When a Delhi court granted bail last month to a 65-year-old woman accused of peddling around 50 kg marijuana, her lawyer Karan Tarkar was overjoyed. Not just because bail arguments were difficult, but because he was going to be paid a Rs 10,000 fee — his first significant paycheck since March. But with work hardly picking up, Karan has now returned to his home in Mathura, hoping to find clients in the local district court there.
It has been over three months since the Delhi High Court restricted its functioning and that of district courts to urgent matters only. The latest restriction has been extended until July 31.
Lawyers who depended on day-to-day hearings have, meanwhile, been left in the lurch, with many returning home in search of jobs in local courts, or looking for different jobs till courts fully reopen.
Many of them have three-five years of work experience, and cite burgeoning rents, EMI payments, working expenses like payment for clerks and junior advocates as reasons for leaving.
A recent report by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, titled ‘A Survey of Advocates Practicing Before the High Courts’, stated that “as many as 80% of the surveyed advocates from the Delhi High Court believed that lawyers in their first two years of practice earn between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 a month”.
With only urgent matters being heard, many lawyers working independently are unable to find new clients.
Advocate Gaurav Kumar (28) has been practicing since 2016, and looks after criminal and matrimonial cases. What has changed post-lockdown is a decrease in criminal matters and an increase in matrimonial ones, he said. But this hasn’t meant a higher income since the latter is not classified under urgent matters. Gaurav has now returned to his home in Bijnor. “I used to stay at a rented accommodation in Saket. My monthly expenses are around Rs 12,000 and I didn’t earn during the lockdown. Matters where clients would approach the court to pass directions for registration of FIRs have slowed down. Now, small disputes are settled at the police station.”
Advocate Yash Thakur (38) has a 14 year old practice and deals with criminal and civil cases. He has returned to his hometown in Himachal Pradesh. “If clients don’t come to court, we don’t get paid. I have a chamber at Saket court which has a monthly rent. I also have to pay monthly rent for my home and to my staff. Plus, I have young children and can’t risk their health in Delhi,” he said.
Advocate Akshay Verma (25), in his fourth year of practice, deals with income tax, cheque bounce and arbitration-related matters, but has now left for his hometown in Aligarh. He spends most of his time looking for cases at local GST and IT tribunals. “There has been some work but it is a trickle. If lawyers don’t get support from the government, we will not survive 2020,” Verma said.
The Bar Council of Delhi (BCD) has written to the Prime Minister seeking financial relief of Rs 500 crore for lawyers unable to meet basic needs. BCD chairman KC Mittal said the council has already disbursed Rs 8 crore to advocates in need of financial assistance.
However, many fall between the cracks. Several clerks have been left without a job after law firms laid them off. Neeraj Sawariya (19), a clerk working with a law firm, has been lucky since his employer pays him some money every month.
“My father works as a whitewasher, he is sustaining our family. I tried to apply for jobs like a Zomato deliveryman and at an AC repair shop, but I have not yet been accepted,” he said.
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