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How COVID-19 Lockdown Has Affected Lawyers? Some Accounts

Nilashish Chaudhary
20 April 2020 3:39 AM GMT
How COVID-19 Lockdown Has Affected Lawyers? Some Accounts
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The nationwide lockdown, which stands extended till May 3, has taken a huge toll on practitioners in the legal profession whose incomes depend on the functioning of courts. Appearing in a court is the basic source of income for lawyers engaged in litigation, especially those practicing in lower courts. Though the Courts are still functional, very few cases are being taken up, only on the...

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The nationwide lockdown, which stands extended till May 3, has taken a huge toll on practitioners in the legal profession whose incomes depend on the functioning of courts. Appearing in a court is the basic source of income for lawyers engaged in litigation, especially those practicing in lower courts.

Though the Courts are still functional, very few cases are being taken up, only on the basis of extreme urgency. There is no regular filing of matters, and no listing of hearing cases. This has left a vast majority of lawyers bereft of work, resulting in a massive struggle to make ends meet.

While many are just about managing to keep their heads above water, a large number of those practicing in lower courts are unsure of how they will get through this period. LiveLaw got in touch with a wide range of lawyers to get an understanding of the problems being faced by such litigators (Their names are kept confidential).

Speaking to us, an advocate, who usually deals in criminal matters in trial courts, in Delhi expressed his situation thus:

"I have my independent practice for almost a year now. Whatever I earn goes in expenses including paying the salaries of my staff. It is not possible to make savings from my income just yet as I'm not from Delhi and have to pay rent also. This month I have not earned anything so was unable to pay my clerk even. I said I will give him entire salary together, but for now I'm sorry I don't have. We have been facing big problems since lockdown and I don't know what I will do if Court does not open next month…I took money for bail matters but now two such people got bail due to Corona (virus), and seeking refund. Where do I pay from? If Courts don't resume soon I have to consider going back to my hometown."

Not only has the going been tough for those who have recently turned independent and are trying to establish their practice primarily in lower courts, even those who have been appearing in Supreme Court for a while now are struggling.

One Advocate on Record, who has been independent for almost 7 years now, explains how the absence of fresh cases has a ripple effect on his practice.

"We all earn from fresh cases. The responsibilities towards cases we have already taken up (for which fees has already been taken and spent) looms large on us. So we can't relax or give off to our staff/clerks/juniors. At the same time, there's no fresh cases that give you some money." With regard to paying his staff and maintaining the office, he informs us that he had to take a loan from his wife to pay last month's expenditures. However, he is concerned about how to manage the same next month since they there's a lot of reliance on her salary. "Most of us are asking each other for office expenses. It's very very difficult. I'm worried about paying next month's salaries now. I will have to graduate to (taking a loan from) my mother if there are more difficulties."

The problem in meeting office expenses is seen to be an issue with senior advocates too. Junior lawyers working in the offices of some of these seniors informed us that the burden of "huge EMIs" are looming large on them which may mean that they might only be able to pay their staff for a limited period.

One such lawyer, working for a well-known senior, said "I got a call from sir asking how much of a pay cut I was willing to take. I wasn't sure how to respond to such a question…We are still required to work as much, given the pending files…I was informed of difficulties being faced in meeting office expenses and to make do with a temporary deduction."

With litigation drying up, mid-level practices which also engage in transnational work are feeling the heat as well. A partner of a firm,  which was started as a 'full-services law firm' two years ago, says:

"We are doing advisories, but there are very few such clients. Litigation is completely off for now, which is the problem. Pending bills are also stuck because clients are facing manpower issues, amongst others."

However, remaining optimistic about the future, he adds:

"We're hedging our bets on the courts functioning in June. We're sure we'll be able to recover from this loss, but we might not be able to recover all our losses (incurred during this time). For now, we are focused on protecting our employees from any impact."

While most lawyers are waiting for courts to resume their normal functioning, the improbability of such normalcy being restored in the near future is not lost on them. However, one can only imagine the plight of those affected if this lull extends.

We asked one advocate, whose matrimonial law practice has also taken a severe hit, what the need of the hour was.

"Institutional support is required. That does not mean that we're expecting money from the Bar Council. There needs to be an adaptation to the situation in terms of providing support for hearings. Steps must be taken to make people aware of the fact that it is not outlandish anymore to conduct hearings over video conferencing. The approach should not be a top down. District Courts require this as that's where the glut of the pendency is", he replied.

The standstill in court work has triggered a number of State Bar Councils to create a system through which lawyers in need can seek financial assistance. The Karnataka State Bar Council, for example, set up a Relief Fund for lawyers in need of assistance while the Bar Council of resolved to extend upto Rs. 5000 per advocate who was in dire need of help. Similarly, the Odisha Bar Council decided to provide financial aid to lawyers in need, especially those with a practice of less than 10 years. The Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry also decided to provide financial assistance and opened a separate bank account inviting senior members to contribute in assisting aggrieved lawyers. The Bar Council of Delhi has decided to grant Rupees 5000 to every needy lawyer.

The SC Bar Association and the SC Advocates on Record Association have formulated schemes for financially helping lawyers facing hardships during this period.

The Bar Council of India, on March 24, had written to the Prime Minster and Chief Ministers of all States imploring them to provide a monthly subsistence allowance for lawyers facing hardships due to loss of work.

 

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