“I never thought I would live long enough to see the legal profession change to the extent it has”.
Constance Baker Motley
The World is reeling under the COVID 19 pandemic in an unprecedented manner. India has reached a critical stage as the spike of COVID 19 cases being reported every passing day. In light of the above, our life is increasingly at stake. The question of the uncertainty of life pops up in our minds every now and then. A surge of despair, gloom, and pessimism is in the air. To contain the spread of the epidemic, there is an enforcement of recurrent national lockdown though the restrictions have been eased out at present. In general, our everyday life has come to a standstill as we are in enforced seclusion.
The extended lockdown has stifled the economic growth and development of the country. The impact of a pandemic can be felt by all walks of life. The legal profession is not an exception. As reported by the Times of India recently, the lockdown hits Rs.20,000 crore legal practice industry. Legal professionals are witnessing the consequences of the lockdown, as the Indian judiciary has been under the extended national lockdown since March 24, 2020. Access to justice has become limited in this challenging time. Given this context, the Indian legal system seems to be in jeopardy.
In the present circumstances, the physical hearing has come to a grinding halt at all types of courts across the country, barring the Supreme Court, high courts, and trial courts where virtual hearing is underway only for extremely urgent and important cases. So, ‘work from home’ has become a vogue statement among the Indian legal professionals now.
Be that as it may, the extended national lockdown has brought to the fore the glaring class inequality among the Indian legal professionals. The successful senior counsels- a well-paid small minority are in demand for arguing for the listed urgent or important cases at the above-mentioned courts amidst lockdown. They are in demand for arbitration to seal the pending cases too.
In contrast, the moderate lawyers closed their legal firms as they could not afford to pay their employees, and even some announced layoffs of employees because of the non-availability of cases. In the case of ordinary lawyers, generally, most of them lead a life of hand to mouth existence as the income of these lawyers is generally based on a case-to-case basis. In view of a prolonged shut down of the courts, the ordinary lawyers are left to fend themselves as there is no income coupled with no social security measures in place.
Amongst all, the novice or young lawyers have been hit hard because of a lack of work, and also, they miss their practical training to enhance their professional skills. Under this scenario, they are deprived of training under a senior advocate or established lawyer at legal firms. In view of new work culture ‘work from home’, they feel alienated as they have not been directly inducted in the work. Physical presence in the legal firms is imperative to imbibe the professional skills.
Besides, the prowess of the legal profession can be learned or nurtured in a systematic manner gradually with the valuable guidance of senior lawyers. As lawyers are not born; they are produced through constant training at legal firms over a period of time. Thus, the virtual training cannot substitute the physical training of young lawyers to equip themselves. Even though the situation is grim overall, the silver lining is that the technically empowered lawyers or legal firms are doing well in this critical time.
Last but not the least, the freshly passed out law graduates are in limbo. Neither employed nor in training. Further, conversion to a virtual court or E-court is causing an inconvenience to judges and senior advocates given the poor digital infrastructure in our country. To sum up, the business is as usual for the successful senior advocates, the rest is left in the lurch. So, the scourge of class inequality has widened among the legal professionals during the extended national lockdown period. As the national lockdown has a strong bearing on the lives of ordinary lawyers, they are keenly looking forward to the functioning of the courts. Nevertheless, it is not feasible to open the courts in the coming months due to the escalation of COVID 19 cases.
Dr. Mahalingam M
Faculty of Law