Financial well-being of Advocates is not all black and white

Lawyers / Advocates
Lawyers / Advocates

A day after India went into a nationwide lockdown, Chairman of the Bar Council of India (BCI) Manan Kumar Mishra wrote to the Prime Minister and all Chief Ministers seeking subsistence allowance for advocates who would struggle to financially sustain themselves with the courts being shut.

The BCI had indicated that such support can be provided from government funds, either directly or through Advocates’ Welfare Funds.

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Advocates’ Welfare Fund - Has it met its objective?

The Advocates’ Welfare Fund was set up through the Advocates’ Welfare Fund Act, 2001 as a measure of social security for practicing advocates. The Fund's sources of finance include the enrolment fee paid by advocates while joining the Bar and the revenue earned by the respective State Bar Councils through the sale of welfare stamps.

Recently, the JALDI (Justice, Access and Lowering Delays in India) team at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy had published results of a survey of 2800 advocates practising before 8 High Courts across the country. This provides valuable insights regarding the extent of awareness regarding the existence of the Fund and its utilization across different Bar Councils and High Courts.

For example, advocates in Delhi (92%), Gujarat (72%) and Madras (65%) were not aware of any advocates receiving assistance under the Fund. This could be indicative of the lack of purpose and rigour in the administration of the Fund, which weighs down any potential upside it may offer.

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How much do lawyers earn?

There cannot be any doubt as to the need for a measure that ensures financial security for advocates. As many as 80% of advocates who were part of the pilot survey in Delhi responded that advocates with up to two years of practice experience earn anywhere between Rs. 5,000 to 20,000 monthly, with the feedback from the surveyors being that the starting range is in fact much lower.

Therefore, in the subsequent surveys at the Allahabad, Bombay, Kerala, Madras and Patna High Courts, a lower range i.e. Rs. 2,000 - 5,000 was included; and this attracted more than 40% of the response. Survey results from other High Courts also trend in the same direction. Significantly, 50% of the respondents in the Calcutta and Gujarat High Courts indicated that they earned less than Rs. 10,000 per month.

It would be safe to conclude from these numbers that a significant section of advocates, specifically junior advocates, make very modest earnings from the profession. In contrast, more than 70% of the advocates interviewed in Delhi High Courts opined that senior advocates charged more than Rs. 1,00,000 per hearing. Responses from other states revealed that more than 50% of senior advocates in Allahabad, Bombay, Gujarat, Kerala and Madras High Courts charge more than Rs. 80,000 and up to Rs. 2,00,000 per hearing.

Advocates and Virtual Courts

Clearly, there exists a large pay gap between the earnings of young entrants into the litigating circles and the earnings made by senior advocates. In these times, when courts are functioning entirely virtually, only those advocates who have a strong financial base can afford or are equipped with the necessary technological tools to attend hearings.

Such difficulties have alienated the vast majority of litigating advocates, as pointed out by the BCI Chairman in his recent letter to the Chief Justice of India. While highlighting the “yawning gap” between various income groups in India, the Chairman even stated that virtual courts can potentially lead to 95% of the advocates in the country being forced to “work less” and “brief less” due to lack of access to technology.

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Low pay and lack of social security are concerns frequently raised by advocates, and have led to strikes in the past. In February 2019, advocates across the country went on strike responding to the BCI’s demand for a slew of measures such as insurance cover, financial protection, schemes to facilitate land acquisition at cheaper rates and stipends for newly enrolled advocates.

The nature of such demands indicates that litigating advocates were already suffering due to lack of financial security in spite of the existence of welfare funds. Such concerns could only have escalated during the lockdown.

An overwhelmingly high number of judges and academicians constantly lament the exodus of law graduates to law firms and corporates and implore more law students to take up litigation. However, in light of the extreme financial insecurity, now confirmed through data, should it come as a surprise that law graduates are shying away from litigation?

Considering the future where technology will likely drive our judicial system and access-barriers could exist for many aspiring individuals, a long-term sustainable strategy needs to be formulated to encourage advocates to enter litigation and adopt technology. The BCI and State Bar Councils should work in tandem to ensure that the Advocates’ Welfare Fund is replenished, and devise a robust mechanism to provide allowances to disadvantaged advocates.

The Judiciary is slated for radical changes in the times to come and it is critical that advocates contribute to and benefit from these changes, rather than continue to suffer penury.

Shreya Tripathy, Reshma Sekhar
Shreya Tripathy, Reshma Sekhar

The authors are Research Fellows at Justice, Access and Lowering Delays in India (JALDI) Project, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

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