Make lawyers accountable
There is no dearth of legal talent in our country. We have many top notch lawyers who charge a fortune to appear in courts. And guess for whom— for big people and big companies in cases where billions worth of fortunes and business interests are at stake. Like in any other walk of life, there indeed are some honourable exceptions to this rule. But that’s about it.
Now, a plain reading of the Constitution tells us the right to legal redress is the citizens’ fundamental right; a right placed beyond the common man’s reach by prohibitive fees demanded by lawyers barring public interest litigation where counsels at times are willing to work gratis. Less charitably, they swap money for celebrity status, given the attention public interest cases fetch in the media. The escrow account that’s celebrityhood is en-cashed while taking regular, non-public interest briefs. The reason: a premium has to be paid for hiring a lawyer with an altruistic public profile.
In the prevailing clamor for a transparent, corruption-free justice delivery system, nobody has touched upon the idea of placing a ceiling on what a lawyer should charge for his services. Also, whether leading advocates accepting negative retainers from big companies for not appearing against them in key cases a fair practice? Such payments involve crores of rupees and are akin to an architect getting paid for not designing a building, a journalist taking money for not writing an expose or a surgeon downing the meter without lifting the scalpel.
That’s not what one expects from senior advocates who, as officers of the Supreme Court and High Courts have the onerous duty of ensuring access to justice to all people.
The Bar Council of India is the regulatory body for lawyers comparable with the Medical Council of India. It couldn’t be oblivious of the predatory work culture that raises the bar of greed— not the stature of the Bar. Its silence on the issue and that of celebrity lawyers in the forefront of the Lok Pal campaign amounts to acquiescence.
The price of legal defense or call it justice delivery if you like, goes up in the top echelons of our legal fraternity each time an attorney enhances peer pressure by seeking and getting a huge fee from a cash-rich client. The domino also works the Bollywood way: lawyers raising fees after a big case like actors after a blockbuster release. There are cases as well of advocates demanding a share rather than a fee in high-value property disputes— a la the distribution rights big stars get for high-budget releases. The difference is that Bollywood A-listers have little to do with justice delivery.
Why then is the focus on judges and not officers of the court (lawyers)? The silence is almost conspiratorial, making hugely one-sided the ongoing debate on how to make the judiciary accountable and transparent.
There was a time when fee charged by M C Setalvad, eminent jurist and India’s first and longest serving attorney general (1950-63), served as the cap for other lawyers. The amount worked out to less than Rs 2000 per court appearance.
The convention was “conscience” driven in that early post-Independence phase. Never before has the need been more than it is now, for doing away with negative retainers and putting in place a ceiling (or a slab system) on what lawyers’ charge from their clients.
Law might be an ass. But for many it’s a mare running for moolah. The abhorrent trend is too widespread to be ignored. It must be addressed in tandem with reforms aimed at securing an honest and upright judiciary.