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Law firms’ body seeks ban on apps, websites offering legal services

The Bar Council says the practice is equivalent to surrogate advertising.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2017 23:50 IST
Jatin Gandhi
Jatin Gandhi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Bar Council of India,Society of Indian Law Firms,Law Firms
The Advocates Act, 1961, bars lawyers from advertising, publicising their achievements, or soliciting clients in any form. (File Photo)

Web portals and web-based apps offering legal services, consultations with lawyers, and hosting their profiles on the internet are now under the law ministry’s scanner for surrogate advertising in violation of the current law that governs the legal profession.

In the absence of clear guidelines regulating them, internet law startups and web-based apps are stretching the boundaries of the legal profession in the country. They offer a range of services, including hosting profiles of advocates, social media marketing and campaigns through emails for them.

“The BCI (Bar Council of India) rules clearly ban this sort of surrogate advertising. It is unauthorised and illegal,” said Lalit Bhasin, president of the Society of Indian Law Firms. The industry body has sought a ban on such websites and action against lawyers who engage their services.

The Advocates Act, 1961, bars lawyers from advertising, publicising their achievements, or soliciting clients in any form. The act empowers the BCI, whose members are elected by advocates, to regulate the legal profession, which it does through a set of rules that were last amended in 2009 before most legal services websites and apps were launched.

Ministry officials say the matter is “sensitive” because the law allows the bar to regulate itself.

“The act also empowers the government to act if the provisions are not complied with. We are studying the matter and will take a decision after consultations with the stakeholders,” an official said. The ministry could come up with guidelines for such sites. “The BCI has assured action but nothing has happened so far,” Bhasin said.

BCI officials did not respond to calls for comments.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, members of the bar are free to advertise and publicise their work but not yet in India. Though the government is working on a plan to liberalise the legal profession, the reform is stuck in lack of consensus between the government and the bar.

On their part, the websites claim that the expansion of the sector on to the web is only making seeking legal help cheaper and more competitive.

“Most people are too scared to meet a lawyer because of the expenses involved. Now you can get your first legal consultation for as low as ₹500,” said Shant Berwal, CEO of Legal Resolved, a startup that calls itself “a certified aggregator platform for legal service delivery”. Several such platforms offer free “pre-legal” services.

“I cannot advertise if I am a lawyer but this law does not apply to us because we are an aggregator,” Berwal said.

Lawyers allege that not regulating such services is providing an undue advantage to those who flout the laid-down rules. “There should be a level playing field for every lawyer in the profession. The rules, till they exist, should apply to all,” said Bharatvir Singh, partner, Saikrishna and Associates, an IPR law firm.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 22:54 IST