India dispatches: COVID-19 challenges the Indian legal community, but will not break it
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India dispatches: COVID-19 challenges the Indian legal community, but will not break it

JURIST EXCLUSIVE – The Indian legal profession is feeling the impact of India’s second wave of COVID-19 as some lawyers fall sick and die, others are quarantined for extended periods, and the court system on which Indian management of the pandemic so much relies thanks to the judiciary’s guardianship of the “right to life” under the Indian Constitution gets generally gummed up.

But not all segments of the community have been impacted equally. JURIST staff correspondent Neelabh Bist files this report from New Delhi:

Amongst the various professions affected by the Covid pandemic, the legal profession in India has suffered deleterious effects.

While India is currently suffering the wrath of the second wave of the pandemic, let’s rewind the clock back to March 2020, when the Prime Minister of India announced a complete national lockdown with a notice of just 4 hours. The doors of justice that supposedly were always open for citizens were suddenly shut.

However, what has really been defining of these times, is the road to reopening these doors, as the doors to justice suddenly transformed into virtual doors. And it is in this transition, where the backbone of the profession, the knights in shining armour, i.e., the lawyers of the country, lost the most.

I say this because while the top lawyers of the country, the legal eagles, were not affected much, it was the wallets of the lawyers who catered to the lower rung of the society that took a serious blow. Apart from them not getting cases to fight, the problem of accessibility posed the biggest challenge for them as not all the lawyers had (and still do not have) a working internet connection, let alone possessing the technical know-how of its operations.

Recently, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India in fact tweeted that many lawyers, having had no work for over a year, have been reduced to selling vegetables to survive. And I find no reason to doubt this. The great lawyer of our country, Mr. Nani Palkhivala, used to quip to his colleagues – “God pays, but not everyday”. Little could it have been foreseen, how everyday would turn into an entire year and there would be nothing that the institution could do about it.

As for the lawyers belonging to the batches of 2020 and 2021, employment opportunities are as bleak as they can get. There is no office that is ready to take new recruits because most are already downsizing. Even if some magnanimous offices do offer an opportunity, it is in the form of an unpaid internships rather than actual employment. This is mostly because there has been no mobility in the legal market. Whereas earlier, a vacancy used to open up, because of an associate leaving the office to reach out for bigger goals, now this process has hit stagnation as one is very happy with the security of the job in hand in the turbulent market. The lack of experience of the freshly graduated batch together with the reduced work in the market makes a deadly combination that results in unemployment.

While the first wave brought with it the problem of unemployment, the second wave has caused to the legal community a suffering beyond measure, because it has taken away gems, in the form of judges, lawyers, staff members and law students. The institution has been impacted profoundly because of the void that has been created.

Further, while the High Courts and the Supreme Court are taking the time and effort to look into the Covid crisis situation be it in regards to the oxygen crisis, hospital mismanagement or overseeing vaccination drives, times remain tough. Most Courts have had to extend their summer vacations because neither is there any advocate available to argue the matter nor is there any supporting staff or judge present in the Court, most being down with the virus. In fact, the Chief Justice of India while hearing a case mentioned – “Judges are not available. We have no manpower”. And this was exemplified, when the matter pertaining to the suo-moto intervention of the Supreme Court in the Covid crisis was brought to an indefinite hiatus, because the judge heading the bench, Justice D Y Chandrachud, contracted Covid himself.

However, there is a silver lining. The legal community is still fighting the good fight. Despite the lockdown in many States, lawyers, judges and staff members (although working in limited numbers and therefore performing double the work) are all working together in making the Courts function by accommodating each other wherever they can. Some are even appearing remotely despite being affected by Covid, even while on steroids. The legal community is assisting the ones in need, like the Bar Councils of different states who have disbursed funds, oxygen cylinders and grocery kits to home quarantined lawyers and their immediate families. Indeed, the virus may have dampened the spirits of the legal community, but it has not been able to break it.