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Battling for home turf

The Delhi High Court?s exemption of offices of lawyers, architects and doctors from its demolition order doesn?t mean that firms or hospitals can operate in residential colonies.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 23:59 IST

The Court’s ruling on the sealing of properties in Delhi has seen shop-owners coming out in large numbers to file affidavits in compliance with the apex court’s order. It’s time now to focus on some of the exceptions recorded by the Delhi High Court which are exempt from the sealing exercise. A few days ago, some lawyers/law firms protested against the sealing of their offices as they claimed exemption on the same basis that the Delhi High Court defined for professionals such as doctors, lawyers and CAs, allowing them to operate from residential areas.

Now the law must apply equally to everyone, and there should be no selective bias in deciding which violator will be penalised. No one should be able to claim undue benefit. At the same time, the order must be understood to realise who are the true beneficiaries of the exemption? Does the order apply to law firms and private nursing homes/hospitals operating in residential areas? Does the order apply only to a professional in his individual capacity or to groups of professionals as well? Does the order apply to professionals who take offices on rent in residential areas? On what basis would a management consultancy firm be excluded from the ambit of the exemption order? Why should professional music, yoga, reiki or even private tutor who operate individually or collectively from schools/coaching centres from residences scurry for cover when large law, accountancy or architect firms can operate without fear? Does the order include other categories of professionals not mentioned? These questions need immediate answers and clarifications to prevent discriminatory action. This in turn would need clarity of perspective when interpreting the order.

The rationale behind the exceptions appears to be the appreciation that ‘individuals’ capable of independently providing ‘service’ to the ‘people’ on account of their special skills or expertise ought to be given the freedom to practise their vocation from a place of their choice. It is in this sense that the court appears to refer to such ‘individuals’ as ‘professionals’ and the services offered by them as ‘professional services’.

But this protection, granted to individuals, can certainly not be extended to firms or groups of such individuals operating in residential areas, in properties owned or rented. It’s unfair to construe that this is a blanket protection of professionals offering commercial services from residential areas. The consequences of their doing so are more or less the same as any other commercial establishment and affect the peace and resources of the residential colony in the same manner. Drawing incorrect inferences defeats the objectives sought to be enforced by the courts and paves the way for commercial professional organisations to operate in residential areas.

What the order means, and its meaning must repeatedly be reinforced, is that a doctor, lawyer, CA or architect can practise as individuals. But no business operation can exist where other professionals are employed — whether that be a law firm or hospital/diagnostic centre. The exemption does not include ‘groups’ of professionals.

Because the affected individuals running firms, like doctors, architects and CAs are fairly conversant with the law and its loopholes, can’t be ground for them to receive preferential treatment. Often enough, it is these quiet offices that run in residential colonies that create a nuisance with the increase in the number of vehicles, a stream of visitors and courier boys and a drain on the areas’ infrastructure. But exploiting the order’s interpretation can be the only reason why none of their offices have so far been targeted by the corporation as part of the sealing exercise. Can an individual claim exemption if his practice is run from a different location other than his own residence? Certainly not. You can’t stay in Anand Lok and have a dental clinic in Defence Colony to claim benefit of the relaxation.

The other question that arises is whether there is any threshold to define the minimum ‘number’ of professionals who can operate as a group from a residential area? Again, this will dilute the mandate of the law. For every firm will list a number of ‘juniors’ who will only be ‘extras’ and not considered ‘professionals’. Thus any ‘number’ would pave the way for misuse of the court order.

We do have a peculiar system of devising laws, where we first draft the law, then create exceptions to shrink the legal net to such an extent that the rule actually starts appearing as the exception. There is need for great caution when we interpret laws. Enforcing the law as it stands, and not on a variety of interpretations, is what the MCD and commissioners need to concentrate on.