STACKS of papers and files cover every inch available and the yellowing walls tell a story of years of neglect. The Legal department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) — hidden away in one corner of the BMC headquarter building and accessible through a swanky corridor — has to handle a staggering 90,000 cases that are ongoing in various courts in the state and in the Supreme Court.
The paucity of space allocated to the department, which handles 1,500 cases on a daily basis, however, is not the only problem. With a severe shortage of staff, the department has to try and keep pace with cases dating back several years while facing new litigations filed in various courts on a daily basis. These figures given by Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta show the huge volumes of cases handled by the civic body, which, by the commissioner’s own admission, is facing a staff crunch leading to delays in filing replies in court matters, an issue for which the civic body was pulled up by the Bombay High Court recently.
The High Court had sought Mehta’s presence in court. The court had said the delay in filing replies was preventing the court from deciding several important cases, especially those related to dilapidated buildings, which needed to be demolished. The court had further held that the corporation engaged senior counsels to defend petty matters as opposed to matters that concern interpretation of statutory provisions. With cases being stretched on for years and adding to the financial burden without an end in site, the corporation has been forced to look at how to improve the performance of the department. According to Mehta, the corporation has 89 law officers out of which 74 attend court proceedings, the remaining have to handle office work.
The data provided by the Legal department shows that out of 368 sanctioned posts in the department, around 279 have been filled up while 89 posts remain vacant. The maximum vacancies are in the post of assistant law officer, including Grade-II officer (42), followed by the post of managing clerk and junior stenographer. Another issue faced by the department is the lack of technological knowledge among the existing staff.
To meet the staff crunch, the BMC is now trying to fill in the gaps by empaneling advocates at all levels. It is now looking at hiring 100 freshers who will handle cases related to malaria and dengue notices issued to people and other cases in Metropolitan Magistrate courts. It will also hire 50 law officers to handle High Court cases with another 75 advocates being hired to handle ongoing cases in Sessions Court. The process is expected to be completed by October. “We usually hire senior counsels in matters relating to policy matters pertaining to revenue, floor space index and other important issues of dumping grounds,” said an official of the Legal department.
According to the official, in the face of staff shortage, they not only have to deal with cases filed recently but also old matters, which are suddenly listed for hearings. “In such cases, it becomes very difficult to file responses immediately. In important cases, we are always prepared with the required affidavits,” said the official, adding that working in the face of space constraints with piling up documents has added to the department’s woes. “This is a heritage building, so we can’t make alterations. Presently, we are facing space issues to store our papers and files. We have been allocated space on the third floor and are looking to move there,” he added.
Besides hiring staff, the BMC is working on a litigation management system to keep track of all pending litigation, the lawyers appointed, the status of each case, and the money spent on the same. “This system will inform us about the counsel hired for a particular case, the fees paid and if the fees were paid for mere adjournments. This will help us monitor how much we are spending on a particular case and to analyse how much we spent on a lost appeal,” said Mehta.
In terms of hiring of senior counsels, the BMC is planning to come out with norms to streamline the approval system. “We will fix the levels of approval required to hire senior counsels looking at the gravity of cases and the fees of the counsel,” added Mehta.