A foreign couple, who is involved in a legal tussle with a local charity being run by the Tibetan administration-in-exile here for more than five decades, is now locked in another battle with two Indian advocates.
In an unusual complaint to the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana, the couple - US citizen Karma Lama, a composer of Tibetan music, and his Italian artist wife Paola Pivi -- has alleged that Chandigarh-based advocate brothers Ranjit and Anil Malhotra have charged an exorbitant fee of Rs. 3.5 crore in just about nine months in a Tibetan child's custody case.
The amount includes approximately Rs. 35 lakh for expenses and secondary lawyers. Out of the total, Rs. 2.5 crore was "paid" via traceable international bank transfers.
Denying any wrongdoing, the Malhotras said they were engaged as counsel by the couple as per agreed and settled charges.
The couple had moved against Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) - a home for destitute children based in Dharamsala city - for the custody and guardianship of a seven-year-old Tibetan orphaned child. The case is pending in the Himachal Pradesh courts.
Confirming the receipt of the complaint, Bar council chairman Rakesh Gupta told IANS: "We are seized of the matter."
"Legal profession is a service, not a business. Charging exorbitant fees is not justified," he added.
The couple claimed that fee was charged on an hourly basis. The complaint, which this correspondent accessed, alleged that "in nine-and-a-half months of litigation, we were charged a total of $5,31,000, approximately Rs. 3.3 crore by the Malhotras. The fee was calculated at $300 per hour -- equivalent to more than Rs18,000 per hour."
The Malhotras were hired by the couple in January 2013 and formally discharged as counsel in December the same year.
The couple said the Malhotras even counted "hours spent talking on the phone, hours spent talking among themselves, hours spent reading the case material and related material, and hours spent doing office work".
"We made numerous appearances before the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in New Delhi, before district courts in Dharamsala and Shimla and before Himachal Pradesh High Court while handling the case," Ranjit Malhotra told IANS.
He said "the motives of the client are highly suspect and they are conducting a malicious campaign against us for extraneous considerations. Their allegations are totally unfounded."
"Since the Bar Council is seized of the matter we will give the reply to it," Malhotra added.
The case for which the Malhotras were hired is basically an ongoing row between the foreign couple and the Tibetan administration-run home for destitute children - Tibetan Children's Village (TCV), an autonomous society.
The couple -- Karma Lama and Paola Pivi - visited Dharamsala on an international research project and met the child, an inmate of TVC, in August 2012. They agreed to sponsor him as guardians.
In December 2012, the couple took the child (name withheld) for a holiday.
In the meantime, the couple was informed by the TVC authorities that the child will be sent to France with Tashi Choedon, a Tibetan woman who found the abandoned child in Kathmandu and brought him to the TCV three years ago.
She disappeared after giving the custody of the child to the TVC authorities. But Choedon came back after learning that the guardianship of the child was given to the couple and said she wanted him back.
On Feb 4, 2013, a Dharamsala court ordered interim custody of the child to the couple. But the court ordered the couple on Aug 1, 2013 to give the custody of the child to TCV.
Aggrieved by the order, the couple moved the Himachal Pradesh High Court, which Aug 8 stayed the Dharamsala court order. It said that the custody of the child will remain with the couple but he should not leave India.
The matter is still pending in the courts.