NEW DELHI: “When will physical hearing of cases in courts start?” It’s the common refrain of young, not so famous and moderately successful lawyers whose earnings have nosedived as the lockdown stifled the Rs 20,000 crore legal practice industry. Around 20 lakh advocates are mostly dependent on open court adjudication of disputes.
With the Supreme Court, high courts and trial courts continuing with virtual hearing of a limited number of cases through video-conferencing, most lawyers are finding it difficult to find clients or get cases listed before judges. In contrast, successful and pedigreed lawyers are raking in the moolah.
Successful senior advocates are in demand as they can argue important cases daily before the SC as well as HCs from the comfort of their offices or homes. “During normal times, if they had to argue a case in an HC, they would have to go there physically, leaving their work in the SC to someone else. Now, through video-conferencing, distances have been erased and they can argue cases across India sitting in Delhi. Their daily incomes have not suffered much,” said a briefing counsel.
Bar Council of India chairman Manan Kumar Mishra told TOI, “Holding virtual courts for a small period of time through video-conference in emergency-like situation was inescapable. But physical hearing in open courts must start soon. Majority of lawyers, especially outside big cities, are in hand to mouth situations. The courts cannot be kept closed any longer. Majority of lawyers have no work or earning.”
Asked whether the BCI or state bar councils had a contingent plan to help needy lawyers, Mishra said, “Neither BCI nor state bar councils have resources to start any scheme for lawyers. We have been requesting the Centre and state governments to help needy lawyers financially. It is unfortunate that most governments, be it the Centre or states, have lawyers as cabinet ministers, and yet no one thinks about the plight of lawyers.”
TOI spoke to judges in many HCs and found that the video-conferencing system was not equipped to handle more than two or three courts simultaneously, thus limiting the number of cases that could be taken up for hearing. “Majority of advocates stay away from the capital city and either have low speed internet connections or are IT-handicapped to be able to argue cases through video-conferencing,” an HC judge said.
A moderately successful Delhi-based lawyer last month asked most of his office staff, whose salaries he had paid for the two-month lockdown period, to find alternative employment, with promise to take them back once courts reopened. “It is common to get payment for legal fees a month or two after the hearing of a case in court. Governments are notorious for delayed payment of legal fees. Sometimes, it is delayed by six months. With no work at hand, I am no longer in a position to pay salaries of my staff,” he told TOI.
But with spiralling number of coronavirus cases in Delhi, there is little chance of open court hearings starting any soon. The CJI and judges of the SC, most of them over 60 years of age and with co-morbidities, are afraid of starting physical hearing as they know that it would be impossible to control the crowd of lawyers outside courtrooms. “We do not want the Supreme Court to be the source of Covid-19 infection for lawyers, litigants and media personnel,” a judge said.

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