A Profession That Was Once Noble

Indian lawyers appear to have forgotten the core values of their profession, if recent incidents are any indication.

The recent incident of advocates thrashing journalists and an accused inside the Patiala House court complex has once again portrayed those in the legal profession in a bad light. Gone are those days when law was considered to be one of the most honourable callings of all. As Judge George Sharswood pointed out, in all civilised countries where laws and customs have reached a certain degree of refinement, there has arisen an order of advocates who prosecute or defend the lawsuits of others. However, in India, a certain class of people who are advocates have travelled back in time by forgetting the core values of their profession.

The evolution of the legal profession

The current form of legal representation is the result of constant evolution over multiple centuries. In ancient Greece, it was not customary for the advocate to plead the cause of his client in court; the usual practice was for the client to lay his case before the advocate who, in turn, would prepare an oration that the client read at the trial. On the other hand, among the Romans, the patrician used to appear in the courts regularly. This system matured into the highest type of Roman advocate – the patronus causarum or, in modern parlance, the barrister. The patron was held in very high esteem and statutes were passed, especially the Cincian Law, to prohibit the advocate from charging or receiving any fee for his service. Later, the Cincian Law was ignored and the term advocatus received public recognition. Over the centuries, one value has remained closely attached to advocacy-nobility.

The first chapter of KV Krishnaswamy Iyer’s classic Professional Conduct and Advocacy contains a fine discussion on the place of the legal profession in the order of society. Iyer calls the legal profession as the most brilliant and attractive of peaceful professions, with responsibilities both inside and outside it, which no person carrying on any other profession has to shoulder. On the practice of legal profession, he says an advocate has to deal with the greatest possible variety of human relations and has his mettle constantly tried from every direction. For the same reason, an advocate earns great social distinction, which ought not to be misused at any cost.

The evolution of the legal profession has reached a stage where certain advocates consider themselves above the law. This is a dangerous trait, which has to be eradicated for the good of the society. Over the past couple of days, different news channels have been telecasting video footage of lawyers thrashing journalists inside the Patiala House court complex. Despite strong evidence, not a single advocate was arrested by the police. In the Madras high court, it is routine for CISF guards to be verbally abused by advocates for denying entry to them by virtue of not carrying their ID cards. Another area of concern is violation of traffic rules by advocates. Routine checks by the traffic police is often met with abuse and arrogance by some advocates.

Punishing the miscreants

The Advocates Act, 1961, which consolidates the law relating to the legal profession, contains enough provisions to punish such miscreants. Section 35 of the Act provides for the punishment of advocates for professional or other misconduct. The concerned state bar councils may, either on their own motion or on receipt of a complaint, refer the case for disposal to their Disciplinary Committee. In Bar Council of Andhra Pradesh v. Kurapati Satyanarayana AIR 2003 SC 175, the Supreme Court held that the role of a bar council is of dual capacity: prosecutor, through its Executive Committee and quasi-judicial, through its disciplinary committee. The disciplinary committee has powers to make the following orders:

  1. Dismiss or initiate a proceeding;
  2. Reprimand the advocate;
  3. Suspend the advocate from practice for such period as it may deem fit; and
  4. Remove the name of the advocate from the state roll of advocates.

Under section 37 of the Act, any person aggrieved by an order of the Disciplinary Committee may prefer an appeal to the Bar Council of India. Further, under section 38 of the Act, any person aggrieved by an order of the Bar Council of India may prefer an appeal to the Supreme Court.

However, state bar councils hardly initiate disciplinary proceedings against advocates who indulge in violent practices. More often than not, complaints against advocates are not referred to disciplinary committees on the pretext that there are no ‘reasons to believe’ that the concerned advocate is guilty of misconduct. In Bar Council of Maharashtra v. M.V. Dabhol Kar AIR 1976 SC 242, the Supreme Court categorically pointed out that the requirement of ‘reasons to believe’ under section 35 cannot be converted into procedural roadblocks. The intention behind the phrase ‘reasons to believe’ is to prevent frivolous enquiries.

In the Patiala House incident, the lawyers that resorted to violence are also punishable under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. It is high time the police realise that an advocate is not above the law. The State Bar Councils should not bow down to any political pressure and should initiate disciplinary actions against those advocates who were seen thrashing journalists, students, teachers and the accused.

Few professions attract a more motley band of aspirants than the Bar.”

So begins Stanley Jackson’s classic on Rufus Isaacs, the First Marquess of Reading. If the Bar Council of India does not initiate steps to cleanse the current system, I am sure that the number of persons aspiring to join the Bar will drastically decrease in the years to follow.

Rahul Unnikrishnan is an advocate practicing in the Madras High Court