’ stature in the Government establishment is reflected in the kind of positions occupied by him. The same also holds true when it comes to him being honoured with the Padma Bhushan award in 2001. He was felicitated with the Law Luminary Award in 2001. Listing more of the awards & felicitations, he was honoured with the ‘Doctor of Law (Honoris Causa)’ in recognition of his contribution to the field of law and jurisprudence by the North Orissa University on 14 September, 2009.

Taking the PILs

The Public Interest Litigations that he has been keenly associated with range from the censorship of plays to the title & pricing of Government land on transfer of ownership. One of his most prominent cases was that of cement being distributed by the Chief Minister to builders who make contributions to the Indira Gandhi Pratisthan. This being seen as a quid-pro-quo made for an obvious case of corruption to be probed.

The career story of Mr. Ashok Desai is thus meant to inspire those who see pro-bono charity as more a part and parcel of their profession rather than it being an attempt at building a false and pretentious image of a doer and a well-meaning social contributor.

You might like to read other eminent lawyer career stories – Harish Salve, Soli Sorabjee, Parasaran