8 Jan 2011

Lawyer's right to strike: The law revisited

Our labour law professor taught us that in traditionally in industrial relations both the management and the workers union had a tool each. The management had the right of lock-out while the labour union could call a strike. It was in this manner that the two parties remained at an equal footing as far as their bargaining powers were concerned. In fact the constitutional framers understood the importance of citizens coming together for a cause and provided the "right to assemble peacefully and without arms" as a fundamental right available to all citizens of the country. 

Modern India, however, has moved on. The Supreme Court in 1997 agreed with a decision of the Kerala High Court that there was no right for any individual or cross-section of a society to call for a bandh or hardtal or a general strike. In Communist Party of India (Marxist) v. Bharat Kumar AIR 1998 SC 184 the Court declared that "there cannot be any doubt that the fundamental rights of the people as a whole cannot be subservient to the claim of fundamental right of a n individual or only a section of the people." It agreed with the High Court to hold that "there cannot be any right to call or enforce a 'Bandh' which interferes with the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of other citizens, in addition to causing national loss in may ways". In this backdrop the Court pioneered the right of an individual against the right of a cross-section of society to get their views heard.

Similar has been a fate of lawyers. While they are considered as harbingers and guards against an autocratic society (see our recent post for further details on that), yet they are not allowed to gather and voice their opinion. Being of the view that their strike comes in the way of delivering justice to the already suffering litigant, the Supreme Court gave a categorical finding in 2002 holding that lawyers had no right to strike and any such strike or declaration was illegal requiring action against the errant individuals. 

Noting that there was overwhelming judicial opinion against the lawyers going on strike and that the dignity the court required from the bar was against the lawyer absconding work and abandoning the client whose brief he held, in Ex-Capt. Harish Uppal v. Union of India (2003) 2 SCC 45 a three judge bench of the Supreme Court declared the law in no uncertain terms against lawyers going on strike. The Bench further declared that the lawyers could ventilate their grievances by "giving press statements, TV interviews, carrying out of Court premises banners and/or placards, wearing black or white or any colour arm bands, peaceful protest marches outside and away from Court premises, going on dharnas or relay fasts etc" but not by holding strike and abstaining from appearing in a court. 

In as much as the decision reflects the present position of law and an indicative of the settled judicial opinion on the issue, we are extracting the relevant paragraphs of the decision for the benefit of our readers as under;
11) Before considering the question raised it is necessary to keep in mind the role of lawyers in the administration of justice and also their duties and obligations as officers of this Court. In the case of Lt. Col. S. J. Chaudhary vs. State (Delhi Administration) reported in (1984) 1 SCC 722, the High Court had directed that a criminal trial go on from day to day. Before this Court it was urged that the Advocates were not willing to attend day to day as the trial was likely to be prolonged. It was held that it is the duty of every advocate who accepts a brief in a criminal case to attend the trial day to day. It was held that a lawyer would be committing breach of professional duties if he fails to so attend.
12) In the case of K. John Koshy & Ors. vs. Dr. Tarakeshwar Prasad Shaw reported in (1998) 8 SCC 624, one of the questions was whether the Court should refuse to hear a matter and pass an Order when counsel for both the sides were absent because of a strike call by the Bar Association. This Court held that the Court could not refuse to hear the matter as otherwise it would tantamount to Court becoming a privy to the strike.
13) In the case of Mahabir Prasad Singh vs. Jacks Aviation Pvt. Ltd. reported in (1999) 1 SCC page 37, an application had been made to the trial Court to suo moto transfer the case to some other Court as the Bar Association had passed a resolution to boycott that Court. It was stated that the lawyers could not thus appear before that Court. The trial Court rightly rejected the application. In a revision petition the High Court stayed the proceedings before the trial Court. This Court held that the High Court had committed grave error in entertaining the revision petition and passing an Order of stay. Following the ratio laid down in Lt. Col. S.J. Chaudhary’s case, this Court held as follows:
"15. This is not a case where the respondent was prevented by the Additional District Judge from addressing oral arguments, but the respondent’s counsel prevented the Additional District Judge from hearing his oral arguments on the stated cause that he decided to boycott that Court for ever as the Delhi Bar Association took such a decision. Here the counsel did not want a case to be decided by that Court. By such conduct, the counsel prevented the judicial process to have flowed on its even course. The respondent has no justification to approach the High Court as it was the respondent who contributed to such a situation.
16. If any counsel does not want to appear in a particular court, that too for justifiable reasons, professional decorum and etiquette require him to give up his engagement in that court so that the party can engage another counsel. But retaining the brief of his client and at the same time abstaining from appearing in that court, that too not on any particular day on account of some personal inconvenience of the counsel but as a permanent feature, is unprofessional as also unbecoming of the status of an advocate. No Court is obliged to adjourn a cause because of the strike call given by any association of advocates or a decision to boycott the courts either in general or any particular court. It is the solemn duty of every court to proceed with the judicial business during court hours. No court should yield to pressure tactics or boycott calls or any kind of browbeating."
17) In the case of B. L. Wadehra vs. State (NCT of Delhi) & Ors. reported in AIR (2000) Delhi 266, one of the questions was whether a direction should be issued to the lawyers to call off a strike. xxx The Delhi High Court then considered various other authorities of this Court, including some set out above, and concluded as follows:  
"30. In the light of the above-mentioned views expressed by the Supreme Court, lawyers have no right to strike i.e. to abstain from appearing in Court in cases in which they hold vakalat for the parties, even if it is in response to or in compliance with a decision of any association or body of lawyers. In our view, in exercise of the right to protest, a lawyer may refuse to accept new engagements and may even refuse to appear in a case in which he had already been engaged, if he has been duly discharged from the case. But so long as a lawyer holds the vakalat for his client and has not been duly discharged, he has no right to abstain from appearing in Court even on the ground of a strike called by the Bar Association or any other body of lawyers. If he so abstains, he commits a professional misconduct, a breach of professional duty, a breach of contract and also a breach of trust and he will be liable to suffer all the consequences thereof. There is no fundamental right, either under Article 19 or under Article 21 of the Constitution, which permits or authorises a lawyer to abstain from appearing in Court in a case in which he holds the vakalat for a party in that case. On the other hand a litigant has a fundamental right for speedy trial of his case, because, speedy trial, as held by the Supreme Court in Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, (1980) 1 SCC 81: (AIR 1979 SC 1360) is an integral and essential part of the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in article 21 of the Constitution. Strike by lawyers will infringe the above-mentioned fundamental right of the litigants and such infringement cannot be permitted. Assuming that the lawyers are trying to convey their feelings or sentiments and ideas through the strike in exercise of their fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. We are of the view that the exercise of the right under Article 19(1)(a) will come to an end when such exercise threatens to infringe the fundamental right of another. Such a limitation is inherent in the exercise of the right under Article 19(1)(a). Hence the lawyers cannot go on strike infringing the fundamental right of the litigants for speedy trial. The right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation guaranteed by Article 19(1)(g) may include the right to discontinue such profession or occupation but it will not include any right to abstain from appearing in Court while holding a vakalat in the case. Similarly, the exercise of the right to protest by the lawyers cannot be allowed to infract the litigant’s fundamental right for speedy trial or to interfere with the administration of justice. The lawyer has a duty and obligation to cooperate with the Court in the orderly and pure administration of justice. Members of the legal profession have certain social obligations also and the practice of law has a public utility flavour. According to the Bar Council of India Rules, 1975 "an Advocate shall, at all times, comport himself in a manner befitting his status as an officer of the Court, a privileged member of the community and a gentleman, bearing in mind that what may be lawful and moral for a person who is not a member of the Bar or for a member of the Bar in his nonprofessional capacity, may still be improper for an Advocate". It is below the dignity, honour and status of the members of the noble profession of law to organize and participate in strike. It is unprofessional and unethical to do so. In view of the nobility and tradition of the legal profession, the status of the lawyer as an officer of the court and the fiduciary character of the relationship between a lawyer and his client and since strike interferes with the administration of justice and infringes the fundamental right of litigants for speedy trial of their cases, strike by lawyers cannot be approved as an acceptable mode of protest, irrespective of the gravity of the provocation and the genuineness of the cause. Lawyers should adopt other modes of protest which will not interrupt or disrupt court proceedings or adversely affect the interest of the litigant. Thereby lawyers can also set an example to other sections of the society in the matter of protest and agitations. 
31. Every Court has a solemn duty to proceed with the judicial business during Court hours and the Court is not obliged to adjourn a case because of a strike call. The Court is under an obligation to hear and decide cases brought before it and it cannot shirk that obligation on the ground that the advocates are on strike. If the counsel or/and the party does not appear, the necessary consequences contemplated in law should follow. The Court should not become privy to the strike by adjourning the case on the ground that lawyers are on strike. Even in the Common Cause case the Supreme Court had asked the members of the legal profession to be alive to the possibility of Judges refusing adjournments merely on the ground of there being a strike call and insisting on proceeding with the cases. Strike infringes the litigant’s fundamental right for speedy trial and the Court cannot remain a mute spectator or throw up its hands in helplessness on the face of such continued violation of the fundamental right. 
32. Either in the name of a strike or otherwise, no lawyer has any right to obstruct or prevent another lawyer from discharging his professional duty of appearing in Court. If anyone does it, he commits a criminal offence and interferes with the administration of justice and commits contempt of Court and he is liable to be proceeded against on all these counts.  
33. In the light of the above discussion we are of the  view that the present strike by lawyers is illegal and unethical. Whatever might have been the compelling circumstances earlier, now there is absolutely no justification for the continuance of the strike in view of the appointment of the Commission of Inquiry and the directions being issued in this case." 
18) In our view the conclusions reached are absolutely correct and the same need to be and are hereby approved. 
19) Thereafter in the case of Roman Services Pvt. Ltd. vs. Subhash Kapoor reported in (2001) 1 SCC 118, the question was whether a litigant should suffer a penalty because his advocate had boycotted the Court pursuant to a strike call made by the Association of which the advocate was a member. In answer to this question it has been held that when an advocate engaged by a party is on strike there is no obligation on the part of the Court to either wait or adjourn the case on that account. It was held that this Court has time and again set out that an advocate has no right to stall court proceedings on the ground that they have decided to go on a strike. In this case it was noted that in Mahabir Prasad’s case (supra), it has been held that strikes and boycotts are illegal. That the lawyers and the Bar understood that they could not resort to strikes is clear from statement of Senior Counsel Shri. Krishnamani which this Court recorded. The statement is as follows: 
"13. Shri Krishamani, however, made the present position as unambiguously clear in the following words:  
"Today, if a lawyer participates in a Bar Association’s boycott of a particular court that is ex facie bad in view of the clear declaration of law by this Hon’ble Court. Now, even if there is boycott call, a lawyer can boldly ignore the same in view of the ruling of this Hon’ble Court in Mahabir Prasad Singh (1999) 1 SCC 37." 
This Court thereafter directed the concerned advocate to pay the half the amount of the cost imposed on his client. The observations in this behalf are as follows: 
"15. Therefore, we permit the appellant to realise half of the said amount of Rs. 5000 from the firm of advocates M/s B.C. Das Gupta & Co. or from any one of its partners. Initially we thought that the appellant could be permitted to realise the whole amount from the said firm of advocates. However, we are inclined to save the firm from bearing the costs partially since the Supreme Court is adopting such a measure for the first time and the counsel would not have been conscious of such a consequence befalling them. Nonetheless we put the profession to notice that in future the advocate would also be answerable for the consequence suffered by the party if the non-appearance was solely on the ground of a strike call. It is unjust and inequitable to cause the party alone to suffer for the self-imposed dereliction of his advocate. We may further add that the litigant who suffers entirely on account of his advocate’s non-appearance in court, has also the remedy to sue the advocate for damages but that remedy would remain unaffected by the course adopted in this case. Even so, in situations like this, when the court mulcts the party with costs for the failure of his advocate to appear, we make it clear that the same court has power to permit the party to realise the costs from the advocate concerned. However, such direction can be passed only after affording an opportunity to the advocate. If he has any justifiable cause the court can certainly absolve him from such a liability. But the advocate cannot get absolved merely on the ground that he did not attend the court as he or his association was on a strike. If any advocate claims that his right to strike must be without any loss to him but the loss must only be for his innocent client such a claim is repugnant to any principle of fair play and canons of ethics. So when he opts to strike work or boycott the court he must as well be prepared to bear at least the pecuniary loss suffered by the litigant client who entrusted his brief to that advocate with all confidence that his cause would be safe in the hands of that advocate. 
16. In all cases where the court is satisfied that the ex parte order (passed due to the absence of the advocate pursuant to any strike call) could be set aside on terms, the court can as well permit the party to realise the costs from the advocate concerned without driving such party to initiate another legal action against the advocate.  
17. We may also observe that it is open to the court as an alternative course to permit the party (while setting aside the ex parte order or decree earlier passed in his favour) to realise the cost fixed by the court for the purpose, from the counsel of the other party whose absence caused the passing of such ex parte order, if the court is satisfied that such absence was due to that counsel boycotting the court or participating in a strike." 
20) Thus the law is already well settled. It is the duty of every Advocate who has accepted a brief to attend trial, even though it may go on day to day and for a prolonged period. It is also settled law that a lawyer who has accepted a brief cannot refuse to attend Court because a boycott call is given by the Bar Association. It is settled law that it is unprofessional as well as unbecoming for a lawyer who has accepted a brief to refuse to attend Court even in pursuance of a call for strike or boycott by the Bar Association or the Bar Council. It is settled law that Courts are under an obligation to hear and decide cases brought before it and cannot adjourn matters merely because lawyers are on strike. The law is that it is the duty and obligation of Courts to go on with matters or otherwise it would tantamount to becoming a privy to the strike. It is also settled law that if a resolution is passed by Bar Associations expressing want of confidence in judicial officers it would amount to scandalising the Courts to undermine its authority and thereby the Advocates will have committed contempt of Court. Lawyers have known, at least since Mahabir Singh’s case (supra) that if they participate in a boycott or a strike, their action is ex-facie bad in view of the declaration of law by this Court. A lawyer’s duty is to boldly ignore a call for strike or boycott of Court/s. Lawyers have also known, at least since Roman Services’ case, that the Advocates would be answerable for the consequences suffered by their clients if the non-appearance was solely on grounds of a strike call. 
21) It must also be remembered that an Advocate is an officer of the Court and enjoys special status in society. Advocates have obligations and duties to ensure smooth functioning of the Court. They owe a duty to their client. Strikes interfere with administration of justice.They cannot thus disrupt Court proceedings and put interest of their clients in jeopardy. In the words of Mr. H. M. Seervai, a distinguished jurist:- 
"Lawyers ought to know that at least as long as lawful redress is available to aggrieved lawyers, there is no justification for lawyers to join in an illegal conspiracy to commit a gross, criminal contempt of court, thereby striking at the heart of the liberty conferred on every person by our Constitution. Strike is an attempt to interfere with the administration of justice. The principle is that those who have duties to discharge in a court of justice are protected by the law and are shielded by the law to discharge those duties, the advocates in return have duty to protect the courts. For, once conceded that lawyers are above the law and the law courts, there can be no limit to lawyers taking the law into their hands to paralyse the working of the courts. 
"In my submission", he said that "it is high time that the Supreme Court and the High Court make it clear beyond doubt that they will not tolerate any interference from anybody or authority in the daily administration of justice. For in no other way can the Supreme Court and the High Court maintain the high position and exercise the great powers conferred by the Constitution and the law to do justice without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." 
31) It must immediately be mentioned that one understands and sympathisises with the Bar wanting to vent their grievances. But as has been pointed out there are other methods e.g. giving press statements, TV interviews, carrying out of Court premises banners and/or placards, wearing black or white or any colour arm bands, peaceful protest marches outside and away from Court premises, going on dharnas or relay fasts etc. More importantly in many instances legal remedies are always available. A lawyer being part and parcel of the legal system is instrumental in upholding the rule of law. A person casts with the legal and moral obligation of upholding law can hardly be heard to say that he will take law in his own hands. It is therefore time that self restraint be exercised.  
35) In conclusion it is held that lawyers have no right to go on strike or give a call for boycott, not even on a token strike. The protest, if any is required, can only be by giving press statements, TV interviews, carrying out of Court premises banners and/or placards, wearing black or white or any colour arm bands, peaceful protect marches outside and away from Court premises, going on dharnas or relay fasts etc. It is held that lawyers holding Vakalats on behalf of their clients cannot not attend Courts in pursuance to a call for strike or boycott. All lawyers must boldly refuse to abide by any call for strike or boycott. No lawyer can be visited with any adverse consequences by the Association or the Council and no threat or coercion of any nature including that of expulsion can be held out. It is held that no Bar Council or Bar Association can permit calling of a meeting for purposes of considering a call for strike or boycott and requisition, if any, for such meeting must be ignored. It is held that only in the rarest of rare cases where the dignity, integrity and independence of the Bar and/or the Bench are at stake, Courts may ignore (turn a blind eye) to a protest abstention from work for not more than one day. It is being clarified that it will be for the Court to decide whether or not the issue involves dignity or integrity or independence of the Bar and/or the Bench. Therefore in such cases the President of the Bar must first consult the Chief Justice or the District Judge before Advocate decide to absent themselves from Court. The decision of the Chief Justice or the District Judge would be final and have to be abided by the Bar. It is held that Courts are under no obligation to adjourn matters because lawyers are on strike. On the contrary, it is the duty of all Courts to go on with matters on their boards even in the absence of lawyers. In other words, Courts must not be privy to strikes or calls for boycotts. It is held that if a lawyer, holding a Vakalat of a client, abstains from attending Court due to a strike call, he shall be personally liable to pay costs which shall be addition to damages which he might have to pay his client for loss suffered by him.  
36) It is now hoped that with the above clarifications, there will be no strikes and/or calls for boycott. It is hoped that better sense will prevail and self restraint will be exercised. 

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