Fleeced by a lawyer? Govt mulls watchdog

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  • Published 2.12.10

New Delhi, Dec. 1: If your lawyer has overcharged or sexually harassed you or played truant in court, help may be at hand in future.

The government has invited suggestions from the public on a proposed law that provides for an ombudsman to deal with clients’ complaints against lawyers.

Advocates are now subject to disciplinary scrutiny from the state bar councils they are enrolled with or the Bar Council of India, which can revoke a lawyer’s licence. But these councils rarely act on complaints.

Once the Legal Practitioners (Regulations and Maintenance of Standards in Professions, Protecting the Interest of Clients and Promoting the Rule of Law) Act, 2010, is passed, clients can file their complaints with the ombudsman.

He will issue notices to the lawyer and the client, summon witnesses, record evidence, issue a finding and recommend action. The Bar Council of India can still refuse to act after giving reasons, but the new act will at least ensure a hearing for every complaint, unlike now.

A litigant can theoretically sue a lawyer but would find it difficult to get another lawyer to take up his case. He can, however, lodge a case with a court or a criminal case with a police station.

The bill will also cover lawyers not enrolled with any bar council, such as those who do not argue in court but do related pre-litigation work such as drawing up and filing petitions. Its ambit will include lawyers dealing with tax, customs, immigration, trademark and patent services, and other professional services involving legal issues.

The proposed law, a part of the government’s renewed push for legal reforms, will apply to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir.

Free legal aid

The bill makes it mandatory for lawyers to provide free services to poorer clients, that is, every lawyer must put in some hours with the court’s legal aid service. Top-notch lawyers now avoid free legal aid.

The cut-off income for eligibility for free legal aid is Rs 12,000 a year for the Supreme Court and Rs 9,000 for other courts, but these limits do not apply to women, Dalits, tribals, or the disabled. There are proposals to raise the ceiling.

Under the proposed law, a “legal services board” will be established under a chairperson appointed by the President in consultation with the Chief Justice of India and the Bar Council of India chairperson.

The board will have a member secretary and five other members representing a state bar council each from the northern, southern, western, eastern and northeastern regions. It will have a consumer panel to represent consumers’ and clients’ interests.

The board will appoint a chief ombudsman, who will be a retired judge, and an ombudsman for each state who must have been at least a district judge. The state ombudsman will be selected in consultation with the state’s high court chief justice and bar council chairperson.

An ombudsman will hold office for five years and will not be eligible for re- appointment.