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A plea in the Supreme Court has forced the Punjab government to lay down rules for appointing judicial officers, but in doing so, it has come up with stiffer clauses

~By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Pulled up by the Supreme Court for arbitrary guidelines in the appointment of law officers to represent the state, the Punjab government has stipulated rules which are even stiffer than those required for the appointment of High Court judges.

The new professional as well as financial qualifications for the selection of law officers in the Advocate General’s office has been incorporated in the Punjab Law Officers (Engagement) Bill, 2017, passed by the assembly on March 29. It has kicked up a row with leading advocates saying it is impractical and would benefit only the rich.

Under the new legislation, an advocate having a minimum legal experience of 14 years and a minimum professional income of Rs 10 lakh in the past three years would be eligible for the post of Senior Deputy Advocate General. The legislation provides that the candidate for the post of Senior Additional A-G should be a designated senior advocate with 20 years of practice and a minimum annual professional income of Rs 20 lakh in the past three years. For the post of Additional A-G, the candidate is required to be a designated senior advocate with 16 years practice and minimum annual professional income of Rs 15 lakh in the past three years. The Bill has fixed a minimum of three years’ legal practice for the post of Assistant A-G with the proviso that the candidate should have a minimum annual professional income of Rs 3.5 lakh.

However, under Articles 217 and 224 of the constitution, there is no provision of any financial criteria for the appointment of High Court judges. The only necessity is that the candidate should have been practicing in the High Court for 10 years. Similarly, for the appointment of Advocate General, the provision under Article 165 is that the government shall appoint a person who is qualified to be appointed as HC judge.

Many advocates say that the stiff rules would not be workable in Chandigarh. They think that these may suit lawyers in Delhi or other metros with commercial litigation.

The new rules for selection of law officers in the A-G’s office have been incorporated in a bill passed by the Punjab assembly 

The state government was forced to bring in legislation laying down qualifications for appointments in the A-G’s office following a directive by the Supreme Court in March last year following a petition by an advocate, Pardeep Kumar Rapria. His petition had pointed out that both Punjab and Haryana were doling out largesse to their favourite lawyers by appointing them without any qualifications or criteria in the Advocate General’s office. The governments were also spending huge amounts of money on these law officers.

His petition pointed out that the Punjab government had appointed as many as 174 law officers. These included 74 Additional A-Gs, five senior deputy A-Gs, 40 deputy A-Gs and 55 Assistant A-Gs. Haryana was a step ahead with 183 law officers in the A-G’s office. These included 58 Additional, one Senior Deputy, 62 Deputy and an equal number of Assistant A-Gs, according to an affidavit submitted by the Haryana government in the Supreme Court.

As per the affidavit, Additional A-Gs were paid a monthly remuneration of Rs 1.40 lakh, while Deputy A-Gs received about Rs 43,000 and Assistant A-Gs about Rs 28,000 besides other perks and privileges. They were allowed private practice except in cases where the state was a party. The state government spent Rs 18.71 crore on the state A-G’s office between April 1, 2012 and January 31, 2013 as per official figures.

Not surprisingly, a majority of these officers were not appointed on merit or on the basis of experience. Almost all of them were either related to politicians, senior advocates, officers or judges. Many of them were juniors who had made no mark whatsoever in the profession. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report had also pointed out that many of them remained out of work most of the time. It had questioned the “faulty selection of law officers resulting in idle payment of salary”.

The state government, in its reply to CAG’s objections (reproduced in the petition by Rapria), had asserted that it was within its rights to appoint law officers arbitrarily. “It is the choice, prerogative and discretion of the government to engage such law officers to defend and plead their cases through whom it has faith, confidence and trust, which may be based on word of mouth and performance.”

In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the state admitted that it had not set up any selection committee for appointments to the A-G office and had left the selection to the “discretion” of the A-G.

Haryana is likely to follow Punjab in fixing minimum qualifications and rules for appointment of law officers. However, some of the leading lawyers aspiring to be part of the A-G’s office are planning to move the courts against the tough guidelines laid out by the Punjab government.

Whatever may be the final outcome, it is certain that judicial intervention has brought some semblance of order to the appointment of law officers.

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