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Govt freedom to hire lawyers

- State to look beyond panel

Calcutta, Aug. 17: The cash-strapped administration has decided to allow departments to hire lawyers outside the government panel, a move seen as an attempt to prevent regular embarrassments in Calcutta High Court.

Chandrima Bhattacharya, the junior law minister, has written to all departments mentioning they are free to engage lawyers not empanelled with the government after informing the law department.

“You are at liberty to choose your lawyer from the government panel or outside upon information to us,” the letter mentions, adding that the step had been taken to “safeguard the interest” of the government.

The move to cut red tape while hiring top lawyers to fight cases for the government in the high court is being seen as a face-saving effort by the administration, which has lost around a dozen “prestigious” cases and been at the receiving end of withering criticism from judges. (See chart)

Dependence on members of the state panel, who are mostly junior lawyers, has cost the administration dear as they are “often overawed” by renowned advocates hired by the government’s opponents in court, a section of officials said.

“This is the reason why the government has allowed the departments to engage lawyers from outside the panel. It does not want to face any more setbacks,” an official said.

“It was felt that the lawyers on the government panel failed to present the state’s case before the court several times. This is the reason why the government has decided to hire top lawyers who are not panel members,” an official said.

In cases such as Sagar Ghosh’s murder and Tapas Paul’s “rape-and-shoot” speech, the high court chided police for perceived inaction.

Law department officials said the government hired senior advocates who were not part of the panel only in “very sensitive cases”, such as those related to Singur and the panchayat elections.

However, given the nature of some cases, lawyers alone are unlikely to have been able to make much of a difference. The stand the state government has taken in some cases, especially those with political undertones, would have been difficult to defend even if it had hired more experienced lawyers.

An official said that to hire lawyers outside the panel, the departments concerned had to seek the judicial department’s permission, which shouldered the cost. “Permission was given only if the law department was satisfied that a case required more expertise than that available with the empanelled pool,” an official said.

As the law department’s funds are not enough to meet the fees of senior advocates, rarely did it allow departments to hire lawyers from outside the panel. “The government cannot engage top lawyers in every case as money becomes a barrier. We have limited funds and the senior advocates command high fees,” another official said.

The government’s move to give departments the freedom to hire lawyers could face financial hurdles as they have been asked to shoulder the expenditure themselves.

“No funds have been allotted to any department for this purpose. More funds have to be given to individual departments or the law department to meet the cost of hiring lawyers outside the pool,” a department secretary said.

COURT SETBACKS

Some cases where the state government suffered setbacks in Calcutta High Court. Not all the cases were fought by government-empanelled lawyers

Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011, struck down. State’s appeal against high court order pending in Supreme Court

Government’s decision to dissolve district sports councils set aside

Move to dissolve police association set aside

Bill to curtail the tenure of co-operative bodies from five to three years declared unconstitutional

Decision to pay compensation to nearest of kin of hooch victims stayed

Decision to reserve posts for backward class Muslims declared “bad in law”

Government can decide panchayat poll dates only after consulting state election commission

Decision to allow non-trained candidates to take exams to appoint teachers in secondary and primary schools set aside

Decision to pay allowances to imams struck down

Gurap death case handed over to CBI

Criticism of police inaction in Tapas Paul and Sagar Ghosh cases