A letter to the Chief Justice of India, written by an organisation of lawyers, highlights the social reality of the legal fraternity, especially in the post-COVID-19 pandemic scenario, when many advocates were compelled to leave the practice. The letter emphasises that women advocates, and those from Dalit, Adivasi and other socially disadvantaged sections of the society suffered economic adversities, yet their concerns have not been adequately addressed.
THE All India Lawyers Association for Justice (AILAJ) have written a letter to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud regarding the need for different organs of the State, the judiciary and the legal fraternity to take necessary steps for ensuring social and economic justice in the legal fraternity. This was pursuant to its campaign for social and economic justice for lawyers in various states across the country, undertaken last month.
The AILAJ is an organisation of lawyers, legal professionals and law students striving to protect the core tenets of India’s Constitution, particularly liberty, equality, justice and fraternity.
Need for equal opportunities for women and those from marginalised communities
The AILAJ referred to the CJI’s speech at a function organised by the Bar Council of India on November 19, 2022, in which he had said: “If we want to change the face of the legal profession, we have to provide equal opportunity and access to not just women, but also marginalised communities today. So that we can find more diversity on the bench tomorrow.”
The AILAJ pointed out that there is a need to acknowledge that the legal profession is “feudalistic and unwelcoming to women and those from marginalised communities”. Thus, what can be done to promote and sustain their legal practice, and ensure them equal opportunities and access is a question that remains to be answered.
COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerable social reality of the legal fraternity
Highlighting the issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AILAJ pointed out that the lockdowns laid bare the vulnerable social reality of the legal fraternity.
“The closure of courts plunged legal professionals — particularly those from trial, taluk or district courts, junior and lawyers from marginalised communities, law clerks, notaries, writers, typists, and others in deep financial distress,” the letter notes.
The representation discloses that many practising advocates were forced to abandon their practice and return to their villages, and several incurred deep debts. Many families faced destitution when legal professionals lost their lives due to COVID-19.
The letter acknowledges that there were efforts to ameliorate the situation, but points out that the efforts did not match the scale of the devastation caused by the pandemic.
Former CJI N.V. Ramana had written a letter to the Union Ministry of Law and Justice on June 8, 2021, requesting the Union government to address the digital divide within the legal community, particularly in rural and Adivasi areas, and provide financial assistance to advocates, especially to junior advocates, who were struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the letter, the former CJI recognised certain issues that needed the immediate intervention of the Union government. These were:
- To strengthen internet network and connectivity beyond major urban centres as the digital divide is adversely impacting the functioning of courts
- To ensure availability of vaccines to immunise all functionaries associated with courts and their families across the country to facilitate full-scale functioning of the judiciary
- To recognise all the functionaries of the courts, including the advocates, as front-line workers for the purpose of providing pandemic-related relief
- To provide financial support to advocates, especially junior advocates, who are struggling to make ends meet due to loss of work for more than a year since the onset of the pandemic
Data suggests junior advocates barely earn enough for their sustenance
The AILAJ, in the letter, notes that the situation of a large percentage of lawyers is particularly concerning. It referred to a pilot study conducted by the legal think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Delhi in 2020, which found that nearly 80 per cent of advocates practising at the Delhi High Court, with up to two years of professional experience, fall within the income bracket of Rs. 5,000 to 20,000 monthly.
The study, conducted as a part of Vidhi’s Justice, Access and Lowering of Delays Initiative, also found out that the starting range of income, in reality, is much lower than this.
The study subsequently surveyed advocates in the high courts of Allahabad, Bombay, Kerala, Madras and Patna, where it was found that 40 per cent of the respondents earned a monthly income between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 5,000. In the high courts of Calcutta and Gujarat, half of the respondents reported earning less than Rs. 10,000 in a month.
The AILAJ claims to have found that in district and mofussil courts, the majority of lawyers earn less than Rs. 10,000 a month as well. The situation of junior advocates, first-generation advocates, women advocates and particularly advocates from Dalit, Adivasi and other socially disadvantaged sections is worse, the letter avers.
The social disadvantages suffered by women and advocates from Dalit and Adivasi background, and other socially disadvantaged sections, who additionally face discrimination and economic insecurities, have to be addressed, the letter impresses. There can be no diversity on the bench if there is no diversity in the bar, it further states.
According to the AILAJ, it is well-established under constitutional law that affirmative action and reservation are not exceptions to the right to formal equality, but are an aspect of formal equality which takes into consideration the existing inequality in the society and seeks to remedy it.
“Courts are unanimous that for equality to be truly effective or substantive, there must be recognition of existing inequalities in society and the endeavour to overcome them,” the letter submits.
In the context of its campaign for ensuring equality of opportunity for historically marginalised sections of the society, the following demands have been made in the letter:
- Union and state governments and their respective bar councils must announce a ‘Universal Advocates Welfare Scheme’, which includes monthly stipends of Rs. 10,000 for first-generation and women advocates, those from Dalit, Adivasi and backward communities, and junior lawyers for a period of three years of entering practice. There should also be financial assistance up to three lakh rupees provided to such lawyers for purchasing law books, other resources and to set up their office. Financial assistance must also be given to deceased lawyers’ dependents, retiring lawyers and those who do not practise anymore, including Rs. 7,000 as a monthly pension. There must also be accident-related financial assistance, assistance for medical purposes, and schemes related to life insurance.
- Lawyers’ chambers should be established at every court premises and allocated to lawyers, while giving priority to first-generation and women advocates, including those from Dalit, Adivasi and backward communities and lawyers above the age of 60 years.
- Every court premise shall have an Association Hall for women advocates, which includes creche facilities, toilets and computer infrastructure, among other things.
- Every court premise should have a functional library equipped with law books and journals, computers and printers, among other things.
- A Committee for Gender Sensitisation and against Sexual Harassment must be constituted in every court complex.
- Adequate representation of Dalits, women, Adivasis and those from the backward communities must be ensured in the judiciary.
- A reservation policy should be implemented in bar associations and bar councils.
- For the purposes of transparency and accountability, the list of recipients of any benefits from the bar councils, with details of the beneficiaries, should be published on a half-yearly basis.
- The Preamble of the Constitution must be prominently displayed in all offices of the bar councils and associations.
- All employees in the courts, who are working under vulnerable working conditions and work as daily wage or contract workers, must be treated as permanent employees, and provided fair and just working conditions.
- All government law colleges must be provided with proper infrastructure, teaching staff and legal resources. Monthly scholarships and paid internships must be provided to women, Dalit, Adivasi, backward communities’ and first-generation law students.
According to AILAJ, meeting these demands is necessary to realise the preambular goals of justice, equality and fraternity, and would be an important step towards democratising the legal fraternity.