When an institution criticizes the very specialists for whose work it is built, there is something absurdly wrong. But the Supreme Court’s ruling on the lawyers’ strike comes as no surprise. The court’s attitude to strikes and bandhs has been quite consistently articulated over the past few years. For the court, the priority is public good, and the right to protest should be exercised in ways that do not cause damage and loss. The frequent strikes by lawyers all over the country, the imminent countrywide strike against the setting up of lok adalats and the prolonged ceasework by lawyers in West Bengal are some of the worst examples of damage to the public interest. To pile cases on to the already existing backlog is hardly expected of a body of professionals especially trained in the ins and outs of breach of responsibility. The Supreme Court has made clear that the right to abstain from work can only be exercised for one day, in the rarest of cases and only when the chief justice or district judge is convinced that the protest is against an attack on the “dignity, independence and integrity” of the profession. To address lawyers’ problems, the court has suggested the setting up of grievance redressal committees. The thrust of the ruling, however, is to question the power bar associations and councils wield over legal professionals. The right to appear in court will be decided by the lawyer’s compliance with the rules laid down by the court, and no bar council or association shall coerce lawyers to participate in strikes. But most important, the Supreme Court has ruled that lawyers should compensate their clients for the damage caused by strikes. In effect this is a fine, although for the benefit of the clients. The ruling cannot have been very good for the lawyers’ dignity.
The refusal to balance professional demands with rational forms of protest is most blatant, it seems, among the lawyers of West Bengal. Their objections against increased court fees are difficult to justify in any case, and tend to block the process of modernization that the state government is trying to set in motion. Protests should be presented in other ways, the ruling principle should be the desire to save clients from harassment. Unfortunately, the state government has already taken a step back on the decision to raise court fees, and has reportedly offered some more leeway to the lawyers in spite of the Supreme Court ruling. There is nothing wrong in reconsideration, but its rationality is suspect when made at gunpoint. Worse, a rollback like this simply legitimizes strikes. A lack of firmness may now undo what the court is trying to do.