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The Pandemic Strikes Law, Lawyers and the Legal System Hard

As the year draws to an end, Covid-19 brought about a new world order and the judiciary was just as affected. While the government brought in various laws without any consultation, states used this time to crack down on “love jihad”. As young lawyers found themselves jobless, senior ones raked in the moolah as they went virtually from judge to judge and High Court to High Court. It also brought out the heartlessness of the government towards migrants and top law firms towards their junior-most employees writes SANJOY GHOSE.

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LAWYERS are obsessed with Latin–a dead language with few takers. Often, lawyers unconsciously, and at times, consciously, pepper their conversations with a healthy dose of Latin. When you hear “qua”, “inter alia” and “quid pro quo” in small talk, more likely than not, you are in legal company. So lawyers will perhaps have no trouble when I use a Latin term to describe the year that went past for law, lawyers and the legal system–annus horribilis–the horrible year.

Covid-19 & Law

The pre-pandemic part of 2020 went in nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Instead of outreach to a visibly insecure minority that had now come out on the streets clutching the Tricolour and photographs of B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhiji, the government promptly demonised them and their supporters as anti-national. The national atmosphere was so polarised that it was only a matter of time before riots broke out in the national capital, the epicenter of the struggle against the CAA.

Draconian measures such as a national lockdown and closure and requisition of private properties were put in place purportedly in the exercise of the powers of these laws. Scared to venture out due to the dreaded and unknown virus, the general public remained shut inside their homes and readily accepted these measures.

Then came the pandemic and the protests melted away and the songs of defiance fell silent. This time, the government dusted out a law of 1897, the Epidemic Diseases Act, and in a cocktail with the 2005 Disaster Management Law, attempted to battle the coronavirus.

Draconian measures such as a national lockdown and closure and requisition of private properties were put in place purportedly in exercise of the powers of these laws. Scared to venture out due to the dreaded and unknown virus, the general public remained shut inside their homes and readily accepted these measures.

Even as Parliament functioned with Covid-control measures, the government rammed through the farm laws, altering the very architecture of the farm economy. While the jury may be out on the benefits of the laws, what is indisputable is that there was hardly any consultation with the farmers and their organisations before such drastic changes were effected. This government cannot be faulted for its daring and its risk-taking appetite.

Another major legislative change was the enactment of three Labour Codes. Unlike the farm laws, the drafts of these legislations were in the public domain for a substantial period, inviting public feedback. They had also been referred to the concerned parliamentary sub-committee. The grouse of the Opposition now is that crucial recommendations made have been ignored in the final version.

In response to the pandemic, no specific law was enacted to deal with the terrible fall-out on matters of employment, closure of business and ousting of tenants for non-payment of rents. Certain orders were passed under the disaster management laws directing employers not to terminate their workmen on account of Covid-related financial strains. They were half-heartedly enforced and ultimately, not renewed or reiterated.

No specific law was enacted to deal with matters of employment, closure of business and ousting of tenants for non-payment of rents. Certain orders were passed under the disaster management laws directing employers not to terminate their workmen. They were half-heartedly enforced and ultimately, not renewed or reiterated.

As the nation got used to masks and sanitisers, certain state governments thought it their responsibility to protect vulnerable victims of “love jihad”–a term coined to refer to a Hindu woman being “forced” or “enticed” to convert to Islam out of love for her beau. As expected, Uttar Pradesh took the lead. The state which wanted to free industries from all labour laws for three years to cope with Covid, laboured hard to put in place a law that enmeshed star-struck couples who dared to love beyond the frontiers of faith.

If Uttar Pradesh jumped into the fray, could Madhya Pradesh be far behind? This state was also busy formulating its legislative response to the most challenging threat to humanity in these times–a woman deciding to marry whom she wishes to.

Lawyers & Lingo

Courts shut as the nation locked down after the celebratory pot-banging. Yet within weeks, they rose like a phoenix with virtual courts being the order of the day. “Unmute yourself”, “Mute yourself”, “May I screen share a document?” are now an integral part of a litigator’s lingo. Courts have been quite sporting in this transition. Judges have been greeting all screens with “Good morning, everyone” and has been patient when technical glitches came between the Bar and the Bench.

While I have written about archaic legal costumes and the need for them to be discarded, little did I know that the virus from Wuhan would bring us to a day when courts would have to chide lawyers for appearing in their underclothes.

Once I lost power in my office and when I went out to the parking lot to get the court transmission on my mobile, I found the division bench politely and patiently waiting for me to rejoin. Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Supreme Court got a telephone call placed to a lawyer who was facing audio problems and the poor fellow finally managed to argue before India’s highest court through his cell phone.

When I wrote about archaic legal costumes, which were vestiges of colonial rule, and the need for them to be discarded, little did I know that the virus from Wuhan would bring us to a day when courts would have to chide lawyers for appearing in their underclothes. Lawyers have been seen on their screens appearing in moving cars and from exotic locales. In the early days, the Supreme Court even commented on the exotic background it saw on the screen of a senior lawyer and observed that it looked like a museum.

I have personally had many a young lawyer and court clerk swallow all self-pride to plead for financial support. The stories of established law firms and seniors slashing the pittance earned by young juniors and even sacking them were heart-wrenching.

While many clerks, juniors and newly independent lawyers have struggled to make ends meet during the lockdown, many senior lawyers have seen the cash registers jingling.

The mechanism of virtual courts has made it possible for seniors to flit not only from judge to judge but from High Court to High Court. In fact, the most celebrated lawyer has appeared from across continents to rescue the “personal liberty” of his client within a record-breaking 24 hours. Who could have imagined the Bench and the Bar not being in the same time zone and yet, the Court being held and orders being passed?

As the pandemic exposed the cleavage between the haves and the have-nots, it did not spare the Bar. It exposed its worst kept secret–its oligarchic nature. I have personally had many a young lawyer and court clerk swallow all self-pride to plead for financial support. The stories of established law firms and seniors slashing the pittance earned by young juniors and even sacking them were heart-wrenching.

While the Bar made ad hoc attempts to provide solace to the less fortunate friends, the need to regulate legal employment and payment of proper remuneration to lawyers and legal support staff has never been felt as much as it was in these trying months. Many young lawyers, in the manner of the migrant labour, albeit in a less dramatic fashion, had to leave the city they practised in and return to their towns and villages as courts and the hearts of established lawyers remained shut to them.

The Legal System

Now finally, a wrap-up of how our justice system fared in this terrible year of oximeters and thermometers.

Sorry I have to end it here. Why so, you may ask.

Is it because I wish to spare the poor nonagenarian attorney general the trouble of having to deal with another petition from an enthusiastic law student who is a member of a right-wing student association or is it the lack of the legendary Bengali martial spirit? That is for me to know and for you to guess.

(Sanjoy Ghose is an advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. The views are personal.)