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Crime decoded

If you have an analytical bent of mind and have the urge to bring lawbreakers to book, you could become a criminal lawyer, says Pranab Ghosh

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:47 IST
Pranab Ghosh

A woman, the second wife of Harmish (name changed), is accused of killing her stepdaughter. There is no eyewitness to the incident and she has been implicated solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. She was present with the victim on the rooftop of their home and the police, at her instance, have recovered a knife and a stick – weapons used to kill the child. Harmish is a witness against his wife.

Controversies have dogged Harmish’s family before the murder. Legal proceedings alleging mental and physical torture have been initiated against two of Harmish’s brothers by their wives – and the couples have been living separately since.

According to Harmish, his first wife died of illness. He alleges that his second wife killed his daughter because she did not like the child. No other motive could be attributed to the crime. The rooftop is accessible from other houses. The knife and the stick, without bloodstains, were seen by witnesses (Harmish and his brothers) before the arrival of the police. The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report also did not find any bloodstains on the clothes of the accused that could connect her to the offence. Yet, she has remained in custody for the past three years.

Her response to the accusation has been that she and her stepdaughter were basking in the sun on the rooftop when the assailant appeared and attacked them.

While the child was stabbed to death, she also suffered injuries.

You as a criminal lawyer might feel that the woman has been falsely implicated and the husband has accused her only because he wants to get rid of her. Fine enough. But you have to prove the innocence of the accused in the eyes of the law. And therein lies the challenge in the practice of criminal law.

“Criminal law is the summation of the principles which govern the behaviour of people in society and violation of the same is liable to punishment,” says Atul Sharma, advocate and helmsman of Atul Sharma & Associates, a Delhi-based law firm. “In other words, it is a code to regulate behaviour of individuals in society.”

The practice of criminal law in India can be divided into two broad categories: a) trial and b) appellate. The role of a criminal lawyer at the trial stage is to put forth the case of his/her client by means of evidence and cross- examination, while at the appellate stage it is to test whether the applicable law has been correctly applied to the facts of the present case. “At both stages, there is a dearth of quality criminal lawyers (in the country), and therefore, there is immense potential for aspiring criminal lawyers,” says Anuj Handa, 27, a Delhi-based advocate.

But everyone may not be as lucky as Handa to earn R80,000 a month at such a young age. And that’s one of the challenges. “For young lawyers to establish themselves is a time-consuming process and, therefore, it is less attractive to them,” says Raj Kumar, advocate, Atul Sharma Associates. But, can achievers not be expected to rise up to the challenge?

What's it about?
Criminal law regulates governmental sanctions (e.g. imprisonment, fine etc.) against acts perceived to be detrimental to the interests of society. It consists primarily of two aspects, a) substantive law, which defines acts punishable under criminal law (e.g. Indian Penal Code) and b) procedural law, which prescribes the manner in which the substantive law is enforced

Clock Work
For a lawyer working in a law firm:
8 am: Reach office
8.30 am: Check mails; draft appeals, applications etc
10 am: Proceed to the courts for various cases listed for that day
3 pm: Leave court
3.30 pm to 6 pm: Counsel clients
6 pm to 8:30 pm: Prepare for the cases listed for the next day, also prepare case notes as required
9 pm: Call it a day

The Payoff
At the entry level (for lawyers with up to five years of experience), the salary of a criminal lawyer would usually be modest, starting at Rs5,000 per month approximately. However, it would increase with time depending on the ability and dedication of the individual. At the mid-level (people with more than five but less than 15 years experience) salaries would typically range between Rs50,000 and Rs2 lakh, while at the senior level, the earning potential is endless.

Some senior criminal lawyers are known to charge lakhs of rupees for a single appearance in court

Skills
. Good communication skills
. Quick responsiveness
. Open, flexible mind
. Good authoritative leadership qualities
. Patience
. Good listening and a powerful oratorical skills
. Out-of-the-box thinking ability

How do i get there?
Pass Class 12 - any stream. Sit for the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT)/ other entrance tests conducted by individual institutions and take admission in BA LLB, which is a five-year course. You can also take admission in the three-year degree programme, LLB, conducted by Delhi university and other institutes of higher learning. Admission to the three-year degree course will also be on the basis of admission tests conducted by institutions offering the degree programme. You will have to be a graduate to qualify for the three-year course. After BA LLB or LLB you can do your masters, LLM.

Then you can join a law firm/industry or independent practice. Generally, candidates join the profession after completing their graduation

Institutes & urls
. Delhi University, Delhi;
www.du.ac.in
. Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi;
www.bhu.ac.in
. Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh;
www.amu.ac.in
. Panjab University, Chandigarh;
www.puchd.ac.in
. NSLIU, Banglore;
www.nls.ac.in
. Government Law College, Mumbai;
www.glc.edu

Pros & cons
.

Can be an exciting profession


.

You can save an innocent person from a life in prison


.

With enough experience, you can have handsome financial gains and social and professional recognition


.

Modest salaries and struggle at the entry level are major deterrents for most aspirants entering the field


.

It takes time to establish yourself and prosper in independent practice

Specialise or perish

A senior advocate lays bare a few guidelines that will help you succeed

Please trace the evolution of the scope of practice of criminal law in India?
It has not changed much. However, with the introduction of certain new acts, the scenario has changed a little. For example, earlier, litigation used to be the only solution in criminal cases. With the introduction of the Delhi Legal Services Authority Act, 2005, the court, instead wants settlements on the basis of consensus among the affected parties for such offences that are not punishable with sentences of more than three years. Causing injury due to rash driving or petty stealing/theft are examples of such offences. In cases such as these, criminal lawyers act as mediators and counsellors.

There are, in fact, various fields in criminal law. You have the Indian Penal Code (IPC) cases like murder, cheating, forgery, fraud, robbery, dowry deaths, dacoity etc. Then there are cases that deal with the Negotiable Instrument Act, like cheque defrauds, Registrar of Companies prosecution, income tax prosecution, trademark and copyright violation (all white-collar crimes). Prosecution is also done on the basis of the Information Technology Act, Intellectual Property Rights, Companies Act, Customs Act, FEMA etc. All these come under criminal law. There are many other acts. Your earnings will, however, depend on the field you work in and your expertise. For example, if you are dealing with corporate criminals, the scope of work is brighter because you deal with civilised people, not hardened criminals. I think it has better prospects as far as the financial aspects are concerned.

Are there adequate numbers of criminal lawyers in India? If not, why?
As far as criminal law is concerned, real experts in any one particular field are very few in India. If you talk in terms of media presence of lawyers as noted experts in their respective fields, you will find few names popping up again and again from different cities. This should not have been so.

Initially, there were no training programmes for students studying law. But now institutions have started providing specific training as per the chosen option of the student. Then, there are specific courses, which are either degree or diploma… They have started PG courses as well in particular fields.

Therefore, in five or 10 years we will have more individual experts in the field of criminal law.

What is your advice to young aspirants? What should they be doing to prepare themselves for a career in criminal law?
First, they should choose a specific field, like IPC, IT or corporate. Then, they need to update theselves with particular acts and the related provisions of law as well as the judgment resting on the particular subject. I will like to add one thing here. The Indian Evidence Act, which is applicable to all the courts, forums, tribunals and other authorities in the country, needs to be understood thoroughly. Once you have done this, you may go on to join a law firm/ industry/ practice under a senior or venture out independently.

What are the main challenges?
A majority of us are not really experts in one particular field. Earlier criminal law did not have such a wide scope. But now, with the introduction of certain new acts, the scope has become wider and requires specialisation and expertise in one particular field. You need specialisation, plus you need to develop unique communication skills.

S P Kaushal, advocate, president, Dwarka Court Bar Association Interviewed by Pranab Ghosh