The Supreme Court has introduced the Middle Income Group Legal Aid Society, where the lawyer’s fees are capped. But there are certain conditions, reports Tinesh Bhasin.
To make litigation more affordable, the Supreme Court has introduced a scheme called Middle Income Group Legal Aid Society.
Those earning up to ₹60,000 a month, or ₹7.5 lakh a year, can approach the society and hire a lawyer at rates much lower than what an advocate would otherwise charge to fight a case in the SC.
“It’s not just about the cost of litigation; many don’t know whom to go to and how to proceed if they have to fight a case. With judges of the SC on its governing body, approaching this society ensures that a litigant gets the right advice at a minimum fee,” says Ritu Bhalla, senior litigation partner, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co.
While the scheme’s objective is to help individuals, some lawyers feel that the rules need to be more stringent.
The apex court’s announcement says that if the advocate is found to be negligent, he is only required to return the brief and fee.
Before Abhilash Panickar, founder of Entrust Legal Services, became a lawyer, his mother was fighting a court case. She took help of a similar government-run programme in Mumbai. Almost all lawyers demanded a separate fee despite the scheme being free for women.
“Whenever she complained to the governing body, the latter would allot her a new lawyer. But the new one again demanded money,” says Panickar.
In this case, the charges are capped: The society not only makes the fee affordable, it also standardises rates. A lawyer can only charge ₹10,000 for drafting and filing a special leave petition or writ petition and other applications such as bail or stay exemption.
If you are not going to a lawyer through the society, the charges start at ₹50,000-₹1 lakh for such petitions.
The more renowned the lawyer is, the higher would be the demand.
The fee for the hearing of the case is ₹3,000 a day, but it’s capped at ₹9,000 if there are several hearings.
A SC lawyer charges a minimum of ₹5,000-₹10,000 for each hearing. Each time he comes to the court room, this fee has to be paid.
In the Indian judicial system, there are two classes of lawyers -- senior counsel and others. Courts usually give preference to the hearing of cases that have senior counsel involved. Many lawyers and law firms, therefore, engage senior counsel in their cases.
But the fee of the senior counsel could be exorbitant.
The apex court’s legal aid scheme even caps the fee of senior lawyers.
In fact, the SC notification even fixes charges for the stenographer, photocopies, print outs and other fees that a lawyer can charge the client.
When you approach a lawyer, there are no standard rates. Some may quote you a fee like the Supreme Court has structured. But mostly, they demand money for every hearing, every application or on incremental developments. In addition, they may also have consultation charges.
Not all cases accepted: Once you file an application to avail the service of the society, its secretary assigns the documents to an advocate-on-record.
An applicant can choose his advocate and give up to three names.
The advocate-on-record will first go through the documents and will see whether the case is fit to be admitted in the SC or not. Only after the advocate is satisfied will the society provide you with the legal aid.
If he feels that it’s not a fit case for SC, the society will refund the money after a deduction ₹750 as service charge.
What to expect
Many competitive lawyers undertake pro bono (voluntary service without payment) cases to help sections of society that cannot afford litigation costs. You would find such lawyers empanelled with the SC legal aid society.
“An individual should not worry about the quality of service. If a lawyer has taken up a case at a much lower rate, it doesn’t mean he or she will lower the quality of work depending on the cost,” says Nishit Dhruva, managing partner, MDP & Partners.
If you are assigned a lawyer who asks for fee beyond what is prescribed by the SC, you should not give in.
It starts with small amounts and then the demand increases as the case progresses, warn lawyers.
In such a case, the individual should give a written complaint to the society so that your lawyer is changed.
If the society finds that the existing advocate negligent, it will strike his name from the empanelment.
Photograph: Mohit Singh/Wikimedia Commons.