Justice: Not for the Poor
Whenever the Supreme Court has issued a stricture or a criticism, it has been well deserved. Recently, the Supreme Court had good reason to criticize a section of the legal fraternity in the strongest of terms. A division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice of India H.L.Dattu and other judges pulled up a section of lawyers saying that they were in the habit of accepting briefs and withdrawing from the cases later on. The learned judges said that these lawyers would take huge sums from their clients as professiol fees and then abandon the cases. They take up cases for their clients and do not defend them as they should. The learned judges were of the view that such incidents kept happening all the time in the Supreme Court, and this was an unfortute fact of life. They said that clients who had cases in the Supreme Court came to New Delhi from distant places in the country. They were of the view that the legal fraternity was quite aware of how difficult it was for someone outside the capital to secure legal representation in the Supreme Court. The learned judges wanted to know what poor clients were expected to do if they had to file a case in the Supreme Court. In a particular case, an advocate had appealed to the Supreme Court for permission to abandon a particular case. The apex court had directed the advocate to file an affidavit within two weeks, stating the reasons for wanting to abandon the case midway. The division bench headed by the Chief Justice of India was of the view that it had become a habit with some lawyers to file anonymous complaints against judges of high courts. The Chief Justice of India said that the advocate in question was well aware that judges were very sympathetic to the aggrieved clients in such cases. That was why many of them sought to hide their faces and to throw stones at high court judges.
Perhaps these remarks could have come a good deal earlier were it not for the fact that anonymous complaints by advocates against high court judges is a comparatively recent development. However, there is much that is unfortute about how the legal fraternity practising in the Supreme Court has started hiking professiol fees to unprecedented levels. There was a wholesome convention endorsed by Supreme Court directives about the kind of fees that senior advocates of the Supreme Court could charge. And right up to the 1980s, the stipulated fees per appearance for Supreme Court senior advocates was somewhere around Rs 1,875. Today, the minimum fee for a Supreme Court senior advocate is around Rs 3 lakh per appearance. There are senior advocates who charge Rs 500,000 or even Rs 1 million for every appearance. There are Supreme Court senior advocates who charge a fee even for a discussion with the client before a case is filed. This fee could vary from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh. This is to say that a prospective client would be shelling out that kind of money to a lawyer who even declines to take the brief. As for lawyers who accept a brief and then decide to abandon the client in mid-course, they are guilty of at least two offences: loot and the kind of cheating that is covered by Section 420 of the IPC. If lawyers whose business it is to uphold the law start committing offences against the law, what are clients expected to do in the face of such offences by lawyers? The Supreme Court cannot go on permitting advocates to play ducks and drakes with the fates of their clients. It would do well to re-impose a ceiling on the professiol fee that Supreme Court and High Court lawyers can charge their clients. Advocates should also be compelled to issue receipts of money paid to them by their clients as professiol fees.