20 Feb 2017

Lawyer not liable for 'professional misconduct' unless 'gross negligence': Supreme Court

Holding that 'human errors' are possible even by lawyers, the Supreme Court in a recent decision has declared that a lawyer cannot be hauled up for professional misconduct only on account of negligence unless it is shown that the error was a 'gross negligence' in his actions. While acknowleding that "nobility, sanctity and ethicality of the profession has to be kept uppermost in the mind of an Advocate", the Supreme Court declared the legal position on the yard-stick to be followed for adjudging the actions of a lawyer and whether they were beyond the permissible boundaries. 

In its decision entitled T.A. Kathiru Kunju v. Jacob Mathai - Civil Appeal No. 3860 of 2007, decision dated 16.02.2017 the Supreme Court was dealing with the correctness of the action taken by the Bar Council (the regulatory body of lawyers in India) in holding a lawyer"guilty of gross negligence in discharge of his professional service to the client and accordingly imposed the punishment of reprimand" and a fine. The facts leading to this punishment were that the lawyer did not proceed with the suggested course of action required by the client in prosecuting a debtor for default. Apparently the lawyer also lost a crucial piece of evidence given to his custody by his client. The lawyer challenged the guilty verdict of the Bar Council before the Supreme Court which accepted the challenge. 

The Supreme Court gave the following reasons in support of its ruling;
"10. On a plain reading of the aforesaid provision, it is clear as crystal what punishment is to be imposed in case of misconduct. In the case at hand, as we find, that a conclusion has been arrived at by the Disciplinary Authority that it is a case of gross negligence at the hands of the appellant. As urged by Mr. Parikh, it is only required to be seen whether it is a mere negligence or gross negligence.  
11. The Constitution Bench, in the matter of Mr. 'P' an Advocate, (supra) has ruled that mere negligence or error of judgment on the part of an advocate would not amount to professional misconduct. It has been further held therein that error of judgment cannot be completely eliminated in all human affairs and mere negligence may not necessarily show that the advocate who is guilty of it can be charged with misconduct. The Constitution Bench, as is demonstrable, has drawn a distinction between 'negligence' and the 'gross negligence'. We think it appropriate to reproduce the said passage. It is as follows:- 
“But different considerations arise where the negligence of the Advocate is gross. It may be that before condemning an Advocate for misconduct, courts are inclined to examine the question as to whether such gross negligence involves moral turpitude or delinquency. In dealing with this aspect of the matter, however, it is of utmost importance to remember that the expression "moral turpitude or delinquency" is not to receive a narrow construction. Wherever conduct proved against an Advocate is contrary to honesty, or opposed to good morals, or is unethical, it may be safely held that it involves moral turpitude. A willful and callous disregard for the interests of the client may, in a proper case, be characterised as conduct unbefitting an Advocate. In dealing with matters of professional propriety, we cannot ignore the fact that the profession of law is an honourable profession and it occupies a place of pride in the liberal professions of the country. Any conduct which makes a person unworthy to belong to the noble fraternity of lawyers or makes an Advocate unfit to be entrusted with the responsible task of looking after the interests of the litigant, must be regarded as conduct involving moral turpitude. The Advocates-on-record like the other members of the Bar Advocates are Officers of the Court and the purity of the administration of justice depends as much on the integrity of the Judges as on the honesty of the Bar. That is why in dealing with the question as to whether an Advocate has rendered himself unfit to belong to the brotherhood at the Bar, the expression "moral turpitude or delinquency" is not to be construed in an unduly narrow and restricted sense.”  
12. On a careful reading of the aforesaid passage, it is quite clear that concept of “gross negligence” cannot be construed in a narrow or a restricted sense. It is because honesty of an Advocate is extremely significant. The conduct of an Advocate has to be worthy so that he can be called as a member of the noble fraternity of lawyers. It is his obligation to look after the interest of the litigant when is entrusted with the responsible task in trust. An Advocate has to bear in mind that the profession of law is a noble one. In this regard, we may fruitfully refer to what has been stated in Sanjiv Datta Dy. Secy. Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, In re.:- 
“The legal profession is a solemn and serious occupation. It is a noble calling and all those who belong to it are its honourable members. Although the entry to the profession can be had by acquiring merely the qualification of technical competence, the honour as a professional has to be maintained by its members by their exemplary conduct both in and outside the court. The legal profession is different from other professions in that what the lawyers do, affects not only an individual but the administration of justice which is the foundation of the civilised society. Both as a leading member of the intelligentsia of the society and as a responsible citizen, the lawyer has to conduct himself as a model for others both in his professional and in his private and public life. The society has a right to expect of him such ideal behaviour. It must not be forgotten that the legal profession has always been held in high esteem and its members have played an enviable role in public life. The regard for the legal and judicial systems in this country is in no small measure due to the tireless role played by the stalwarts in the profession to strengthen them. They took their profession seriously and practised it with dignity, deference and devotion. If the profession is to survive, the judicial system has to be vitalised. No service will be too small in making the system efficient, effective and credible.” 
13. Slightly recently in Dhanraj Singh Choudhary v. National Vishwakarma, it has been observed:- 
“The legal profession is a noble profession. It is not a business or a trade. A person practising law has to practise in the spirit of honesty and not in the spirit of mischief-making or money-getting. An advocate’s attitude towards and dealings with his client have to be scrupulously honest and fair.” 
14. There can be no doubt that nobility, sanctity and ethicality of the profession has to be kept uppermost in the mind of an Advocate. Keeping that primary principle in view, his conduct has to be weighed. There the approach of appreciating the evidence brought on record and the yardstick to be applied, become quite relevant. A three-Judge Bench in P.D Khandekar (supra) while dealing with the scope of an appeal preferred under Section 38 of the Act, ruled that in an appeal under Section 38, this Court in a general rule, cannot interfere with the concurrent finding of fact by the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar Council of India and the State Bar Council unless the finding is based on no evidence or it proceeds on mere conjectures and surmises. The Court has further laid down that finding in such disciplinary proceedings must be sustained by a higher degree of proof than that required in civil suits, yet falling short of the proof required to sustain a conviction in a criminal prosecution; and there should be convincing preponderance of evidence. We must immediately note with profit that the said principle is absolutely significant. The Court has stressed upon the rule to be applied for acceptance or treating the finding defensible by the Disciplinary Committee of Bar Council. In this regard it is fruitful to reproduce the following passage from the said authority:- 
“There is a world of difference between the giving of improper legal advice and the giving of wrong legal advice. Mere negligence unaccompanied by any moral delinquency on the part of a legal practitioner in the exercise of his profession does not amount to professional misconduct. In re A Vakil, Coutts Trotter, C.J. followed the decision in re G. Mayor Cooke and said that: 
"Negligence by itself is not professional misconduct; into that offence there must enter the element of moral delinquency. Of that there is no suggestion here, and we are therefore able to say that there is no case to investigate, and that no reflection adverse to his professional honour rests upon Mr. M.', The decision was followed by the Calcutta High Court in re An Advocate, and by the Allahabad High Court in the matter of An Advocate of Agra and by this court in the matter of P. An Advocate. 
The decision was followed by the Calcutta High Court In re An Advocate [AIR 1955 CAL 484], and by the Allahabad High Court In the matter of An Advocate of Agra [AIR 1940 All 289] and by this Court In the matter of P. An Advocate [AIR 1934 Rang 33]” 
... 
17. On a studied scrutiny of the evidence in this context, the factual score, the act of the present appellant cannot be treated to be in the realm of gross negligence. It would be only one of negligence. The tenor of the impugned order, as we notice, puts the blame on the appellant on the foundation that he had not received the acknowledgment. He has offered an explanation that he had given the cheque to the police. There has been no delineation in that regard. That apart, there is no clear cut analysis on deliberation on gross negligence by the advocate. The Disciplinary Committee found the appellant guilty of gross-negligence as he had failed to get the acknowledgment from the complainant-respondent. The examples given by the Constitution Bench are of different nature. In the obtaining factual matrix, therefore, we are unable to accept the conclusion arrived at by the Disciplinary Authority of the Bar Council of India that the negligence is gross. Hence we are impelled not to accept the submission advanced by learned counsel for the respondent. 
18. Thus analysed, we are disposed to allow the appeal and accordingly, we so direct and the order passed by the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar Council of India is set aside. ..." 

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