Among the many professions to have been dealt a heavy blow by pandemic are lawyers. After the first wave, a majority of first generation lawyers – surviving on a day-to-day basis from meagre earnings mostly from trial courts – were compelled to leave Delhi and other cities in the face of no income.
During this period, the profession suffered rampant migration as lawyers left for their hometowns. Those working in various chambers were asked to rejoin when the courts reopened – a polite showing of the door, if you may. After all, even the advocate running the chamber could not indefinitely be asked to pay an employee when they themselves are not earning any revenue.
Those who were practicing independently, slowly but consistently had to pull the shutters down. Paying rent for an office space as well as their homes, apart from other expenditures, became more and more of a struggle.
As cases started to dip during January 2021, months after litigation came to a complete stand still, the legal fraternity became hopeful that the time to resuscitate the profession had come. And along came a second brutal wave in early April, bringing all such plans to a complete and indefinite halt.
To understand the issue at depth, the hierarchy of the courts needs to be understood. Maximum employment is generated at the trial courts with minimum revenue generation. The bulk of the revenue is concentrated at the apex court and high courts, where a majority of lawyers are filtered out due to various reasons – language barriers, lack of initial funds to survive the first few years and other such issues.
A battery of lawyers practicing at Delhi trial courts, who were suffering from diabetes and other co-morbidities, went back to their native towns to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh etc. Similarly, young lawyers who were barely able to survive with their practice at the Allahabad high court went back to their distant towns in Basti, Bulandshahr etc.
The despondent tale is far from over. Not much has been written about the plight of clerks. No lawyer can work without clerks, but with online virtual hearings and minimisation of paperwork, one can only wonder how clerks have been surviving as filing is now virtual. The e-filing of paperwork has exacerbated the plight of the underprivileged section of court clerks who were living of the crumbs of the revenue generated from the chamber.
The photocopier is another silent casualty.
The avenues to earn money for many in the legal fraternity are being swiftly washed away. Now, after more than a year of no work, many have been forced to seek alternative sources of income including daily wages.
To show the gargantuan disparity among lawyers, there is another class of lawyers that also migrated – but to their Himalayan, Goan getaways. As they primarily work on the appellate side, they are getting briefs, equally if not less, all scanned and bookmarked to be worked through from a work station facing the seas or the Himalayas.
We cannot live with blinders on and take no notice of how a privileged section of lawyers have benefitted from the restricted functioning of courts and more frequent appearances, all with no running around the corridors of the courts.
Although the bar council took an initiative to provide financial aid, the same was inadequate due to the large numbers part of the legal fraternity. Like always, some lawyers who were drawing salaries and were on the retainership of companies also stood in line to get charity.
On the judicial side, if we see, there are cases wherein evidence has to be led to ascertain whether the accused can be granted the liberty of bail or not. So if we draw an inference, all those who have been denied bail and were waiting for the evidence to be taken up are fighting a steep uphill battle. Some of them will be acquitted, but by then a considerable time would have already been spent inside jail.
If we consider other parts of India – like UP and Bihar – there are still ‘kutchehris’ i.e. district courts where pleadings are still typed on typewriters, where the lawyers are not adept in using MS Word, leave aside other portals for video conferencing. Leaving aside virtual court hearings, their first concern would be uninterrupted power supply.
Instead of blanket restrictions, there should have been a reduction of daily listing of cases. Let the proceedings be hybrid and let the evidence start flowing with lawyers visiting the courts with due precautions and judges conducting virtual courts from a safe distance – preferably their homes.
Reality is dichotomous. When the monsoon arrives, one rejoices over a drink and the other runs for cover.
Utkarsh Singh is a practicing advocate at the Supreme Court.