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The murky & merciful practice area that law school never teaches: service law

Service law and the art of divination
Service law and the art of divination
Court Witness explains the obscure practice of “service law”, which few outside the courts have ever heard of yet is plied by many advocates and clogs many a court room or miscellaneous day of the Supreme Court – 30 million such mysterious cases have been filed, estimated one judge recently.

It is not usual for a lawyer to avoid all eye-contact with his clients after a case.

The SLP had been the client’s last grasp at the elusive post. Now it was dismissed in a few seconds’ hearing on a miscellaneous day. The lawyer quickly shuffled out of court, and instead of a shrug or a smile as he walked back from the bar, he was looking down at his toes or at the walls as he walked out of the courtroom. His client – the son – had sought “compassionate appointment” to a job in the government department that his father had been working in until the day he died.

Two pyrrhic victories in the Administrative Tribunal and high court had been ‘won’ but the fruits of victory continued to elude his client: on both occasions, the judges found that it was a fit case but there were no vacancies and the department was directed to “consider” the case for the next vacancy whenever it would arise. With the end of the SLP, the case was now officially dead.

The lawyer’s clients were a man and a woman, the son seeking appointment and his mother. They waited for their lawyer to get closer to the visitor’s gallery and moved as if to say something, but the advocate avoided them with a deft turn to the left and wriggled away into the throng near the door and out of the courtroom. They bore the same look that most Supreme Court litigants carry - bewildered and glazed - and now that their case had been dismissed this mixed with fear and incomprehension.

The clients chased the lawyer out of the courtroom and finally caught up with him outside the door.

He still avoided their eyes and pretended to check for non-existent calls and messages on his mobile, mumbled a few sentences and quickly dashed off to another court, leaving his visibly dejected litigants behind.

Nothing overly dramatic or unusual in the Supreme Court of India; just another service law case

Natural born skillers

It’s a truism that most skills actually necessary to practise law are not taught in law school. You can not really classroom teach how to deal with clients, calming a rampaging judge, keeping your cool against a hugely annoying opposing lawyer. Some things in life just have to be learnt on the job, on a trial and error basis.

That is not a failure of syllabus so much as a failure of pedagogy. But there is one area of law that is virtually uncovered by any syllabus anywhere and has no major textbook dedicated to it, has no moot court competition revolving around it, that no one writes essays on, and that is simply incapable of being reduced to the pedagogical method, but is part and parcel of the practice of most lawyers in this country.

Service Law

The name itself is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with the provision of services, applies not even to those in any kind of service, but deals only with those people specifically in government service, central and state.

It is a dark corner of the law, a jurisprudential no-mans land, where administrative law, labour law and constitutional law meet and no one wants to talk about what happens then. It governs relations only between the government and its employees - not just your IAS/IPS officers but everyone down to the office-boy and the municipal sweeper.

Recently, during court proceedings, Justice Singhvi estimated that perhaps close to 30 million service law cases have been filed by aggrieved government employees in fora across the country. It’s anybody’s guess how many of these contribute to the clogged judicial system.

There is not a single major enactment at the state or central level to provide certainty and there are very few definitive principles, but it is by far one of the major sources of income for advocates everywhere.

Human law

The average service law case is the most fascinating study of the human character you can come across.

Here we find helplessness, hope, frustration, anger, indifference, pity, desperation and at last, when all else is done, despair. It’s the stuff of Greek and Sanskrit tragedy, what King Lear and the Mahabharatha are full of and it fully fits the adjective “Dickensian”.

Service law disputes are not just about appointments. They’re about recruitment, promotions, pay arrears, retirements, resignations, disciplinary proceedings, pensions and everything else in between – the ordinary minutiae of what would seem to be a very mundane office-bound life.

Yet, it is service law and not the dastardly criminal cases or wretchedly emotional family law cases that really give us full insight into human nature.

You will see the prime protagonists and antagonists of service law cases in the courtroom on any given day. They can be found by and large in the visitor’s gallery eagerly following the hearing.


Some choose to appear for themselves and they tend to be just as competent as lawyers on the merits of their case, tripping a bit perhaps on procedure and court craft. They also tend to test the limits of any judge.

Observe them closely and you’ll see men and women who feel wronged by the whole world. Men and women who feel entitled to something rightfully theirs that is being snatched away by a callous and inconsiderate government.

In their faces you’ll see not greed but the hopeless determination of one engaged in a long and arduous but futile quest.

In their eyes you’ll see the crazed determination of the addicted gambler who probably knows that disaster lies ahead but cannot bring herself to leave the table for fear of losing a jackpot that never comes.

Anthropomorphic state

Nothing encapsulates the trials and tribulations of the average service law case better than a “compassionate appointment” case.

A body that is incapable of possessing any real human feelings, the government, chooses to look after one of its own by offering a position to the near relative of one who died in service and calls it a “compassionate appointment”.

But this is not obtained as a matter of right. The bereaved family, struggling with the loss of a breadwinner, has to debase itself, bowing and scraping in the form of pitiful representations to higher authorities to give one surviving member a post – a lowly post that pays just enough to keep body and soul together, but precious little else.

Inevitably their representations fall on the hard edge of a rule-bound system that treats them with anything but compassion.

Of course they’re eligible, they’re told but (and there’s always a but) there are no vacancies at the appropriate level, or that there is some other inane reason, and that they will have to wait their turn for the “compassionate appointment”. Families must wait months in near penury for some relief, only to be told that the state has run out of posts to appoint their family member into, and therefore they must wait in penury some more.

Inevitably, this is the start of the litigation.

A hero comes along

A lawyer is found who launches a petition to the Central Administrative Tribunal and spins a tale of woe in the appropriate legal mantras. The deities of justice are propitiated with the appropriate offerings and in turn divine, for divination is what these flawed human institutions of justice are forced to do in this context.

But this divine intervention - in the form of a reasonably favourable order of the CAT directing the department to “consider” the pleas of the bereaved family - comes with a curse.

The concerned government department, which is concerned far less with compassion than with the Byzantine vagaries of the appointment process itself, hastens in appeal (or writ petition) to the high court, anxiously pointing out the bureaucratic nightmare that has been unleashed by the display of compassion to one bereaved family.

Depending once again on the inexplicabilities of the judicial process, compassion is directed to be shown or withdrawn to the bereaved and, once more, an appeal is filed to the mighty Supreme Court of India exercising its jurisdiction under Article 136.

Having mercy?

Should their Lordships be merciful (and bless them, more often than not, they are), the matter comes to an end on the first hearing. The errant department is either told to look deeply into its heart and find some mote of compassion which it can distribute to the bereaved family or the desperate family is told that fate (and two judges of the Supreme Court of India) have decreed that compassion is not their right in this life after all and their appeal is dismissed.

Somewhere along the way, lawyers stand enriched (by not very much, trust me), many woman- and man-hours are spent, hopes are crushed and dreams fade as the judicial grind happily takes 10 years and often more to arrive at this result.

In the meantime, the bereaved family has spent much of its none-too-considerable savings fighting a hopeless cause. Many at this point have become near destitute, if they weren’t already.

And so, another service law case is removed from pendency as its place us taken by yet another, as the endless service law cycle continues.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and tweets @courtwitness1.

Court Witness’ previous postcards:


Photo by Dennis Jarvis

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