In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court today laid down criteria for Senior Designations which will be applicable to all High Courts and the Supreme Court.
A Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Rohinton Nariman and Navin Sinha pronounced the judgment a while back.
Senior designations will henceforth go through a rigorous three-tier process.
There would be a Permanent Committee for each court, to be known as Committee for Designation of Senior Advocates.
All applications for designation would go to the Permanent Committee, which will be composed of the Chief Justice, two senior most judges (of the Supreme Court or High Court as the case may be), Attorney General/Advocate General (as the case may be) and an eminent member of the Bar nominated by the aforesaid four members.
The Committee will have a permanent Secretariat. All applications received by Committee will be sent to the Secretariat for consideration.
The Secretariat will consider integrity of the applicant, pro-bono work, reported judgments etc. while processing the applications. It will also invite suggestions from other stakeholders regarding the candidates before sending its report to the Committee.
The Permanent Committee will then interview the candidates and examine their suitability depending on certain criteria which will be point based. The following are the criteria:
Further, the Court added that income would be no bar for designation.
“…we do not see why we should insist on any minimum income as a condition of eligibility. The income generated by a lawyer would depend on the field of his practice and it is possible that a lawyer doing pro bono work or who specializes in a particular field may generate a lower return of income than his counterpart who may be working in another field of law. Insistence on any particular income, therefore, may be a self-defeating exercise.”
Regarding age, the Court fixed ten years practice as a qualification for applying for the gown.
“Insofar as age is concerned, we are inclined to take the view that instead of having a minimum age with a provision of relaxation in an appropriate case it would be better to go by the norm of 10 years practice at the Bar which is also what is prescribed by Article 217 of the Constitution as a condition of eligibility for being considered for appointment as a Judge of the High Court.”
After the Permanent Committee assesses the suitability, it will forward its list to the Full Court, which will take the final call.
The Court further directed that the Full Court will not normally resort to voting by secret ballot, unless absolutely necessary. The Full Court also has the power to review its decision.
The Court also upheld the Constitutionality of Section 16 of the Advocates Act, thereby dismissing the challenge to the same.
The case has its genesis in a petition filed by Senior Advocate Indira Jaising in 2015.
In her petition, Jaising had questioned the discrimination meted out to capable advocates when it comes to “giving them the gown”. She had alleged violation of Article 14 and 15 by the Supreme Court in the procedure followed for designating lawyers as Senior Advocates.
She had also contended that the method of designation by vote leads to unhealthy lobbying with judges and victimizes ethical lawyers who do not lobby. Further, in her petition, she had taken a dig at the current crop of Seniors who hold sway over the Supreme Court practice, alleging that lack of transparency has led to a monopoly of a few Senior Advocates at the Bar. Jaising had also cited non-designation of Advocates who deal with Public interest Litigation matters and human rights cases
Jaising had followed up her petition with a survey by Bar & Bench where roughly 56 percent of those who participated called for abolishing the institution of Senior Advocates altogether.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court had filed an affidavit in the matter admitting that there are no Rules regulating designation of advocates as Seniors, but the same is governed by certain resolutions passed by the court from time to time. The Court had, however, claimed that the process currently followed is “fair” and “transparent”.
The case saw a lot of twists and turns.
The matter was initially heard by a Bench of then Chief Justice TS Thakur and Justices DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao. This Bench had then reserved its verdict. However, on the day of pronouncement of verdict, the Court recalled its order of reserving the verdict citing that all stakeholders were not heard. It then ordered that the matter be heard afresh.
The matter then went to a Division Bench. In March this year, a Division Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Navin Sinha ordered that the matter should be heard by a larger Bench.
Consequently, a Bench comprising the above two judges and Justice Rohinton Nairman was constituted to hear the case. All the while, the Supreme Court had refrained from making any Senior designations.
The matter was finally heard for two days – on August 10 and August 29.
Interestingly, the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association (GHCAA) also joined the challenge and called for striking down Section 16 of the Advocates Act, 1961, which classifies advocates into Senior Advocates and other advocates.
The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) prayed for constitution of a committee with nominees from the Bar to screen the applications for the gown. SCBA also contended that uniform standards should apply across High Courts and the Supreme Court while giving the gown.
The Court had reserved its judgment on August 29.
Regarding the challenge to the Rules framed by Meghalaya High Court, which was tagged along with Indira Jaising’s petition, the Supreme Court did not strike down the same. However, it frowned down upon Rules, while giving the Meghalaya High Court opportunity to amend the same.