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Above: There is no social security cover for lawyers and the legal profession is unfavourable to many who struggle to make both ends meet/Photo: Anil Shakya

The Bar Council of India’s plea for an annual budget for lawyers needs detailed study and should be linked to their needs so that authorities cannot reject them as being too demanding

By Rupinder Suri

Manan Kumar Mishra, chairman, Bar Council of India, and a pioneer who brought the focus on practising lawyers with doubtful law degrees, has taken another step for the welfare of lawyers. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 22, 2019, he has asked for a Rs 50,000-crore annual budget for their welfare.

The letter reminds the prime minister of the assurance he gave at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Bar Council of India prior to the general election in 2014. It is a fact that there is no social security for advocates. If, God forbid, a lawyer suffers from a serious accident or ailment, there is nobody to look after him or his family. This is especially so today with the shift from joint to nuclear families.

While I endorse the need for a sound and well-thought-out social security scheme for lawyers, there is need for a detailed study by the Bar Council of India. The demand should be rationally linked to the need so that authorities cannot reject the same at the outset as being outrageous.

Anyone studying law was never given any promise or assurance that he would get a monthly stipend equivalent to Rs 10,000 per month or a pension. The legal profession is extremely benign to a few and unfavourable for a large number of lawyers. Unfortunately, there is a large segment who is not doing well and finds it difficult to make both ends meet while living a life of dignity befitting a lawyer.

While National Law Universities and certain other colleges impart premium legal education, the bulk of law colleges is failing to keep up with the required standards of education. As a result, lawyers graduating from these colleges are at a distinct disadvantage as compared to the ones who have studied in good colleges.

The buck cannot be passed by the Bar Council of India as it has been en­trusted with ensuring that the standards of legal education are consistently maintained. There is mushrooming growth of law colleges with hardly any infrastructure or good faculty. Curiously, there is hardly a law college which has been directed to be closed for this reason.

There is urgent need for the Bar Council of India to do a detailed analysis on the needs of the justice system and advocates required in order to restrict admission in law colleges. This will ensure that there is no oversupply of lawyers. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, there is a need to establish dedicated law academies for lawyers for providing continuous legal education on the same scale as judicial academies. The cost for these legal academies, updated infrastructure, libraries, etc., should necessarily be to the account of the judiciary budget as lawyers play a very big role in the justice delivery system.

Independent of this budgetary allocation, in case things go amiss, a special provision should be made for social security and old age care for lawyers. A part of court fees should potentially be reserved for such a provision. In this context, it is relevant to appreciate US President Ronald Reagan who once said: “Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”

Without well-thought-out, structured and cogent reasons for the demands for such a large amount, we may fall into the vicious trap of being reliant on such freebies being doled out in the garb of “welfare”. There can be no situation more dangerous than when an advocate—an officer of the court—whose focus should be upholding the interests of the client and facilitating speedy justice is diverted towards clamouring for these freebies. It is reiterated that there is great need for upgradation of our fraternity—not just the exterior facade but also from within.

This is linked to the more pertinent, but less highlighted, portion of the list of demands—the need for gre­a­ter participation of lawyers in the justice delivery system. The important que­stion that needs to be extricated from the list of demands in the letter is—what is required to improve the standard of lawyers, and therefore, what support is required from the Union government?

If the Bar Council of India is making a demand for financial support and is successful in securing the same, there must be a corresponding duty upon them to utilise those funds towards discharging their statutory duties. The Advocates Act, 1961, clearly lays down the duties of the Bar Council of India and states that it shall promote legal reform and legal education. To borrow a phrase from Justice AK Sikri at a recent convocation: “Legal education isn’t over after you leave university. In fact, it begins when you start practising.”

There is no doubt that a new entrant in the field of law will require adequate cushioning in monetary form. But more important is the need to impart the required skill and training to survive in the industry. In fact, in view of the ever-changing laws and progress of society, this principle ought to apply across the board, without reference to age or experience.

Budget allocation would be more efficient if it is made towards organising training and academic programmes in the name of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) or Continuing Professional Development (CPD). The CLE/CPD credit system, as prevalent in most jurisdictions abroad, requires fresh law graduates and current practitioners to continue attending a required number of legal education classes for a particular time period in order to achieve and maintain high standards of competency, legal awareness, legal application and professionalism. This concept is not unknown to our profession and even Professor (Dr.) NR Madhava Menon, the leading academician in our profession, has made this express request to the Bar Council of India.

CLE/CPD is, in fact, considered to be part of “best practices” across the globe. The New York State Bar, the Victoria Bar, Law Society for Upper Canada, Solicitors Regulatory Authority in the United Kingdom, etc., all have mandatory provisions requiring a minimum number of CLE/CPD hours each year. It is interesting to note that India plays host to many international events which award these CLE/CPD hours and yet our own “regulator” does not recognise the same.

While there are several essential points mentioned in the letter to the prime minister, they are rambling and most do not have any basis attached to them. Issuing such a letter with a subtle “threat” of “a massive demonstration at Delhi” (the legality/necessity of which is also questionable) seriously erodes its credibility and makes a rational mind doubt the very timing of the letter and whether it is politically motivated.

While dedicated allocation of funds may be the need of the hour for our fraternity, it is essential that the same is efficiently utilised. The demands we make through the apex regulator should not be vague and without reason. It is hoped that we do not fall prey to an accusation of ulterior motive and can have a healthy deliberation on some vital issues touched upon in the letter.

It is an oft-quoted cliché that welfare was never intended to be a career opportunity. The implications of associating this cliché with the legal profession—which is a noble one and considered to be a “calling”—is dangerous for the very existence of an independent bar and, therefore, an independent judiciary.

 —The writer is a Senior Advocate and former President, Supreme Court Bar Association

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