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Foreign firms deliberate strategy in Chennai writ, await outcome of postponed hearing

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The first hearing in the Chennai writ petition against foreign firms will be held today, after having been postponed from yesterday as the bench failed to convene for a post-lunch session.

The petition was filed by a Madras advocate A K Balaji on behalf of the "Association of Indian Lawyers" and alleges 31 foreign law firms and a legal process outsourcing (LPO) company are practising law illegally in India.

It was listed for its first hearing before a division bench comprising of Chief Justice Hemant Laxman Gokhale and Justice V Dhanapalan of the Madras High Court as item no. 94 yesterday (8 April).

However, the judges retired for the day after adjudicating 30 cases although the rest remained unheard during the first half of the court's proceedings.

Balaji told Legally India: "[The hearing] is likely to come up for hearing either tomorrow or the day after. The writ petition was admitted and respondents 1 to 8 were issued notice. The rest of the respondents will be served notice based on reply filed by the Government."

He explained that the petition was filed in his individual name on behalf of the Association of Indian Lawyers, which is still undergoing registration as a society in West Bengal.

The petition was listed for filing of the Government's reply, which is one of the first eight respondents that also includes secretaries of various departments, the Reserve Bank of India, the Bar Council of India and the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu.     

Although respondents 1 to 8 have so far been served with notice, it is understood that none of the foreign firms have yet been served with a copy of the writ.

The general counsel of several of the named foreign firms are dealing with the writ petition and it is understood they have been liaising with each other to formulate a response, pending the outcome of the hearing and whether the writ will be admitted with the foreign firms as co-respondents.

Several of the foreign firms contacted declined to comment at this stage.

Senior counsel A R L Sundersan is the representing the petitioner and P Chandrasekaran is listed as representing the first six respondents.

Explaining his reasoning for bringing the writ petition, Balaji said that he and the Association of Indian Lawyers wanted to restore the "glory" of the legal profession.

"As an association of Indian lawyers," he said, "we have taken this initiative and right now we’re focussing on opposing the entry of foreign law firms. Subsequently, we will file more of such [public interest litigations] PILs for the benefit the legal community."

"Our members not confined to Tamil Nadu or Kolkata alone and more and more lawyers are joining us from all over India," he said.

The writ petition is names 31 US, UK, French, Australian and other international firms, as well as LPO Integreon, as practising law in India in violation of the Advocates Act 1961.

Balaji argued in his affidavit submitted to the court that "some of the international law firms has their office in India and practices Indian law by calling themselves as LPO. They are running a law firm in India without obtaining any prior permission from Indian government and the concern authorities.  Here they are taking protection under the guise of LPO. This is complete violation of our country’s Income Tax laws, Immigration laws, RBI rules & regulations, Bar council of India rules, Advocate’s Act, and etc. This kind of activities of foreign law firms have to be found and blacklisted."

His affidavit continued: "So far as the Advocates on the rolls of the State Bar Council are concerned, [Indian firms] are subjected to various restrictions as the profession is treated as a noble profession in the country and is not treated as a trade or a business.  However, so far as Lawyers and Law Firms from outside the Territory of India are concerned, they are treating it as a business venture, a trade and a money spinner rather than a noble profession which is intended to serve the society and the social cause."

The firms mentioned in the affidavit are, in the order listed: Rouse; Ashurst; Kelley Drye & Warren; Kennedys; DeHeng Law Office; White & Case; Linklaters; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Allen & Overy; Clifford Chance; Wilmer Hale; Shearman & Sterling; Herbert Smith; Slaughter and May; Hogan & Hartson; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Eversheds; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton & Garrison; Norton Rose; Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Arnold & Porter; Covington & Burling; Perkins Coie; Loyens & Loeff;  Freehills; Clayton Utz; Mayer Brown; Clyde & Co; and Bird and Bird.

Integreon is the only named LPO provider on the list.

On 16 December 2009 the Bombay High Court had ruled in the Lawyers Collective case that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) should not have granted three foreign firms licences to open up liaison offices in India and that the firms had been "practising law" in violation of the Advocates Act.

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