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The Mint-LI Column: Lawyers, propagating the worst aspects of Indian bureaucracy

LI and Mint, together every fortnight
LI and Mint, together every fortnight
In today’s edition of Mint: On the face of it, my mission was the simplest of tasks possible within the legal system: to get an affidavit. I needed the sworn document proving my identity and address to sign up for a Bharatgas connection. In going the sworn path, I also went against the well-meaning advice of those who told me that getting a gas cylinder from the grey market was easier.

And so, I stood outside the unimpressive structure of the metropolitan magistrate court in Bandra East. Having no exact idea of how to accomplish my task, I was directed into the court building by an innocent bystander, sneaking past the groups of black gowns hovering outside. The first person I bumped into said it was not possible to get an affidavit done there, but then offered to get it done anyway for Rs. 2,000. I had the distinct feeling that I was in for a fleecing.

I spoke with several more lawyers, clerks and even two policemen, waiting for a criminal hearing, and eventually headed back out.

I exited the court and made friends with some advocates outside the building, decked in full advocates’ regalia, some more formal and polished than others whose white shirts were untucked and their gowns thrown over as an apparent afterthought. After several offers and negotiations, I accepted a Rs. 800 bid from a jovial and rotund Maharashtrian who inspired confidence with his shiny suit and fluent English.

Taking me under his wing, he ushered me across the chaotic main road and entered what looked like an Internet centre, but was actually a full-fledged document production facility. A young boy opened someone else’s gas connection affidavit in the computer, replaced the name and address with mine and printed it out. My lawyer took me outside the office to a sprightly old man in a yellowing white shirt. That man, frantically beating with stamps reams of papers on a table that barely had space to contain his stamp pad, would be my notary.

After my lawyer wafted my affidavit into the notary’s field of vision for two minutes to attract his attention, down went the stamp and the affidavit was done and delivered. My lawyer walked off with Rs. 800 for 10 minutes of work, complaining about the low toll he had exacted. My gas cylinder from Bharatgas arrived home the next day.

Now, this anecdote is fairly unremarkable and commonplace. Indeed, the entire process was fairly entertaining. But I could not stop myself from wondering what the point of it was.

For one, what was the value of even getting an affidavit that amounted to little more than the meaningless formality of jumping through a few hoops? It’s not as though the lawyer actually carried out any due diligence or lent legal weight to my identity proof and sworn statement in any way.

More interesting, from my perspective as someone dealing with the legal profession day-in-day-out, was the question of what exactly was the point of those lawyers—apart from acting as fixers and intermediaries to processes that no one really benefits from apart from the lawyers themselves, as well as the support cottage industry of young boys at computers that had sprung up around them?

Is this an employment guarantee scheme for lawyers, under the guise of a legal process?

At least my process was semi-computerized, but go to many large district courts and you will see an army of men—and they are, invariably, all men—sitting on the floor at typewriters, bashing out affidavits, witness statements, contracts and other remotely legal documents.

If you ask them, they will all be happy and proud to tell you that they are qualified lawyers.

While I don’t want to deny any of them their livelihood, the problem is that Indian lawyers are propagating and maintaining the worst aspects of Indian bureaucracy. The sheer mass of them—1.5 million, according to the latest claims by the Bar Council of India (BCI), magically up from about 1.2 million a little over six months ago—makes any reform of the system almost impossible to pull through in practice.

Imagine introducing an electronic court where case documents can be filed and downloaded over the Internet. This would in one swoop remove 90% of the typewriters around the courts and replace them with fewer retrained paralegals sitting at computers. Imagine the introduction of an exam that would actually require lawyers entering the profession to amass a modicum of legal knowledge.

BCI is often heard to describe the Indian legal profession as noble. But another reality is that the vast majority of the legal profession is mundane, and possibly unnecessary. Lumping all lawyers into the same basket, from the corporate law firm lawyer bashing out multi-crore rupee transaction documents, charging sometimes crores of rupees for it, to the senior advocates arguing in the Supreme Court, the typewriter men and the hawker advocates outside district courts, seems anachronistic.

And to assume that the same regulator can oversee all of them with the same rules, represent and be elected by all of them, while at the same time trying to move things forward, is not possible.

BCI must analyse its constituency, recognize and recategorize the lawyers, and frame rules and perhaps devolve systems for each of them.

This article first appeared in Mint. Legally India has an exclusive content partnership with Mint, which will feature the latest legal news and analysis every fortnight on Fridays in its print and web editions.

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