The scathing remarks from the Supreme Court recently on the opaque manner in which law officers in Punjab and Haryana are appointed has raised hopes of a clean-up after years.
Pick-and-choose has been the mechanism in the two advocate general offices, regardless of which party is in power. The apex court’s observation makes it clear that political and personal considerations weigh over merit in selecting law officers, an army of which has been hired at taxpayers’ money.
On September 10, while reserving the order on a bunch of petitions related to these selections, an apex court bench of justice TS Thakur and justice Kurian Joseph said that it would frame broad guidelines for these appointments. The Supreme Court observed that it would not fix a cap on the number of law officers, but objectivity and fairness in the process of appointment were a must. Also, while the state governments can devise own mechanism, the guidelines could prescribe a process of consulting with the high court before appointing law officers.
How the matter came before Supreme court
In 2011, deputy advocate general BS Chahal moved the Punjab and Haryana high court against the regular appointment of a woman, Sonu Chahal, as senior deputy advocate general in the Punjab advocate general’s office, challenging it on the grounds of arbitrariness and lack of transparency. On the recommendation of the Punjab advocate general’s office, the Punjab government had absorbed Sonu Chahal, for she was believed to be close to the state’s ruling dispensation.
“No advertisement was issued and no criteria were laid down. She was issued a direct appointment letter, so I challenged it in the high court, seeking directions for the framing of guidelines,” BS Chahal told HT. Following the challenge, his contract was not renewed in 2012; but in 2013, a high court order restored to him his position with consequential benefits. The Punjab government went to the Supreme Court, where during the hearing, high court lawyer Pardeep Rapria filed a similar petition challenging the appointment of law officers in Haryana by the present government.
Appointments under scanner
A large number of lawyers in the offices of the Punjab and Haryana advocate generals owe their appointment to close links with the ruling establishment. Over the years, the appointed lawyers know that with the change of the guard, they would also have to pack their bags and leave. With no laid-down procedure of appointment, it’s the relatives of politicians, bureaucrats and judges who make it generally to the long list of law officers.
No norms for selection
In an affidavit before the Supreme Court, the Haryana government said that it was the discretion of the advocate general to arrange for representation of the state matters before courts. “On the recommendation of the Haryana advocate general, the government engaged legal practitioners and gave them designations,” Haryana submitted in the apex court, citing a law department manual governing these appointments.
The Punjab and Haryana governments both conceded before the Supreme Court that neither selection/search committees were constituted for these selections nor the courts were consulted. “The advocate general makes the recommendation based on his assessment of the suitability of the candidate or the advice of his peers. There is no procedure for forming selection or search committee,” Punjab stated in its response.
Why criteria are required
The army of law officers in both states is expanding each year. Sources in the legal fraternity say that as opposed to 100 to 120 law officers that would be enough to represent states before the 55-odd benches of the Punjab and Haryana high court, Punjab and Haryana have nearly 150 each.
Even the Supreme Court pointed out that many law officers had no work but been receiving handsome pay from the taxpayers’ money. Lawyer Pardeep Rapria, co-petitioner in the Supreme Court, said: “The state exchequer is held by the state as a trustee of the citizens. The remuneration to state counsels from state exchequer amounts to state largesse that can’t be offered to anyone according to the sweet will of the political masters or officers.”
With similar views coming from different quarters, including a few former advocate generals, all eyes are on the much-awaited judgment of the apex court.