COMING DOWN on the practice of some lawyers demanding a percentage of the claim amount awarded to clients by the courts as professional fees, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that this amounts to “misconduct” and goes against public policy. The court also called on the government to bring about legislative changes to check violation of professional ethics by lawyers and to ensure access to justice to all.
The ruling came from a bench of Justices A K Goel and U U Lalit, which rejected a plea by an advocate who claimed that a signed cheque given by his client, B Sunitha, was dishonoured. Referring to earlier decisions, the court said it was “…settled law that claim towards advocate’s fee based on percentage of result of litigation was illegal.” It added that “signing of the cheque was by way of exploitation of fiduciary relationship of advocate and the client.”
Sunitha had lost her husband in a motor accident on July 30, 1998. She had filed a claim before the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal (MACT) through an advocate. The MACT awarded compensation, and she paid Rs 10 lakh as the lawyer’s fee. He, however, “forced” her to sign another cheque of Rs 3 lakh on October 25, 2014, “despite her stating that she was unable to pay more fee as she had no funds in her account”. He also sent an e-mail on November 2, 2014, claiming his fee to be 16 per cent of the compensation received.
During pendency of the appeal, the advocate requested the court to allow him to withdraw the petition, but the bench refused to allow this. “Having committed a serious professional misconduct, the respondent No. 2 (advocate) could not be allowed to avoid adverse consequences which he may suffer for his professional misconduct. The issue of professional misconduct may be dealt with at appropriate forum,” said the bench.
The bench then referred to the Law Commission’s 131st report, and said it was observed that recurring strikes by the bar had contributed to the arrears piling up, jeopardising the “consumers of justice”, and led to weakening of the system of administration of justice. The report, it said, had also considered various aspects like astronomical fees charged by lawyers and role of the legal profession in strengthening the administration of justice.
It regretted that though the report was submitted in 1988, no effective law had been enacted to regularise the fee, or for providing public sector services to needy litigants without any fee or at standardised rates.
“Role of the legal profession in strengthening the administration of justice must be in consonance with the mandate of Article 39A to ensure equal opportunity for access to justice. The legal profession must make its services available to the needy by developing its public sector. It was observed that like public hospitals for medical services, the public sector should have a role in providing legal services for those who cannot afford fee,” the court said.
“Mechanism to deal with violation of professional ethics also does not appear to have been strengthened. Success of administration of justice to a great extent depends on successful regulation of legal profession in the light of mandate under Article 39A for access to justice,” it said.
“We hope that the concerned authorities in the government will take cognizance of the issue of introducing requisite legislative changes for an effective regulatory mechanism to check violation of professional ethics, and also to ensure access to legal services which is a major component of access to justice mandated under Article 39A of the Constitution,” it added.