The lawyers told us that the slow speed of the internet also causes disruptions during online hearings. Not a single lawyer was found in the court premises who openly supported online hearings.
A report by Salman Arshad from Begusarai
In March 2020, after a short notice, a Lockdown was declared in the whole country. It still continues in bits in different parts of the country. And now since the number of persons getting infected is increasing again, the chances of a country wide Lockdown is gaining ground once again.
There is no disputing the fact that during the lockdown each and every section of the society suffered a lot, be it migrant labourers, employees, employers, traders, professionals, poor or rich. The same happened with the people related to the judiciary and the legal profession.
In order to know how much and in what ways the Lockdown affected the people associated with the judicial system, the Janjwar team visited the court premises and the people associated with the legal profession. Our report tries to bring forth all that happened to the legal fraternity of district Begusarai in Bihar during and after the implementation of Lockdown.
Begusarai is a prominent district of north Bihar. It is said that in comparison to other districts of Bihar, people of Begusarai are more aware socially and politically. As per census 2011, the population of Begusarai is 2,970,541. Out of a total 718 districts in India, population wise Begusarai stands at no.128.
(District Lawyers Association, Begusarai)
There are 4,000 registered lawyers in Begusarai. Out of these 150 are women lawyers. There are a total of 61 posts for Judges in Begusarai court, of which 15 posts are vacant. The number of working Judges is 41. Around 300 lawyers belong to Backward caste, 60 lawyers come from Scheduled caste and around 100 from Muslim minority.( These figures are quoted on the basis of talk with the lawyers and has the scope for variation.)
After lifting off the lockdown, the court premises is back with life but still the working has not been fully restored. The lawyers practising here say that only 15 to 20 percent of lawyers have come back to work.
Many lawyers including Akhileshwar Prasad Singh, Vashishth Kumar, Amrendra Kumar and Moli Prasad Singh told us that only Title Suits are being filed in civil matters and in criminal matters only bail related matters are being taken up.In a way, formally lockdown is still not over in the court. And the way the Corona cases are rising again,it is being speculated that soon a second lockdown will be declared.
Senior advocate Amrendra Kumar Amar reacts angrily on this possibility,'If, during Corona, elections can be held, political rallies can be organised and markets can be kept open then why can't courts function fully?'
While talking to lawyers, it appeared that they were in the grip of fear. Some lawyers admitted in a hushed tone while others in fearful mode that they are afraid that if they speak out the truth, they might be charged under Sedition or National Security Act.
Says advocate Vashishth Kumar,'If legal professionals are afraid of the government, then how will they help other citizens ? Whenever citizens face some legal problem, they approach the lawyers and through them put their side of the story before the court. But if the lawyer, himself, is afraid of the state then how will he help the needy ?"
Is Corona protocol being followed in the court premises ?
Neither the distance of 2 meters is being maintained nor the protocol of wearing the mask is being followed in the court premises. Lawyers say that the following of protocol is not practical. Moreover, people now no longer believe in the fear earlier created by the media, government and the administration.
(A part of the Begusarai court complex, No one is following rules after lockdown)
Says advocate Vashishth Kumar,' Corona is a conspiracy. May be, it affects the body but it is not what is being told about." He mentions Kisan movement and says,'If really the spread of Corona had been similar to what has been projected then by now Corona would have spread among lakhs of people whereas till now there is no news of even a single farmer infected with Corona'
Another advocate Deepak Kumar Sinha says,'Indian people are laborious. Therefore their immunity level is stronger than people of other countries.Not many people got infected with Corona here. In our country the crisis has been blown over due to political reasons.'
Supporting his argument one more advocate tells us informally,'While sitting in the court women Judges have been given special protection but in front of them, lawyers and clients flock together almost stepping over each other. Despite this,there has not been any news of lawyer, munshee or client getting infected, but 2 women judges were reported to have been infected'
How far has the Lockdown affected the income of lawyers ?
On the condition of not revealing his name, an advocate tells us,' The legal profession is such that the only source of income for a lawyer is the case-fee taken from the clients. A lawyer can neither do a side-business nor can become an active partner in a business. During lockdown.despite a total ban on legal practise, the lawyers were not allowed to do some other work for earning their bread.But some lawyers were in distress and had no option but to do some other work. But they can not admit it because they are not allowed to do side work.'
Talking to lawyers it was revealed that almost 10 percent lawyers have left the profession. Are there chances of their coming back ? To this, most of the lawyers say that may be they will come back, provided the court starts functioning again normally.
Even a few lawyers were found selling masks in the market because there was no legal work available to them.
On condition of not publishing his name one of the lawyers told us that one of his colleagues had been selling vegetables in another town.
While talking to the lawyers, the fact emerged that there are hardly 10 percent lawyers who were economically well off even before the lockdown. Says advocate Gopal Kumar,' Despite having no source of income during this time, such lawyers were not upset at all. Those suffered the most who had joined the profession recently or had been practising law for the last 3-4 years only. Most of them were those who were living in rented accomodation. All such lawyers have left the town, Most of these lawyers got engaged in the family's farming business in the village and did not come back to the town.'
Conditions of the Newcomers
Who should be called a newcomer in the legal profession can be an important question but all those lawyers are called newcomers who have still not spent 5 years in this profession. These newcomers generally work under their seniors, though in few cases they work independently also. Their earnings depend on the amount given to them by their seniors.There is no rule as such that how much a lawyer will pay to his newcomer junior. Hence it is difficult to guess how much a newcomer must be earning. But if we go by the conversation with the lawyers then it can be said that they get an amount which is just enough to meet their essential needs.Due to lockdown, most of these lawyers have gone back to their villages and have not returned yet.
Advocate Deepak Kumar Sinha says,' Newcomers have suffered the most from the lockdown and those who were in rented houses left the town for their village homes.They are the ones who did other jobs. But as the things are streamlining, these newcomers are also returning to their original work.'
Conditions of Lawyers belonging to Scheduled caste and backward caste
Out of a total 4000 registered lawyers in Begusarai, the number of scheduled caste lawyers does not touch even 100. Same is the case with backward caste lawyers. Though,in comparison to SCs, their condition is far better. Yet, the above mentioned data does reveal that like other professions their participation in legal profession is also very low. Advocate Santosh Kumar Mahto says,'Those who suffered more during the lockdown were mostly from these two communities.
How much help did lawyers get during the lockdown ?
During lockdown, both the central and the state governments had announced relief packages worth lakhs of rupees but we could not find a single lawyer who could tell us that either he or his colleague got any kind of help. Of course, the Bar Council of India did help out by giving an amount of 2000 rupees to some but the question is how far a one-time help of 2000 rupees, that too given to just a few lawyers, will be sufficient to sustain them even after a year of lockdown declaration ?
Advocate Chandra Moli Prasad Singh accuses the Bar Council of India. He says,''It is least bothered about the welfare of the lawyers.The people holding posts here indulge in looting the funds.'
(Online hearing increased problems of lawyers in lockdown)
Mr. Singh along with other lawyers also gave some suggestions as emergency measures. These suggestions can be divided into three categories :First come the newcomers.They should be given an amount of financial help which could meet their daily needs. Secondly, in order to meet the emergency like situation of lockdown, the Bar Council and the government together should create a fund. Third, a system should be developed to meet any eventuality like sickness or accidents.
When some lawyers recommended that these suggestions should be confined to the legal practitioners only, then others said that it should cover both the lawyers as well as munshees(Clerks) .Referring to the statement of Union Law Minister Ravishankar Prasad, advocate Chandra Moli Prasad Singh hopes that perhaps something like an insurance scheme for lawyers will take shape.
But advocate Praveen Kumar raises his demand,' The government and the Bar Association should together arrange for pension and emergency-time financial help to the lawyers.Had this system been in place, the lawyers would not have suffered what they did during lockdown.'
During lockdown, the Bar Council of India's Bihar unit had decided to donate 1 crore rupees for the welfare of lawyers. Mentioning about the Bihar Lawyers Welfare Fund,the chairman of BCI and senior advocate of the Supreme Court Madan Kumar Mishra had said,' Under the control of Bihar government this fund currently has 30 crore rupees which has been generated through the sale of welfare stamps.If the lockdown continues longer and there arises more requirement for the financial help to the lawyers then fixed deposits of Bar Council of India can also be encashed. With its limited resources, the Bar Council Of India would like to provide every possible help to the lawyers of Bihar because Bar Council is their own organisation.' But the reality is that Bihar's lawyers did not get the promised relief from Bar Council of India.
The effect of lockdown on the status of women lawyers
out of a total 4000 lawyers in Begusarai, women lawyers are less than 150.During lockdown all the women lawyers remained at home and even today only a handful of them are seen in the court premises. One of them named Indu Kumari started practising law in 2018. There were 40 other women lawyers who started legal practice in the same year. Indu says,'Since there is no work, these women lawyers are staying at home only.'
When asked about the impact of lockdown on women lawyers, Indu Kumari's face pales down and she says reluctantly,'When a woman works and earns money,her status in the family and society is enhanced. A working woman makes fulfilling household needs easier.But when income is reduced, domestic violence increases along with other problems.'
Along with her other colleagues, Indu Kumari is also waiting for the day when normal work starts taking place in the court so that they start coming to the court again.
The status of online hearings
Lockdown gave an impetus to the online working and has presented online platforms as an alternative in the future. There were many people who used the online platform for the first time during lockdown. The hearing of the cases online also started for the first time during this time. Whenever such a developed technique is used for the first time, it brings to the fore many challenges apart from the expected benefits.
This was intensely felt during online hearings also. The lawyers told us that the slow speed of the internet also causes disruptions during online hearings. Not a single lawyer was found in the court premises who openly supported online hearings.Indu Kumari went a step forward and asked for only offline hearings of the cases.
Advocate Pramod Kumar says,'It is very difficult to maintain transparency during online hearing, while it is said that justice should not only be done but should appear to be done. But online hearing does not fulfil this condition.
Advocate Gopal Kumar says,' Sixty percent of the lawyers either don't have technical resources or necessary capability for online hearing.'
Whereas advocate Ram Murti Prasad Singh says,' In the name of Corona all the constitutional institutions have been demolished. The court is open only in name. Neither lawyers nor clients are deriving any benefit out of it. Hardly 1 percent lawyers find themselves competent for online hearing.'
The major problems of the clients
During lockdown, no civil matter was taken up and only a handful criminal cases were heard. Says advocate Vashisht Kumar,' The powerful forcefully occupied the lands of weaker people and the needy could not get justice during lockdown.'
Advocate Akhileshwar Prasad shows the list of at least a dozen cases and tells that due to lockdown these cases could not be heard resulting in harm to the concerned people. Another advocate Gopal Kumar says that still no dates have been fixed for the hearing of bail matters listed in the months of January and February 2020. He also tells us that Patna High Court has even stopped the hearings on anticipatory bail matters and things have reached to such a pass that 6 month old matters are still pending in the court.
We came across Khushbu in the court premises. She was married to Gorelal Sahni in 2013. Khushbu tells us that in the year 2016 her in-laws first unleashed violence against her and then along with her daughter threw her out of the house . They were continuously being harassed for dowry. The court ordered her husband to pay 4500 rupees per month as an alimony to Khushbu. But her husband didn't pay a single rupee to her. She could not go to court again as lockdown was declared. Throughout the lockdown, she did not get any financial help either from her in-laws or from her mother's house. Now since the court has been reopened, the court has sent a recovery notice of 80,000 rupees to her husband Gorelal Sahni.
(Due to lockdown, Rubi's husband did not give her alimony amount. This put her in great difficulty in managing her meals.)
Similar is the case of Ruby. As a result of the lockdown declaration, Ruby's husband also did not give her an alimony amount. This put her in great difficulty. Managing two meals became a tough job for her. There are many Khushboos and Rubys who were thrown into financial distress and subsequent mental stress by the sudden declaration of lockdown.
Condition of the lawyers' clerks
There are around 2200 clerks in Begusarai district court. Now since the hearings have started again in the court, they have also started coming back. Around 500 have already come. When asked about what difference has lockdown made to their income, they said that now their income was just 10 to 20 percent of what it used to be.
When asked how they managed during the lockdown, Arun Kumar Mahto and some others said that some of them worked as construction labour, some others worked in their farmland while the rest utilized their savings. Many of them had to take loans to meet their expenses. But they are not sure when they will be able to pay back the loans.
Brijnandan Singh has been working as a clerk since 2015. He has taken an interest laden loan of 35,000 rupees for the treatment of his ailing wife. When asked how will they return the loan amidst such a bad economic condition , he simply stares in the blank with wet eyes.
These lawyers' clerks do have their Union. Says Ranvijay Kumar,' The Union had requested the government and the Chief justice to provide financial help to legal clerks but they didn't get any sort of help.
Though clerk Mohan Kumar appreciates those donors who delivered ration at their doorstep and thus saved many lives from starving to death.
But another clerk Mani Ram Singh is angry with the BJP government. Says he,' I am associated with the ruling BJP from the time when it was known as Jan Sangh. But the troubles faced by me during lockdown have completely shaken my faith in this party.
(Due to lockdown, the clerk Mani Ram became totally broke.He took his seriously ill wife to a Patna hospital which quarantined them thrice but did not provide treatment to his wife. The result was that her condition became serious and she died subsequently.)
Describing his bad experiences he says that during lockdown he took his ailing wife to Patna PMCH for the treatment. But due to corona protocol we had to face many problems. AS soon as we reached Patna we were put in 14 days quarantine but no treatment was made available to my sick wife. After 14 days, we consulted doctors but they again put us in 14 days quarantine. Again no treatment was provided to my wife. After 14 days we were again put in quarantine with no treatment to my wife. As a result my wife's condition started deteriorating. I lost all the hope and brought my wife back to my house. After 2 days she expired.
Mani Ram is very upset and angry. He says,' They just destroyed me.I do not know why they kept on putting repeatedly me and my wife in quarantine. Were they afraid of someone?'
Condition of shopkeepers in the court premises
Though the lockdown affected everybody associated with the judicial system but it impacted the street vendors the most.It had reasons too.The other segments like the lawyers,clerks and clients had some savings to sustain them during the crisis but this class had no financial support whatsoever
We were told by lawyers that economic adversity had pushed a tea seller to commit suicide.in Begusarai court premises. However when Janjwar team contacted his younger brother he denied the talk of suicide. Maybe he was under some pressure. He said that his brother died due to a heart attack.
Another tea seller Dharam Mahto tells us,' He was continuously stressed. He was unable to meet family expenditure. He had also become heavily indebted.He must have commited suicide. He says further that whether he committed suicide or died due to heart attack, one thing is sure that he died due to the financial crisis generated by the lockdown.
Dharam Mahto has been running his shop in court premises for the last 25 years. He tells us that during the lockdown his financial condition turned very bad.He was finally rescued by a gentleman lawyer who gave him 20,000 rupees as financial help.
We also met a woman called Jagvanti. She was standing beside a wooden cart with fruits and vegetables, though in less quantity. Says Jagvanti,' Before lockdown my son used to sell these items. We were well off but now he is sick.'
(Elderly Jagwanti who sells fruit and vegetables in the court premises)
Jagvanti does not have required money for the treatment of her son. She is able to somehow earn that much which keeps her and her son alive. Her son is her only child.
We next talked to photocopy shop owners within the court premises. Most of the photocopy shop owners are heavily indebted. The work in the court has started again but the income is not enough to run the household.
The crime graph increased and the land mafia grew stronger
Advocate Alok Kumar thinks that disruptions in normal working of court has resulted in the increase in several types of crimes.He says,' Land mafias have forcefully occupied the land and other dominant groups have followed them. The court could have helped the aggrieved in these cases but could not do so. Even if those cases now come before the court, it will take years, for the court, to decide. This clearly shows that due to lockdown people have been deprived of justice.'
The general secretary of District lawyers' Union Sanjiv Kumar says that the dominant groups in connivance with the police commited a number of crimes, particularly related to forcefully occupying the lands. Since hearing in civil matters was closed, such victims could not get justice.
Domestic Violence during Lockdown
During lockdown, a number of incidents of domestic violence were suppressed and it was argued that since every body is staying at home, differences between them are natural to take the shape of domestic violence. But advocates Indu Kumari and Smriti Kumari differ.They say that the real cause of domestic violence is economic. People were forced to stay at home but their expenditure did not reduce. On the contrary, the expenditure increased and the income got reduced or just stopped. In such a scenario, the family members got entangled with each other. Smriti Kumari says that during lockdown she has done online counselling in domestic violence cases . Thus basing on that and also on her personal experience while living at home she can assertively say that at the basis of increasing domestic violence has been financial shortcomings.
(Lockdown ruined every human being associated with the profession of advocacy)
The anger of the lawyers
Advocate Vashishth Kumar is angry with the way the National Security Act is being misused. But Vashishth Kumar is not alone. There are other lawyers also who are not happy with the misuse of NSA but are reluctant to express themselves for the fear of action being taken against them under Sedition or National Security Act.
Advocate Deepak Kumar Sahu says,'There was no need to totally shut the country due to corona. Our government is never ready to meet an emergency like situation.'
He is also angry with the judicial system and says that the Judges of higher courts are least connected with ordinary lawyers. They live amidst modern facilities, that's why they don't understand the pain of the ordinary lawyer.
In nutshell, it can be said that lockdown created a big economic crisis for all those who are related with the legal profession. And all the lawyers do accept this fact, if not directly then certainly indirectly.
( This report is a part of the project supported by Thakur Family Foundation. The Foundation has not put any editorial control over this project.)