New Delhi: K. Uthamakumaram found himself in the headlines last month when it was reported that the out-of-work Chennai lawyer was forced to weave baskets for a living.
Earlier this month, Sapan Kumar Pal sold vegetables outside the Orissa High Court as a mark of protest after the state bar council allegedly delayed the release of promised financial assistance to lockdown-hit advocates.
The pandemic and the consequent lockdown have left several lawyers grasping at straws. Since the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in India on 25 March, courts across the country have only been taking up ‘urgent’ matters. What amounts to urgency is largely left to the discretion of court officials.
Initially, only one or two benches were taking up matters through video conferencing, but this capacity is gradually being extended. However, the resumption of normal hearing patterns, which used to see up to 100 cases listed within one day, seems unlikely in the near future.
This lull has come with a heavy price for junior lawyers, who used to depend on everyday hearings for their income.
Several state bar councils have come to the aid of these lawyers by assuring them of financial assistance. They are eyeing other relief measures too — from discussions on approaching the Supreme Court for funds from PM CARES and the Contingency Fund of India (for disaster-relayed or sudden expenses), to changing longstanding rules that bar lawyers from advertising their services.
Junior lawyers earn less than Rs 10,000/month: Survey
The legal profession is generally viewed as a financially rewarding career, with many lawyers known to earn lakhs, even crores, per day. But most lawyers earn a modest income in the early days of their career.
A study by the New Delhi-based legal think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, released in May, found that, according to 79 per cent of 2,800 lawyers surveyed at eight high courts, advocates with up to two years of legal practice earn less than Rs 10,000 a month.
Eighty per cent of the Delhi High Court lawyers surveyed said the average monthly income in the first two years of practice could be between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000.
According to a Bar Council of India (BCI) submission in the Supreme Court to seek financial assistance for lawyers earlier this month, there are around 16 lakh advocates enrolled with different state bar councils. A large number of these lawyers, the BCI said, started practising law within the last 10 years and a significant number are first-generation advocates.
“These advocates are solely dependent on the regular, though meagre, income they earn from appearing in different courts and various tribunals as well as before the quasi-judicial authorities,” the BCI said, claiming that a significant section of lawyers has “no real savings to fall back on”.
Time to look for other jobs?
Rule 49 of the Bar Council of India Rules for legal practice bars advocates from being a “full-time salaried employee of any person, government, firm, corporation or concern, so long as he continues to practise”.
Any professional or other misconduct can lead to disciplinary proceedings against lawyers and punishment ranging from reprimand to suspension and removal from the rolls.
But Rule 52 adds that a lawyer can accept part-time employment after seeking consent from the state bar council. The only condition is that “the nature of the employment does not conflict with his professional work and is not inconsistent with the dignity of the profession”.
“This rule shall be subject to such directives if any as may be issued by the Bar Council India from time to time,” the rule adds.
Accordingly, on 21 June, the Gujarat High Court Bar Council passed a resolution to allow “needy advocates to accept part-time other employment till 31st December, 2020”. This, it added, should be done while maintaining “the decorum of our noble profession”. The nature of the employment, it said, “should not conflict with professional work”.
The council has sought the BCI’s approval on the resolution, but the latter has not responded to the request yet.
‘Funds from PM CARES, Contingency fund of India’
The Bar Council of Delhi has written to PM Modi, demanding an allocation of Rs 500 crore from the Contingency Fund of India as well as PM CARES “to mitigate their hardships”.
In a letter to the PM on 10 July, the council has said that “the condition of advocates has been worsening day by day forcing them to find even basic requirements being unmet”.
It then refers to Article 267 of the Constitution, which allows the Parliament and state legislatures to establish a contingency fund in order to meet “unforeseen expenditure”.
“We find from media reports that Rs 8,000/- crore is lying in this account for the central government, which can be unlimitedly increased by the government at its options for utilisation for Covid relief,” it says.
The letter also refers to “information available on the internet” that suggests PM CARES has over Rs 9,677.9 crore.
Seeking Rs 500 crore, it adds, “The grant of relief will go a long way in mitigating hardships of the advocates enrolled with Bar Council of Delhi.”
Sources told ThePrint that the chairmen of various state bar councils are discussing the possibility of approaching the Supreme Court and the central government to seek funds from the Contingency Fund of India.
‘How long can you live on Rs 5,000?’
Meanwhile, several state bar councils have tapped their coffers to help out-of-work lawyers.
Gujarat Bar Council chairman C.K. Patel said the body had disbursed approximately Rs 5.5 crore to 11,000 lawyers, or Rs 5,000 for each lawyer. This fund, he explained, contained money received from applicants registering with the council.
“Between 2006 and 2012, new lawyers had to pay Rs 500 for registering. This was increased to Rs 1,000 in 2012… This amount, in total since 2006, was more than Rs 4.5 crore. I took another Rs 1 crore loan from the bank,” Patel added. “But how long can you live on Rs 5000?” he asked.
Delhi Bar Council chairman K.C. Mittal said they had released Rs 8 crore to 1,600 lawyers, besides providing financial support to advocates and family members suffering from Covid-19. Additionally, the council has decided to pay families a compensation of Rs 1 lakh in case a lawyer dies due to infection.
Similar funds have been created by several bar councils across the country, including Karnataka State Bar Council, Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and Bar Council of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh & Sikkim.
The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) decided in April to give loans of up to Rs 25,000 to member lawyers facing difficulties on account of the coronavirus pandemic. This money was to be drawn from the fines imposed on litigants by the Supreme Court.
Additionally, the SCBA also offered an ex-gratia amount of Rs 20,000 per lawyer from a Rs 96 lakh fund created through voluntary donations by members.
While several senior lawyers have since been criticised for their alleged reluctance to donate, a few did loosen their purse strings. For instance, senior advocate and SCBA president Dushyant Dave has donated Rs 25 lakh, former additional solicitor general P.S. Narasimha pitched in with Rs 15 lakh, and former SCBA president Vikas Singh donated Rs 10 lakh.
Next stop: Supreme Court?
In April, the Supreme Court had disposed of a PIL seeking creation of an emergency fund for independent practising advocates who are in need of financial assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic. It had then said that the BCI should “consider assisting its brethren”.
However, earlier this month, the BCI filed a petition in the Supreme Court, demanding financial assistance, including soft loans for lawyers struggling on account of the pandemic.
The Supreme Court has also sought a response from the BCI on a plea seeking permission for lawyers to advertise and resort to alternative sourcesy of income during the pandemic.
Under Rule 36 of the BCI Rules, lawyers are barred from advertising or soliciting work through any means.
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