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Exclusive: Only 6 women became senior counsel in two decades but odds slim for all

In the last two decades the Delhi and Mumbai High Courts appointed only three female senior counsel each out of a total of 122 and 81 new senior advocate designations awarded by the courts reveals Legally India’s exclusive year-on-year analysis of senior counsel elevations in the country’s top two high courts.

But the senior prospects at the bar are actually bleak for both sexes.

The facts

At the Delhi and the Bombay High Court an average of only 5.8 and 4.5 senior counsel per year respectively were appointed since 1991.

The rates of Delhi promotions remained fairly consistent until 2004, at around 4.8 elevations per year. In 2005 Delhi then recorded a significant increase in the rate of senior counsel elevations when it designated a record 12 advocates, having kept up a high average of eight per year and hitting bumper-crops of 11 and 10 in 2009 and 2011 respectively.


The main reason for the recent increase in Delhi’s elevations was the growth of litigation in Delhi and the corresponding requirement for more senior counsel, said one Delhi senior advocate.

By contrast the Bombay High Court until 2003 managed a little over three per year to take its tally up to 43, compared to Delhi’s 63 at the same time.

But in 2004 and 2005 the Bombay High Court saw a record 23 new senior counsel appointments which took Bombay’s cumulative total to 66, above the Delhi’s figures even.

Since then Bombay’s rate of senior counsel creation has slowed again to its average of three per year (see graph – click to maximise).

According to one Bombay advocate roughly 70 advocates applied to become senior counsel in the current March 2011 round, which is yet to be announced. Only six made it in Bombay in March 2010.

And some are forced look elsewhere. “In the past good counsel have been rejected,” claims one Delhi senior counsel, “and even after rejection by the Delhi High Court they got their designation done by the Supreme Court or they got their designation from high courts other than the Delhi High Court.”

The boon

Advocates can apply to become senior counsel after only 10 years of practice. Success in the process grants

The Law: Advocates Act 1961 section 16

(1) There shall be two classes of advocates, namely, senior advocates and other advocates.

(2) An advocate may, with his consent, be designated as senior advocate if the Supreme Court or a High Court is of opinion that by virtue of his ability, [standing at the Bar or special knowledge of experience in law] he is deserving of such distinction.

(3) Senior advocates shall, in the matter of their practice, be subject to such restrictions as the Bar Council of India may, in the interest of the legal profession, prescribe.

a definite hike in “brand value” according to one senior counsel. This can be accompanied by an increase in earning power although good commercial counsel can do well without the tag too.

The kudos attached to being a senior advocate usually outweighs the main disadvantage that senior counsel are not permitted direct dealings with clients and are dependent on briefings from other counsel. A senior counsel’s name is also not supposed to appear in any drafting or official documents: all they do is argue.

The Advocates Act 1961 provides statutory guidelines for appointing senior advocates while the power to formulate rules and regulations vests with the respective high courts. In normal practice, as per the rules, a high court could either designate a senior counsel suo moto or invite applications from those desirous of the designation after stipulated eligibility criteria are met.

One Delhi senior counsel said: “So far as rules and regulations are concerned the minimum criteria is given, which one has to fulfil. Initially there was a financial kind of a benchmark, which is no longer there.

“But lawyers are not privy to the process, so they don’t know. Since the financial benchmark was removed, it’s the performance of the lawyers that the judges must be taking into consideration.”

The procedure for being designated as a senior counsel lies with the judge of that court,” explains Maharashtra and Goa bar council member Karan Bhosale. “So there is the voting and if a person gets a majority he gets the senior counsel. At least as far as the Bombay High Court is concerned it’s been very transparent and very fair. I don’t think there’s ever been an instance where someone has not deserved it.”

Senior counsel Jyoti Singh, who was elevated last month as one of two women advocates in Delhi in a total batch of 10, agreed that the process of designation was absolutely fair and transparent.

But one Delhi senior counsel who declined to be named said that the system had its flaws, such as requiring a two-third majority of high court judges to vote in favour of a senior counsel candidate. “But two thirds is a very dangerous number because for two thirds one really has to do a lot of appeasement in principle. Academically no one is supposed to canvass his candidature, but since there’s secret ballot, open, you never know who’s voted for whom, so it’s like even if one judge has got a disliking for a lawyer, they would be negative, not hear him and even spoil his chances with others.”

And for those outside the metros things are next to impossible.

“Senior counsel are generally only designated from the Bombay High Court,” said Bhosale, bemoaning that getting senior counsel recognition was not possible at the district or Taluka court levels where there were also a lot of experts in their fields.

“Very rarely or not at all is a lawyer from the practice of lower courts picked up. Senior counsel, apart from the fact that they are experts or authorities, they also have to act like role models to young lawyers. There are a lot of young lawyers at the Bombay High Court but an even larger number of lawyers practising at the lower courts.”

Engendered inequality

“It is not that easy for men [at the bar] but it is almost impossible for women,” says one female former Delhi advocate who has since moved in-house.

The figures back her up. Since 1991 in the Delhi High Court the only women to be elevated to senior counsel status were Chandermani Chopra in 2007 and Jyoti Singh and Prem Lata Bansal last month, according to a Legally India review of the designation lists.

In the Bombay High Court, the only female advocates elevated between 1991 and 2010 were Phiroza Ankalesaria in 1998, and Rajani K Iyer and K V Sirpurkar, both in 2006.

One of the latest female Delhi senior counsel Jyoti Singh told Legally India that while it was a great feeling to have been designated and it was “very kind of the judges”, to the best of her knowledge in 20 years of her practising in the Delhi High Court, “not more than four to five women would have applied” to become senior counsel.

“The ratio has been that low of applying, so obviously the ratio of designation would also be low,” she said. “A very few of [women] apply, may be just that is the reason, nothing more.”

However, the female former Delhi advocate disagrees. She says that in the courts and in senior counsel promotions the “old boys’ network” still rules supreme. “The networking is very essential in a place like Delhi in the few years I was there. Most of the senior counsel that got designated got there entirely through applications and through networking.”

Such networking included after-work drinks, cricket matches and other places where “females really lose out” and usually do not go to or get invited to. Much career advancement at the bar depended on making contacts and getting into senior advocates’ good books so lucrative cases are thrown their way.

She adds that out of her friends while she was at the bar, particularly males would seriously aspire to the senior counsel tag but most women did not seriously entertain the possibility.

However, in light of the figures it is perhaps close to reality that almost all young lawyers, both male and female, will only ever have little more than wild dreams of becoming a senior counsel.

Click here to read more about the glass ceiling women can face at the bar.

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