He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991), Padma Vibhushan (2007) and Gruber Prize for Justice (2002) and has remained nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament of India for a term (1999–2005).
Born in 1929 in Rangoon to Parsi parents Sam Bariyamji Nariman and Banoo Nariman, Fali did his schooling from Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. Thereafter he studied B.A. (Hon.), in Economics and History from St. Xavier's College, Bombay (now Mumbai), followed by a Law degree (LL.B.) from the Government Law College, Mumbai in, 1950, after standing first in the Advocate's Examination and been awarded the Kinlock Forbes Gold Medal and Prize for Roman Law & Jurisprudence. His father initially wanted him to write the Indian Civil Service Examination. Since he could not afford it at that time, he chose law as his last option.
Nariman started his law practice at the Bombay High Court. After practicing for 22 years, he was appointed a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India in 1971, a position he retains to date. He said that "My senior's senior, Jamsetjee Kanga was my mentor. He was like a father figure to me. He died at 93 and he is the one who, at the age of 92, told me that he was still learning. He had a tremendous memory and so does my son Rohinton. He was an Ordained Priest and so is Rohinton."
Nariman was instrumental to the development of the Indian Constitution's Law. Nariman was Additional Solicitor General of India from May 1972 to 25 June 1975, resigning from that post upon the Declaration of Emergency on 26 June 1975.
Nariman argued in favour of Dow chemicals (owned by Union carbide) in the infamous Bhopal gas disaster case, which he admitted as a mistake in recent times. He was instrumental in getting a deal between victims and the company outside court, which offered an amount of $470 million to the victims. He also argued in the famous case of the Supreme Court AoR Association, in which the Supreme Court took over the appointment of judges in the Higher Judiciary. He also appeared in many important cases like Golak Nath, S.P. Gupta, T.M.A. Pai Foundation, etc.
Nariman is the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (in 2007) and Padma Bhushan (in 1991), respectively the second and third highest honors granted to civilians by the President of India. Both awards were for Nariman's contributions to jurisprudence and public affairs. Nariman was awarded the Gruber Prize for Justice in 2002. He dedicated his awards to his alma mater Bishop Cotton School in Shimla.
Nariman was a President-appointee member of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Parliament of India) between 1999 and 2005. He has served as President of International Council for Commercial Arbitration since 1994, President of the Bar Association of India since 1991, Vice-Chairman of the Internal Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce since 1989, honorary member of the International Commission of Jurists since 1988, member of the London Court of International Arbitration since 1988. He was appointed to the Advisory Board of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in November 1999, and served as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists from 1995 to 1997.
He represented the Gujarat Government in the matter of the Narmada rehabilitation but resigned shortly after attacks on Christians in the area and the burning of copies of the Bible.
In December 2009 the Committee on Judicial Accountability stated that it considered that recommendations for judicial appointments should only be made after a public debate, including review by members of the bar of the affected high courts. This statement was made in relation to controversy about the appointments of justices C. K. Prasad and P. D. Dinakaran. The statement was signed by Ram Jethmalani, Shanti Bhushan, Fali Sam Nariman, Anil B. Divan, Kamini Jaiswal and Prashant Bhushan.
On 17.10.2014, he appeared for the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalitha in a conviction and obtained bail for her, which was earlier rejected.
Nariman is married to Bapsi F. Nariman, since 1955, and the couple have two children, a son and a daughter and live in Colaba, Mumbai. His son Rohinton Nariman is a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court of India, who earlier held the post of the Solicitor General of India from 2011 to 2013.
The Vis Moot East's Fali Nariman Award for 'Best Respondent's Memorandum' is named after Nariman.
Nariman's autobiography is called "Before Memory Fades".