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Regulating lawyer fees must be supplemented by other measures

While most other professions are not regulated in terms of fees, the legal justice system is seen as a vital component in upholding the rule of law. The proposed legislation is a significant step but one which needs several supplementary efforts to make it really work

editorials Updated: Dec 07, 2017 15:42 IST
Hindustan Times
Supreme Court,lawyer fees,law commission
Lawyers outside Supreme Court (File Photo) (Pradeep Gaur/ Mint)

Concerned that astronomical lawyer fees are an obstacle to justice for the poor, the Supreme Court (SC) has asked the Centre to bring in a bill to regulate this. It has asked that the floor and ceiling of advocates’ fees be prescribed. Various SC judgments and law commission recommendations have sought such legislation, so that lawyers do not profit from the poor or refuse to represent them adequately.

It is clear that the apex court does not view the legal profession like any other where practitioners have the choice to charge what they see fit for their services. While most other professions are not regulated in terms of fees, the legal justice system is seen as a vital component in upholding the rule of law. In its 226th report, the law commission had said that the unethical conduct of lawyers had contributed to the pendency of cases which had, in turn, clogged the justice system. This explains why many accused spend more time in jail as undertrials than they do as convicts. It was in 1988 that the law commission had spoken of the need to review the regulatory mechanism for legal assistance, something which has not happened even today.

In the current scheme of things, the poor and the marginalised are those who fall through the cracks of the system. They are either denied justice or have to seek alternative and undesirable forms of justice through forums such as khap panchayats.

Still, however well-meaning the current legislation proposal may be, it has several drawbacks. It supposes that the litigants know their right to affordable legal services, that such aid will be available in remote villages, and that the lawyers assigned have the competence and motivation to prosecute the cases adequately. One provision that the Legal Services Authorities Act provided was lok adalats. But unfortunately, this was seen more as a mechanism to swiftly reduce the number of cases rather than as a means to deliver justice.

There have been several suggestions from those in the profession on providing accessible legal services. One is that the legal education system itself should look at the constitutional mandate on meeting justice for the large majority of those who have no access or means to the system. If law schools can work in partnership with large urban law firms, perhaps as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts, there could be a wider and affordable pool of legal assistance. A cadre of public defenders, in tune with the needs of the marginalised and poor, could come up this way. That’s a good idea.

The proposed legislation is a significant step, but one which needs several supplementary efforts to make it really work.

First Published: Dec 07, 2017 15:42 IST