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Can lawyers' fees be regulated?

DH News Service, Bengaluru, Dec 20 2017, 8:04 IST

The Supreme Court's call to the central government to bring in a law to regulate lawyers' fees is an acknowledgement of the problem of high fees charged by them. The court expressed concern over the "astronomical fees" demanded from litigants and felt that the growing commercialisation of the legal profession would push the poor out of the justice delivery system. It wants the government to prescribe the "floor and the ceiling" in fees to ensure that the poor, too, could get legal assistance from the best lawyers and their right to equal justice is not violated. The bench wants legal services to be made available to the needy on the lines of state-run hospitals. The Law Commission also has called for measures to regulate lawyers' fees. The court's and the commission's concern are widely shared but it is doubtful if it can go beyond the statement of a problem. It is not realistic to think that lawyers' fees can be regulated by legislation.

The fees charged by many lawyers are so high that even the middle class and the moderately rich find it difficult to hire good lawyers. There are lawyers in the country who demand lakhs of rupees in fee for a single hearing. Figures above Rs 15 lakh and up to a crore have been mentioned. Though the fees vary from court to court and sometimes from client to client it is agreed that they are often high. But there are serious doubts about the constitutionality of a law to regulate fees. Many lawyers would argue that it is their right to demand the fee they want for their services. Fees and the price of services are not capped in other professions, such as accountancy, sports and education and in areas like management. In the health sector, which the court mentioned, there is no regulation of doctors' fees. Access to affordable health services might even be considered more important than access to legal assistance. If "lawyers' clinics" are set up where people can go with their legal problems, just as they go to government hospitals with their health problems, will they really serve their purpose? It is not known if this is the model that the court had in mind when it made the suggestion.

There are actually Supreme Court rules framed in 2013 which set a limit of Rs 8,000 per hearing. It is doubtful if any lawyer is following it. But there is hardly a doubt that lawyers will find a way around any law that seeks to restrict or regulate their fees.

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