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Litigation beyond the reach of poor

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The poor of the land have been saying it for much longer than anyone can remember. Now that the Supreme Court has expressed anguish over the fact that...

The poor of the land have been saying it for much longer than anyone can remember. Now that the Supreme Court has expressed anguish over the fact that litigation is beyond the reach of the poor, the nation will hope that the apex court, in collaboration with the Union Government, will initiate some measures to ensure that the poor are able to get justice from courts for free.

The apex court has ruled that “fighting a legal battle in courts has become so expensive these days that it is beyond the reach of the poor”, and expressed concern over “commercialization of the legal profession”. According to the court, judicial proceedings are so slow that people are convinced that “a case would not finish in their lifetime….In the present era, the legal profession, once known as a noble profession, has been converted into a commercial undertaking.”

A bench of Justices BS Chauhan and SA Bobde has observed: “For a long time people have been convinced that a case would not culminate during the lifetime of the litigant and is beyond the ability of astrologers to anticipate his fate”. Observing that lawyers “are equal partners with the judges” in administration of justice, the bench said: “Advocates cannot behave with doubtful scruples or strive to thrive on litigation…. Willful disregard of litigants’ interests by a lawyer is reprehensible and unbecoming of an advocate. Law is no trade; briefs no merchandise. An advocate, being an officer of the court, has a duty to ensure smooth functioning of the court; he has to revive the person in distress and cannot exploit the helplessness of litigants.”

It may not be easy to find in free India’s judicial history a more damning indictment of the malpractices that have crept into the legal profession, and the indictment should be the more searing for having come from a bench of the apex court. The court also ruled that a willful and callous disregard for the interests of the client may in a proper case be characterized as “conduct unbefitting an advocate”.

The bench also frowned upon the “multi-tier operation, of one lawyer hauling a client and then acting as a facilitator to some other lawyer to draw the proceedings or engage another lawyer for arguing a case”, and said it is definitely an “uncharted and unofficial system which cannot be accepted as in essence it is tantamount to a trap for litigants which is neither ethically nor professionally a sound practice. Such conduct is ridiculously low from what is expected of a lawyer”. The bench made the observations while pulling up an Advocate-on-Record, lawyers who alone are eligible to file cases in the apex court, for “lending” his signature for consideration to a petition filed in court and thereafter not appearing in the case even once. An “AOR is not a guest artist”; the bench said and added that such an attitude is “tantamount to cruelty in the most crude form towards the litigant”.
The nation will hope that the judicial strictures will discipline the legal fraternity. The average Indian is convinced that in spite of the free legal aid provided for in most courts, he cannot consider recourse to them. That is why masses demand that the Supreme Court appoint a judicial committee to survey the functioning of lower courts where, according to public perception, there is much greater irregularity in all sections. That is why the masses seem to feel that judicial reform needs to begin not with appointment of judges of high courts and the Supreme Court but at the level of the lower judiciary.
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