ETHICAL STANDARDS OF LAWYERS HAVE HIT A NEW LOW
The television expose of the senior counsel in the BMW case marks a low watermark in the state of the legal profession in India. If the image of R K Anand, a senior lawyer of high caliber, talking to the prosecution’s witness were found to be true, it would constitute a breach of the most basic rule of the legal profession.
While it goes to the credit of the Bar Council of Delhi, Supreme Court Bar Association and Delhi high court, which have intervened with considerable alacrity in inquiring into the conduct of Anand and I U Khan, the case also raises important challenges for the bar in India. This incident marks a moment when all lawyers need to engage in some serious self-introspection and take responsibility over the sorry state of their profession. Those who enter the legal profession swear to abide by a code of etiquette and professional standards. Faithful compliance with these norms sustains a confidence in the rule of law.
Yet over the past few months, there has been a series of cases that indicate all is not well with the law and the conduct of lawyers is less than impeccable. The beating up of the suspects in the Nithari killings outside a Ghaziabad court in January to the recent stripping and beating of a Dalit boy on the premises of a sessions court in Agra by lawyers, speaks to a rot in the profession that will ultimately, if it has not already, spread like a stain onto the entire system of justice. Too much has been tolerated for too long in terms of lawyers’ behaviour towards their clients and their profession.
Do the ethics of the profession permit either the false construction or actual destruction of evidence? Is it legitimate for those who are described as our ‘legal luminaries’ to resort to practices and arguments which, if not blatantly unethical, are at least border unethical? These compromises have resulted in a situation where the legal profession in our country is perhaps one of the lowest ranked and the least noble professions to enter, probably second only to politics. How can any lawyer hold the title of “legal luminary” in the midst of such ethical demise?
The general deterioration in the standards of the profession are reflected in a similar slippage in the very conduct of justice exemplified in the high-profile Jessica Lai, Priyadarshini Mattoo and now the BMW case. Why did it take over seven years to try cases that should have been quite straightforward? In the Lai case, Manu Sharma was convicted in a verdict that took just 25 days to reach and in the Priyadarshini case, Santosh Singh was convicted in a record 42 days on appeal not because the judicial system worked, but because of the media intervention and public outcry. The BMW case is another glaring example of what happens when delays in the system are so unreasonable that they facilitate corruption.
While the proceedings against Khan and Anand remain pending, there is a disturbing absence of soul-searching especially by the senior counsel in the profession. Having expressed outrage over the alleged conduct of these lawyers, some seniors have quietly retired to their summer breaks, while their profession withers. The TV images allege that the lives of six innocent people could be bartered away for possibly Rs 25 crore, yet it’s very protectors have put up the law for sale. Over the years, lawyers have begun to charge fees that bear almost no relation to any reasonable standard or the ethics of their profession. Some lawyers have held prominent positions in the cabinet, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, yet there is little evidence that their tenures were directed towards rendering their profession more accountable.
There has been some concern over the role of the media in these cases. When a particular institution charged with the administration of justice fails to function, and then in India we have witnessed how other institutions rush in to fill the void. In some instances, armed resistance groups or mafia dons jump into the field to speak on behalf of underdogs. In the Lai, Mattoo and BMW cases, it is the media, which took up the banner of rectifying the imminent miscarriage of justice. It is to the credit of the media that it has been able to facilitate justice in these cases.
This may not be the role of the media. Sting operations always raise their own ethical questions. But at the end of the day, when we have convictions in the Lai and Mattoo cases faith in the rule of law is partially restored. If the media had not intervened, then the cases would still be in court, witnesses may have been paid off, victims would have languished and criminals would have continued to flourish. In the BMW case, the media acted in public interest in exposing the vulnerability and lack of a reliable criminal justice system.
The law is not a freedom that belongs only to the rich and powerful. It is the core of our survival as a free state. When the rule of law becomes an object of sale and purchase like any other piece of merchandise, then we are truly at risk of losing the soul of our democracy.