By K Raveendran
The remark by two judges of a Supreme Court vacation bench on the need for senior advocates to enrol and train at least 15 juniors is set to breath new life into the long-drawn controversy about the abuse of the system of designating senior advocates.
“We want the young generation of this profession to groom so that by the time the older generation wants to quit, the young generation is ready. There is a gap. This is the last court which needs to settle all the issues,” Justices Ajay Rastogi and BV Nagarathna pointed out. They suggested that every senior advocate with 20 or more years of experience in the bar must guide at least 15 juniors.
The process of designating senior advocates itself has been attacked time and again by legal circles and academicians who find in it a colonial hangover, nourished by unhealthy tendencies such as arbitrariness, favouritism, nepotism and elitism that leads to exclusion of a large section of lawyers who cannot claim legacy to any parentage of standing or exposure. It has been notoriously bracketed with the British system of Queen’s Counsel, a kind of ‘old boys club’ of highly-paid barristers.
Senor as a prefix brings certain exclusive privileges to the claimants, ensuring priority treatment at official functions and more seriously the right to first audience in court hearings. This even has a bearing on the public perception about the seniors, with litigants feeling more secure due to the apparent clout that they enjoy in the system. Even to visually distinguish the seniors, their gowns have a different style of their own.
On the other hand, a complete opaqueness in the designation process ends up it becoming an instrument of discrimination at one end and favouritism at the other. The Supreme Court has made an effort to reform the process, the latest development in this regard being a modification of its earlier direction that each of 10 years of a lawyer’s practice be allocated one mark to 20 years.
But the main problems with the selection process persist. The general conditions for eligibility as senior advocate continue to be vague. The decision is based on the subjective opinion of the chief justice and the judges in terms of a lawyer’s ability, standing in the bar, knowledge and experience. The application for seniorship from a lawyer is circulated among all the judges and recommendations from five judges are put to vote in the full court. No minutes of the discussion on the eligibility are kept and there is no interaction with the aspirant advocates; nor are they told why their application has been rejected.
Junior-turned senior advocate’ Indira Jaising has been in the forefront of fighting this colonial-like privilege. There is no more authentic person than her to take up such a fight. She was the first woman advocate to be designated senior by the Bombay High Court in 1986. But she has been appearing in court donning a junior’s robes.
In 2015, she filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, challenging the present system as arbitrary, non-transparent and discriminatory, and violation of the rule of equality under Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution. She has been complaining that the system currently being followed leads to the monopoly of a few senior counsel at the bar and has made legal services by senior lawyers unaffordable and out of the reach of the ordinary people. This also encourages lobbying by the aspirant lawyers since there are no well-laid criteria for the selection, which largely depends on the likes and dislikes of judges.
Based on information received through a RTI application, Indira Jaising argued that there was no consistency in the criteria followed in the designation of senior advocates, in which considerations other than merit acquired more weightage. Her PIL petition challenged the hierarchy prevailing in the judiciary, which it said was based on networking and contacts of the aspiring lawyers. (IPA Service)