New Delhi: For the first time in his 15-year-long career in Delhi, he has had to close down his office and move back to live with his parents in his hometown in Andhra Pradesh, said a 42-year-old lawyer who has been practising in the Supreme Court and tribunals.
“The last one year has been difficult. Since the first lockdown was imposed on 25 March 2020, due to Covid-19, courts have been conducting virtual proceedings. This has brought down the number of cases listed for hearings, limiting work for lawyers,” said the advocate, speaking to ThePrint over phone.
Last year, he was still hopeful that the situation would improve, and remained in Delhi. But the second wave hit hard and without much work, his monthly earnings plummeted, forcing him to curtail his expenses.
Finally, as court hearings for what work he got remained virtual, he decided to close down his office to cut down on expenditures such as rent or paying the office peon. “It was a tough call, but I had to take it for the sake of my children, to make sure their education did not get disrupted. Their classes are online as well, so we moved back,” he said.
For more than a year now, the pace of work in courts across the country has slowed down owing to the Covid pandemic. And, it has severely affected moderately successful lawyers, such as this first-generation advocate.
All judicial fora, including tribunals, switched to digital hearings following the Covid-19 lockdown that was imposed on 25 March last year. Only urgent fresh matters, largely left to the discretion of court officials, were heard.
Even after the lockdown was withdrawn, initially, only one or two benches were taking up matters and the capacity gradually extended, while some high courts and district courts adopted a hybrid mode (a mix of physical and virtual) for hearings. However, resumption of normal hearing patterns, where 100 cases were listed in a day, never picked up.
The second wave of Covid now has left the lawyers in an even more distressed state, particularly those appearing in district courts.
“There was some hope when in January high courts and district courts resumed physical hearings, albeit in a restricted manner. More number of cases started getting listed,” said a lawyer, who has now gone back to Karnataka.
“However, with the second onslaught of Covid, the court functioning once again went back to as it was last year. Courts are now hearing only those cases that were filed in the year 2021, no other matter is being taken up,” said the lawyer, who did not wish to be identified.
Dependent on welfare schemes
Last week, a video showing lawyers waiting in queue to pick up their kit of dry ration – given by the Bar Council of Delhi – at a Delhi district court went viral. The lawyer who made the video could be heard pleading to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide some kind of aid to the legal fraternity.
The video breaks the perception about the legal profession being a financially rewarding career. “A handful of lawyers do make good earnings. They did so in pre-Covid times and continue to do so,” said a junior lawyer from Kerala, who has since the pandemic began been involved in research work for his senior, whenever the latter assigns some to him.
Delhi-based legal think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy released a study in May 2020, according to which advocates with experience of up to two years of legal practice earn less than Rs 10,000 a month. Lawyers revealed that their average monthly income in the first two years of practice could be between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000.
According to the Bar Council of India (BCI), the apex disciplinary and regulatory body for lawyers, there are 16 lakh lawyers enrolled with various state bar councils.
In a petition filed last year before the top court, the BCI claimed that a large number of these lawyers started practising law within the last 10 years and a significant number are first-generation advocates. The BCI petition has sought financial assistance for lawyers in the wake of the pandemic. However, a decision on the petition is still pending.
BCI co-chairman Ved Prakash Sharma told ThePrint that the regulatory body gave suggestions in writing to the solicitor general, after the matter was heard last in February this year. But it could not be placed before the court since the petition did not get listed.
On whether lawyers can take up any other profession (as an interim or part-time job), Sharma said the BCI does not approve of it. “The Advocate’s Act bars an advocate from doing any other work,” Sharma said.
Bar councils to the rescue
In the absence of any government aid, various state bar councils and bar associations have tapped into their resources to provide financial aid to lawyers, including extending help to meet medical expenses in case of Covid-19 infections.
However, the second Covid wave in the country has put additional burden on the councils as well.
The bar councils’ funds come from money that an advocate pays while enrolment. The second source of income for the councils is the advocates’ welfare stamp that is bought when a fresh case is filed in court. Owing to online hearings, the purchase of welfare stamps has been dispensed with for now.
Senior advocate Ramesh Gupta, chairman of the Bar Council of Delhi (BCD), which has provided dry ration kits to advocates who have enrolled with it, said the body has disbursed approximately Rs 14 crore since March 2020.
“The amount spent so far also includes one-time financial aid of Rs 5,000 given to the lawyers,” Gupta said. The dry ration kits being given this year is in addition to the financial support.
“So far we have distributed over 2,000 kits that were picked up by the lawyers personally from various district courts. Now we have started a portal where an advocate can register himself or herself [for aid]. Two thousand lawyers have registered themselves in the past two days and we will now deliver the kits to their homes,” said Gupta.
Besides, Gupta added, the council purchases oxygen concentrators and cylinders to make sure no member is made to run from pillar to post in case of an emergency.
Other state bar councils have also engaged in welfare measures.
Speaking to ThePrint, Bar Council of Punjab chairman Minderjit Singh Yadav said the body had disbursed close to Rs 2.56 crore to needy advocates and families of those who have died.
“We got some funds from the Punjab government last year as assistance. The second wave has been more devastating. In the past 25 days, we have already deposited Rs 71.3 lakh directly in the accounts of lawyers who asked for help,” Yadav added. The council has undertaken several measures to ensure lawyers get access to medical assistance at the right time.
Similarly, under its scheme, the UP Bar Council has also supported its members who have certificates of practice. “Bar councils are not cash-rich bodies. Whatever help we could give, we have been giving and will continue,” chairman Rohtash Agarwal said.
Over the past one year, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) has spent Rs 2 crore in aid of lawyers who sought financial assistance. The money was then raised through donations. “Even now, we have reached out to senior lawyers for their contribution and have raised Rs 1.5 crore. We know whatever we have provided may not be sufficient, but we will do our best to give them some respite,” said SCBA treasurer, Meenesh Kumar Dubey.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)