The whole world is facing chaos and mass destruction caused by pandemic COVID 19. The pandemic has brought the world economy down, in a deep financial crisis, which was leading the world wide working systems, services, professions and business. The legal profession is one of the significant pillars of the whole society and it is a matter of big sorrow that the nationwide lockdown has brought to the fore the great disparity and problems in the field of legal profession and clearly the most affected are the legal professionals who are practicing as independent Advocates. The vast majority of the advocates are in the lower courts which functions on a case to case basis for their regular income and as per the present scenario of epidemic and lockdown, their economic situation has become vulnerable and it is uncertain as to when things will get better.. The advocates who practice outside their home town are in a permeable situation. High Courts across India, which for the most part have only one bench functioning, are barely taking few cases, meaning that most of the massive numbers of pending matters have to wait for the lockdown to end.
In the lower courts, lawyers said that most civil courts are not hearing matters and no fresh filling is permitted except urgent matters. In criminal courts, most of the states have given interim bail to under trial prisoners. This means those who are accused and are awaiting trial have, unless their alleged crimes are heinous, been given with automatic bail. This is relevant because in the normal course of working, bail matters are the most important for an accused as well as for a lawyer from his professional point, especially working in Sessions Courts as well as High Courts.
SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS FACED BY THE LEGAL PROFESIONALS DUE TO THE PANDEMIC AND NATION WIDE LOCKDOWN
- NO FINANCIAL AID OR ANY SPECIAL GRANT FROM GOVERNMENT TO ADVOCATES
In the ongoing scenario of COVID 19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown, the State as well as the Central Government has maintained silence and has intentionally turned a blind eye to the ongoing problems. Since the livelihood of the entire fraternity of advocates, many Bar Associations have taken initiative to give financial aid to their Bar members. Bombay Bar Association (BBA) has extended a helping hand to the advocates facing financial difficulties due to lockdown. The Bombay Bar Association (BBA) understands that it's time to help your working fraternity by taking immediate action without waiting for the government to announce reliefs or welfare schemes for advocates. The present situation and financial conditions of many advocates are vulnerable, the Bombay Bar Association (BBA) offered financial assistance to any advocate who is its member or any advocate who has applied for membership. It has allowed requests for financial aid even from those advocates who are not its members. However, priority will be given to members of the Association.
Supreme Court Bar Association and Supreme Court Advocates-On-Record Association also decided to give financial aid to the Advocates who are in dire need during the lockdown. But the fundamental question remains: is this sufficient to support the large class of lawyers in the country who are really suffering? There are more than 2 million practicing advocates and 95% of them are suffering so how far can the associations extend help to them.
- LOCK DOWN'S EFFECT ON CLERK AND OTHER STAFF WORKING UNDER ADVOCATES AND ATTORNEYS
The office of almost every advocate runs on the working of associate juniors , registered clerks and the other staff who are dependent on the pay cheque from the advocate. The onus of payment of salary to the staff in the time of the non-functioning of courts is a huge burden on advocates. Keeping an eye on the situation of other working staff of an advocate, The Madras High Court directed the State Government and the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry to respond on whether any financial aid can be given to advocates and registered advocate's clerks during the national lockdown.
One way or the other, the working of the court has to be started as early as possible, keeping every precautionary direction issued by the Health Ministry. The Bar Associations could not regularly provide financial assistance to the working staff of an advocate and especially to the advocates who practice in the lower courts. The nonfunctioning of courts is severely damaging the legal professionals and the impact caused due to this will continue for the next two year.
- PROBELMS OF ELECTRICITY BILLS AND OFFICE RENT AND MAINTAINANCE CHARGES OF WORKING PREMISES
The number of advocates who work in rented offices are very high and the effect of the nationwide lockdown is that they are burdened with the onus of monthly rent , electricity bills as well as other maintenance charges which are incurred as it is regardless of the lockdown and it has to be paid from the pocket of advocate even when n these months of lockdown due to no income was generated.
- BURDEN OF PAYING SALARIES TO THE OTHER WORKING STAFFS, JUNIOR ASSOCIATES, CLERKS AND PARA LEGAL RESEARCHERS.
As discussed in the earlier paragraphs regarding the working staff and paralegal researcher, their work is interrelated to the working of advocates and courts but due to non functioning of courts they are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Irrespective of the non-working of Courts ,the advocates have to take the responsibility of paying remuneration to their working staff like junior associates who are completely dependent on their seniors. On other hand the advocates who are beginners and practicing independently are struggling for their bread and butter. Advocates are severely hit by this lockdown and are facing financial crunch and if the lockdown further extends, then this poses a serious threat to life.
ONLINE HEARING OF CASES
The working of Courts and advocates is of such pragmatic nature that the idea of work from home and online hearing of cases doesn't fit well with the working of the court. It can be used for a few urgent matters but it is impractical to make it a normal course of routine. It is also to be taken into consideration that there are very few advocates who understand the procedure of electronic media but majority of advocates are not familiar with the online filing and online hearing of cases which renders it almost possible for them to practice. It is to be noted that the establishment cost of a proper internet connection with a good device also will cost a lot and many people will not be in a position to afford it. If such conditions persist the noble legal profession and administration of justice will be under the clutches of a group of elite and it will be a class based administration of justice, and for poor people justice will become a distant dream.
Advocates, in addition to being legal professionals, also officers of the courts who play a vital role in the administration of justice. Accordingly, the principles, bye laws and rules that govern their professional conduct arise out of the duty that they owe to the court, the client, their opponents and to the other advocates as well.
The Profession itself requires the safeguarding of high moral standards. As an officer of the Court, the duty of a lawyer is towards the Court, the standards of his profession and to the public. Since the main job of a lawyer is to assist the Court in dispensing justice, the members of the Bar cannot behave with doubtful scruples or strive to thrive on litigation.
It is a matter of great sorrow that the officer of court, an advocate has been completely ignored by the government as no vital steps have been taken to financially aid advocates, no announcement has been made till date for the welfare of the court officers. It has been more than two months wherein the courts of important cities are non-functioning and the effect is that the officers of Court are in deep financial crisis.
The entire country is facing a difficult situation. Advocates are raising their voice mentioning the provisions of the Advocates Act and reminding that the BCI is responsible for safeguarding the rights, privileges and interests of advocates. If the advocates interests are not paid heed to, then the justice delivery system fails. The best example is the suo motu case No. 6/2020, registered by the Supreme Court with regard to the issues of migrant laborers. Initially a PIL for the same was filed and was dismissed due to lack of proper persuasion or understanding of ground reality, and then later the Court itself took cognisance suo motu. If the lives and livelihood of the legal professionals who are practicing in Courts as an independent advocate has been jeopardized in the struggle for bread and butter, how does society expect justice from any system? In this pandemic COVID19 there must be a unique approach by the appropriate government on and above the traditional approach to reduce the larger human suffering and hardship.
Views are personal only.
(Author is former Dy Advocate General –MP High Court Indore)