T he Supreme Court’s December 17 ruling that lawyers had no right to go on strike and would have to compensate their clients if they did, was a landmark judgment. The apex court also held that there would be no adjournment if lawyers struck work and that bar associations could not penalize those who did not participate in the strike. Lawyers could strike work, but only for a day and in the rarest of cases when the dignity, independence or integrity of the bar/bench had been lowered. Further, such a decision could be taken only by a bar association president or district judge. Lawyers could air their complaints before grievance redressal committees to be set up at the state level for this purpose.
Lawyers take recourse to protests whenever reforms are effected in the judicial system or they perceive a threat to their exclusive monopoly. An example is the strike against changes in the civil procedure code intended to hasten trials. In West Bengal, lawyers struck work for 45 days against a hike in court fees.
Recently, lawyers all over India went on a one-day strike against the setting up of permanent lok adalats in every public utility department of the government and the transfer of cases pending in regular courts to these bodies. There were also protests against the removal of company cases and other litigation from high courts which would deprive many lawyers of their livelihood.
Codes of protest
The inconvenience of their clients does not seem to bother lawyers. Nor the fact that the strikes — which sometimes stretch for weeks and months — further burden the judiciary.
Frequent strikes by lawyers — even those called for a just cause — alienate the people and weaken the judicial administration. Protest marches and white arm-bands are far better. Even the law commission had opined that “strikes may be resorted to, as a weapon of last resort”.
The Punjab and Haryana high court ruled in 1992 that courts were obliged to judge cases fast and could not wait for the end of a lawyers’ strike. Taking a serious view of the growing indiscipline among lawyers, the Allahabad high court ruled in another case in 1994 that lawyers were merely middlemen between the litigants and the courts and had no right to disrupt the judicial process.
The Supreme Court too has agreed to this view now. Hence lawyers can no longer hold the judicial system to ransom and undermine the rule of law. Radical steps like setting up permanent lok adalats, transferring pending cases to them so they can be quickly resolved without the help of lawyers and removing the provision of appeal against the decisions of these courts are absolutely imperative to get rid of the procedural bottlenecks that now clog the system. There is also urgent need for punitive provisions in the Advocates Act 1961 to punish errant lawyers.
Lawyers have lost much of their esteem in the eyes of the common man because of the exorbitant fees they charge and for dragging on cases endlessly. The law commission’s suggestion that lawyers’ fees be fixed by a statutory provision so that justice is within the reach of most people may help mend matters. Lawyers may be asked to submit their main views in writing to the judge to prevent delay. Also, there should be a code of conduct for lawyers.
Given the prevailing situation in the courts, the people’s expectations of cheap, fair and speedy justice are not being fulfilled. People are fast losing faith in the judicial system and resorting to circum-ventions like out of court settlements or, in the case of the poor, foregoing justice altogether.
It is time lawyers understood why they have been kept out of family courts, consumer forums, lok adalats, juvenile and labour courts and why non-lawyers are increasingly finding useful roles in adjudicatory forums. The public image of lawyers is admittedly at its lowest and unless remedial steps are taken soon, they may find that society has dispensed with them altogether.