Both have been involved in defending and pleading for various controversial causes like Arundhati Roy contempt case during the Narmada movement and also for their sympathetically taking on unpopular causes such as the demands of the tribals and Naxals.
They have also been in the news for the contempt case filed against them for alleging that "out of the last 16 to 17 Chief Justices, half have been corrupt"
While Shanti Bhushan is well-known as a former law minister in Morarji Desai's government, not much is publicly known about Prashant's work. To redress that, here is a bit of a backgrounder from three recent media profiles/interviews:
Pro Bono Work
From a December 2010 profile by Nagendar Sharma in the Hindustan Times
Both recent cases which had the UPA government on the edge — the 2G spectrum case and the appointment of the CVC — were taken up by Bhushan free of cost. "Lawyers shouldn't charge for appearing in public interest litigations. If they do so, it defeats the very purpose of public interest," he argues.
Before these two high-profile cases, the major issues highlighted by him include the demand for declaration of assets by judges and the successful bid to serve a notice for a motion in parliament to impeach controversial judge PD Dinakaran.
He appeared on behalf of right to information (RTI) activist SC Agrawal, first before the Central Information Commission and later in the Delhi High Court to ensure that the judiciary was covered under the RTI Act.
"Prashant Bhushan has been appearing for me right from the CIC to the Supreme Court for the last five years, I am still waiting for even the stationery bills, forget the rest," Agrawal said.
Being termed an activist-lawyer does not bother Prashant. "Go to any gathering of lawyers and the talk is only about luxury cars and holidays abroad. I find it superficial and suffocating."
The same is elaborated in a profile by Rashmee Roshan Lal in the TOI of April 10, 2011:
It is safe to say Bhushan has made a career out of public interest litigation (PIL) having self-confessedly taken up "about 500 cases over 15-16 years" that deal with 'good' causes (environment, corruption, the Bofors case, Narmada dam). He made a career but not a fortune because he doesn't charge for public interest cases, which he admits "take a long time, go on for a long time... more time than normal cases". Effectively, therefore, he admits to spending just 25% of his time on paying cases, charging 5% of what other lawyers charge and earning just "enough to take care of my office expenses at any rate".
Clearly, he is magnificently unworried about money. He lives in simple but great comfort with his former lawyer wife Deepa on one floor of his father's house in Noida. The oldest of four children of well known lawyer and Prime Minister Morarji Desai's law minister Shanti Bhushan, Prashant lives the dream described by American novelist Edith Wharton — the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it. This is the starting point of the difference in Bhushan's worldview and that of people he lumps together as "professional lawyers". Most of them, he says severely, "are amoral, morally vacuous and they're not bothered whether their client gets justice nor are they bothered whether their client's cause is just or not."
"The science fiction addict who once wrote a turgid novel of the genre" spoke to Mahesh Peri of Careers360 in a March 2011interview:
Education and career:
My career has been somewhat convoluted. I went to study Engineering at IIT-Madras but quit after one semester. Secondly, I was very homesick because I had a two-year-old sister to whom I was very attached at that time. I decided to do a two-year BSc programme with Philosophy, Economics and Political Science in Allahabad.
During 1974-76 Mrs. Gandhi’s election case was taking place. I attended the hearings both in Allahabad and the Supreme Court. Of course, I was only seeing a small part of Law because this was a high profile case. So I went to study Law and for next three years pursued it evenwhile informally continuing study of Philosophy and Physics. Since I still wanted to become a Philosopher, I applied and got admission with a scholarship in Princeton. I realised the kind of people in the field of academics even there were basically playing intellectual games without really improving anything. It had become a word game. And, I didn’t want to play that game. So, I decided to come back. I took my final exam after coming back. I enrolled in ’83 and became a lawyer.
Vandana Shiva came to me in 1983. She wanted somebody with an understanding of Science for her case. I took up that Doon valley mining case which was the first Public interest case I did. It was really an environmental case. Thereafter, I got interested in Human Rights. In ’84 the riots took place. I became a member of PUCL, took up those issues. Bhopal litigation was going on where the issue of compensation first came to the Supreme Court in 1988. I was approached by the Bhopal Mahila Sahayog Sanghathan and I took up that case.
My interest became very wide and varied. When any issue of Public interest arose, whether it pertained to civil liberty, human rights, corruption, environmental issues or socio-economic rights of the poor, I would willingly get involved. Also, Bofors deal was unraveling at that time. I started following that. I wrote a book about it which was published in 1990. Incidentally, I wrote a book about the Mrs. Gandhi’s corruption case.
On starting an institute in Palampur to educate young people on Public Policies:
The objective is to educate, motivate a new generation of young people to engage with issues of Public Policy, and try and steer public policy towards public interest. Today, public policies are being largely influenced and controlled by commercial, vested interests. Very few people are in a position to counter them. They have a direct vested interest. They have money also. Money stakes are involved so they employ professionals like Nira Radia to do that, steering public policy in their interest. It is important to have a cadre of young people who understand public issues.
Advice to Law students
Do not look at Law as a means for making money. Look at law as an instrument for securing justice to people. Engage in issues of public interest. One of the great things of being a public interest lawyer is that you come to learn about a large number of important public issues from the persons who are experts in the field on a one-to-one basis, something you could never do otherwise. It’s a very rich and rewarding experience.