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Interview: Bar Council Chairman SNP Sinha

Legally India caught up with Bar Council of India chairman Suraj Narain Prasad Sinha last week. We asked him about legal education, Australian racism and why allowing foreign law firms to practice here is a bad idea.

Legally India (LI): What are the greatest challenges in your job?

Sinha: The BCI had been created under the Advocates Act with many fold purposes: one is to streamline the legal profession and the other to control the legal education in India. It's a vast job.

LI: The Bar Council had proposed introducing an age limit for LLB courses. What was the rationale for this?

Sinha: The reason for introducing the age bar is that a lot of people get into the profession after retirement from their regular jobs from government department or police departments. We have taken this decision to protect the interest of lawyers. We have introduced this system so that a student can choose his career at an early stage as it is the case with the medical profession. You have to understand that law is a science also.

We want that only the genuine persons who are interested in this profession should get entry. It should not be a safe heaven for retired persons.

In fact, many writ petitions have been filed in various courts on this issue. Soon we shall be moving to the Supreme Court to settle this matter once for all to have an authoritative decision on this issue.

If the court says, "scrap the age limit", then we will scrap it.
[To read more about the Bar Council's plans on legal education, click here]

LI: There was a trip for Australia scheduled in July which was cancelled due to the racist attacks in Australia. What was the agenda for this visit and has the cancellation resulted in losses for the Indian legal profession?

Sinha: We had to meet the counterparts and discuss bilateral issues, matters relating to the WTO. We also had to visit some of the universities there. But in the present scenario in Australia, we thought it was not a proper time to go there.

LI: In India there is a growing market for legal process outsourcing (LPO). How do you view this market compared to the other lawyers in the country? How are you regulating this market at the moment?

Sinha: It is a very important thing. We have not started anything as yet. But since it is an important matter, we will discuss it in our meeting and write to the concerned ministry after a consensus.

LI: In Indian law firms, salaried lawyers often complain that they have to work beyond the standard working hours and that at times they spend 12 to 16 hours in the office per day. Do you think that guidelines are necessary?

Sinha: The legal firms are not under our control directly or indirectly. We are concerned with the individual advocates only - it is like a contract between employer and the employee.

But it is also a cause of concern for us that these youngsters, instead of enriching the bar, choose to work like a clerk. And you also have to consider that they work for a hefty amount which is not the case in litigation. Moreover, it is for them to decide whether to continue or not in the same law firm.

However, if a complaint is made before us in this regard, we will surely look into it.

LI: Do you agree that the Indian legal profession can be seen as almost two distinct professions these days: on the one hand, the so-called litigators who make up the numerical majority and on the other hand, the large transactional firms.

Sinha: No, I don't think so. As a matter of fact, a lawyer has not only to appear and argue the case, he also has to have a good knowledge of drafting, negotiations and arbitration.

Many a times law firms say that we will not enter into the litigation side but we have to understand that they are two wheels of the cart of justice, they can't be separated. We can say that they are different but they go together.

LI: What is the reason for the Bar Council's opposition to foreign firms practising in India?

The problem is of reciprocity. Other governments have not been giving the same treatment to Indian lawyers in their respective countries. We had a meeting with our counterparts in England, we met with a concerned minister in England and we had requested them to look into the problems of work visas.

We also asked them to amend their laws to grant equal status to Indian lawyers but we have not received any communication from them until now. They should first remove discrimination. […]

Moreover I am personally not very much in favour of talented lawyers joining law firms in the beginning of the career. With this there is no enrichment of the bar: if all the lawyers will join law firms, who will come to litigation? Who will go to the bench?

LI: Foreign firms argue that they would not be interested in doing litigation work. What is your view?

Sinha: It will be like an injustice to the profession that you are doing only half of the work. In this way, the litigators shall not get the exposure of drafting, conveyancing and arbitration. So we are strictly against this trend of getting dignified clerks.

Legally India: Do you think that foreign firms are a threat to the large transactional-focused Indian law firms?

Sinha: Yes, they are a threat because Indian law firms can not compete with foreign law firms when it comes to infrastructure or financial resources.

Also if you see, in England there no restriction on the number of partners a firm can have. But Indian law restricts the number of partners to 20. They can't compete with firms having a strength of 100 partners or even more than that.

The foreign law firms can attract our talented lawyers by giving them more perks and facilities. It may be beneficial for some individual lawyers but not for the profession as a whole.

LI: But some argue that Indian firms are large and organised enough to withstand the entry of foreign firms. Do you think they are?

Sinha: There are only a few law firms in India having such an infrastructure.

Exception is no law.

Click here to read Sinha's response to this interview and readers' comments.

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