Litigants lose out in lawyers' strike

The Supreme Court, in 2002, declared in a landmark judgment that lawyers had no right to go on strike.

Lawyers of Delhi’s six district courts went on an indefinite strike recently and paralysed entire judicial proceedings for two weeks or so. They were protesting against the delay in tabling the Delhi High Court (Amendment) Bill, 2014 before the Rajya Sabha in the current session of Parliament.

Lawyers only suspended their strike after the Union Law Minister Sadananda Gowda and Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured their representatives that the bill to enhance the pecuniary jurisdiction of trial courts would be taken up in the Upper House and passed soon.

Barely a day after the resum-ption of work by the lawyers of district courts, the Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA) gave a call for a complete strike against the proposed change in the pecuniary jurisdiction and hearings in all cases had to be adjourned for a few days in the court. The HC lawyers were up in arms against the unilateral assurance given by two ministers to striking district courts’ lawyers without giving an opportunity of hearing to them on such an important issue.

Unlike in the past when lawyers never struck work whatever their grievances were, today they tend to boycott courts at the slightest pretext, overlooking the harm caused to the judicial system in general and litigant public, in particular. Somehow, the legal fraternity seems to feel that a strike is the only means to get their demands conceded.

In the past few years, particularly in Delhi, lawyers appear to have spent less time pleading inside the courts than protesting outside on issues such as decentralisation of district courts, misbehaviour of police with some lawyers, or entry of foreign firms in the country to practice law in courts.

As a result of frequent and prolonged strikes by lawyers, not only do arrears of cases pile up but litigants have to wait indefinitely for the outcome of their cases. Even one day’s strike delays more than 10,000 cases in district courts. It may cause a setback of at least six months to those who approach these institutions for justice and as much as of three years to those pursuing their cases in HCs. A strike also means that litigants have to go back from the court empty-handed despite having paid their lawyers’ fees for appearance or filing documents in the court.

When the courts are already overburdened with a huge backlog of pending cases, lawyers do not cover themselves with glory by striking work at the drop of a hat. Although in a democracy the “right to strike” in a peaceful manner is accepted as legitimate, frequent strikes lose their meaning and can alienate the legal community from the people.  

That is why the 11th Law Commission had rightly pleaded in its 131st report that ordinarily, the legal fraternity should not resort to strike and never on flimsy grounds. It says: “strikes may be resorted to as a weapon of last resort if the administrative side creates too many problems for the profession and no remedial steps are taken even after these have been pointed out to persons concerned”.

Obligation to litigants

In a landmark judgment in 1991, a full bench of the Delhi HC had taken a serious view over the frequent strikes by lawyers. In a bid to help out the litigants, the judges said they will hear proceedings even if the lawyers were on strike.

In another similar but unprecedented judgment, the Punjab and Haryana HC in 1992 ruled that a criminal appeal could be taken up for hearing in the absence of counsel for the accused respondent. It pointed out that the court had an obligation to litigants to deliver expeditious justice which overrides the need for the presence of lawyers at the hearings.

The Supreme Court in 2002 declared in a landmark judgment that lawyers had no right to go on strike. If they did, they will have to compensate their aggrieved clients. It further held that there will be no adjournment if lawyers were on strike. Those who don’t participate in strikes can’t be penalised by bar associations. Lawyers should prefer protest marches and white arm-bands to strikes.  

As a rule, they can strike work for a day in the rarest of rare cases when the dignity, independence or integrity of the Bar or Bench has been lowered, the bench observed. After all, the law courts do not belong to the lawyers alone, they belong to the people. Lawyers must realise the untold hardships and miseries to which the litigants are subjected to.

Nobody likes to approach a law court unless he/she has some genuine grievance and that too when all other remedies are exhausted. If no appropriate measures are taken soon, the people will lose faith in the judicial system itself and will take the law into their own hands. They will then resort to circumventing the system through compromises and out-of-court settlement or, in the case of the poor and less privileged, forgo justice altogether.   

(The writer is advocate, advocate, Supreme Court and Delhi High Court)

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