Star lawyers get Rs 5 lakh for 5-minute job


NEW DELHI: As far as prayers go, this variety is the most rewarding. India’s superstar lawyers make a mini fortune every time they pray, plead or appeal and the bar has now gone up by several notches thanks to the ongoing legal tussle between the Ambani brothers.

The Ambani vs Ambani battle is just the icing on the cake for the handful of India’s elite lawyers who are probably the country’s highest paid professionals. Harish Salve, Mukul Rohatgi, Ashok Desai, KK Venugopal, and Abhishek Singhvi are the notables in this essentially boys’ club. These star lawyers charge around Rs 3-5 lakh for a five-minute appearance, and can manage up to 10 such appearances per day, said a lawyer who did not wish to be named. For outstation cases, the rate is even higher: from Rs 10-30 lakh, plus expenses. The rates for the Reliance battle could be double that rate, said members of the legal fraternity close to the matter. Not every case comes with a Reliance premium, but they said it’s not unusual for some of India’s top 10-15 advocates to earn over Rs 50 crore a year by way of legal fees.

That stacks up against the Rs 5-10 crore that CEOs of Sensex 30 companies make per year as compensation on an average. For cash-rich clients the race to pocket one from this league has become even more tight as public affairs has already weaned away three other stars — home minister P Chidambaram, HRD minister Kapil Sibal and BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley — leaving the rest in high demand.

Then there are the veterans like formal solicitor general Soli Sorabjee, Shanti Bhushan and Fali Nariman who are said to be in the same income bracket. But they, like former law minister Ram Jethmalani representing the Anil Ambani group in the Reliance case, take cases selectively. “With the opening up of the economy and more foreign companies coming in, the landscape of corporate India has changed,” says Mr Rohatgi who represents Anil Ambani-promoted RNRL in the apex court.

Mr Rohatgi refused to comment on what he charges, while RIL’s face in the Supreme Court, Harish Salve, said disclosing his fees would be in violation to his clients’ right of confidence.  “I have no clue as to what RIL is spending per day — nor is it a matter of any interest to me,” Mr Salve replied to an ET e-mail.  Emails sent to Mr Desai, Mr Venugopal, Mr Sundaram and Mr Singhvi went unanswered. The black gown-brigade has come a long way since the days of legal luminary MC Setalvad who fixed a standard rate of Rs 1,040 for special leave petitions (SLPs) and Rs 1,680 for final hearings three decades ago. When a senior SC lawyer wanted to charge Rs 7,000 per appearance, he had to retreat in the wake of a fraternity uproar.For outstation cases, the top lawyers are rumoured to charge around Rs 20-30 lakh, plus expenses for each appearance.

Attorney-general Goolam Essaji Vahanvati and Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam are reportedly paid a fixed sum when appearing for the government (a measly Rs 5,500, reportedly) but can charge commercial rates for PSU cases. “Litigation has undergone a huge change and it has become more aggressive in nature,” says Mr Bhushan, another former union law minister.

Lawyers say that remuneration often depends on the type and duration of a case. On Mondays and Fridays, admission/miscellaneous matters are normally listed for which the lawyer concerned is not needed to appear for more than 5 minutes! About 50 to 70 matters are listed before all courts for admission/miscellaneous matters, as per industry estimates.

“Not much preparation is required for admission matters so Rs 2-2.5 lakh per appearance is normal,” said a senior advocate who did not wish to be quoted. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are earmarked for matters involving regular hearing for which advocates can charge upto even Rs 5-10 lakh, depending on the case – with the most complex cases attracting exceptional rates.

A case would also require a couple of rounds of conferencing, which are usually included in the total fees, though some lawyers charge hourly rates of around Rs 2 lakh. Says top advocate Dushyant Dave who also charges upwards of Rs 2 lakh per appearance, “Litigation over the years has become more complex and demanding because of the nature of issues and stakes. So strategies are more important now.”

For a top lawyer, business could be beyond the court gates too. Many charge clients for written and oral opinions, besides taking on retainerships, a crucial legal ploy that cuts both ways. A retainer is a fixed amount that a client pays in advance to secure the services of the litigator – and in some cases also to ensure that he or she does not appear for the other side. In nearly all the headline-grabbing cases in India, the names of the lawyers who did not appear are often more intriguing than those who did, says a senior advocate. Mr Sorabjee told ET that he charges a normal fee of Rs 1.5 lakh for admission inclusive of one conference. He said that for regular hearing matters, he charges around Rs 3 lakh per appearance and conference. Mr Sorabjee, Mr Dave and Mr Bhushan said they charge much less if the litigant happens to be a government servant or a school teacher or any person in that category.


Conduct worthy of a police state

Siddharth Varadarajan  in THE HINDU DECEMBER 9 2009

The peremptory deportation of a Nepali student from India and the unlawful detention of a tribal woman shot by the police in Chhattisgarh raise troubling questions about the power of our ‘national security’ apparatus.

The Indian Constitution and various laws framed under it grant the Indian state and its agencies enormous power to regulate the movement of persons, especially when the bogey of national security is raised. These powers include the preventive detention of citizens under one pretext or the other and, under the Foreigners Act, the summary deportation of foreign nationals, including those that have legally entered the country and have not violated the laws of the land in any way. Indian nationals who are unable to prove their citizenship to the satisfaction of the police are also subject to summary deportation, without the automatic right to be heard by a court.

Implicit in the grant of such extraordinary powers in a democracy is the understanding that the exercise of authority will be governed by reason and justice in the broadest possible sense. When these principles are jettisoned, arbitrariness and abuse of power become the norm, exposing, under the brittle veneer of democratic paint, the ugly face of a police state answerable to no one other than itself.

Nitu Singh, a young woman from Nepal, is a final year student at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India at Pune. On the night of December 5, 2009, the city police landed up at the FTII hostel without any warrant or paperwork, took her into custody, gathered her personal effects and moved her to Mumbai, from where she was deported to Kathmandu the next day.

The only reason cited by the Pune police was that Ms. Singh had indulged in “anti-national activities”. No detail of these alleged activities was provided, no mention was made of which Indian laws she had violated and no attempt was made to substantiate the charges. The Indian Express, which broke the story, quoted Ravindra Sengaonkar, the city’s Deputy Commissioner of Police (Special Branch), as saying: “Nitu Singh was deported to Nepal because she was found to be involved in anti-national activities. It was a high-level secret operation which our team completed successfully in quick time… We are not supposed to share details. The case is high-profile and various investigative agencies are involved.”

Whatever the nature of her “anti-India activities”, one thing is clear: they were not serious enough to warrant the filing of criminal charges. So why was she deported?

Nitu Singh is the wife of Amaresh Singh, a member of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. He has also served as an interlocutor between the Nepali Congress, which is his own party, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the Government of India, a process in which India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, has been deeply involved.

According to women’s activists in Pune who have taken up her case, Nitu’s deportation was engineered by her husband, from whom she had grown estranged over the past year or so. On his part, Amaresh has denied playing any role in the entire affair.

Of all the issues this deportation involves, the state of the Singh marriage need not detain us. Husbands and wives fight all the time. When global travel is involved, marital disputes can take on very complex dimensions. But what is unusual is the speed with which Nitu’s expulsion from India took place and the “national security” grounds invoked by the authorities. Despite the enormous latitude granted to the police by Section 3 (2) (c) of the Foreigners Act, foreign nationals are usually deported from India (a) if they are illegal migrants, (b) if they have overstayed their visa, (c) if they have finished serving their sentence for any crime they might have been convicted of, or (d) if their presence in the country is deemed by a minister to be prejudicial to public order. In most cases, the process of deportation is so leisurely that some of those targeted even manage to bring their case before a court, or to escape, as the three Pakistanis who relieved themselves of their police escort in Delhi did last week.

In Nitu Singh’s case, however, none of the usual grounds for deportation obtain. That is why those who took the decision to deport her chose “anti-national activities” as the reason. They gambled on the fact that the smokescreen of national security is usually a thick enough deterrent to ward off troublesome questions. While the S.P.S. Rathore case has taught us that no abuse of law or process is beyond the local constabulary, it is hard to imagine the Pune police dreaming up this deportation on their own steam. Indeed, Mr. Sengaonkar gave the game away by speaking of a “high level” operation and the involvement of other agencies. Since the Ministry of Home Affairs under P. Chidambaram has ordered a probe into this matter, one can safely assume that the “agencies” involved are not those that report to the MHA.

In a speech last month, Mr. Chidamabaram drew attention to the fact that several agencies involved in counter-terrorism report not to him but to the Cabinet Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the National Security Advisor. Among these are RAW, the Aviation Research Centre and the National Technical Research Organisation. Could one of those agencies have been involved in the deportation? If so, who within the national security establishment decided Nitu Singh was engaging in “anti-national activities” and what evidence do they have to substantiate the charge? Was Amaresh Singh able to influence this process in any way? These are the questions the Home Minister will hopefully ask as he seeks to get to the bottom of a case that makes India look more like a banana republic than a democracy with rule of law.

If the power to expel a foreigner can be exercised so arbitrarily, this is because the power to prevent the movement of citizens within the country is subject to the same degree of caprice and contempt for the rule of law.

A young Adivasi woman named Sambho Sodi who was injured in police firing in Dantewada last year was prevented by the Chhattisgarh police from travelling to Delhi last week for medical treatment to her wounded leg. The grounds for her detention were that the police needed to record her statement about the incident in which she alleges the security forces fired upon unarmed civilians near Gompad village on October 1, 2009. The police, which claimed the Gompad shooting was part of an anti-Naxalite operation, had all the time in the world to record her statement but chose not to do so as long as she was in Dantewada. But the day she needed to travel to Delhi for treatment, they compelled her to get down from the vehicle she was travelling in and took her in for questioning, prompting her colleagues and friends to urgently move the Supreme Court.

On January 7, the Supreme Court ordered the State of Chhatisgarh “not to interfere in any manner whatsoever” with Ms. Sodi coming to Delhi for her medical treatment and to not “create any obstacle in her way”. At the time of going to press, however, activists handling her case said the police had still not cleared her departure for Delhi. Chhattisgarh has become one of India’s most notorious “no rights” zones, where state-supported vigilantes in the name of Salwa Judum and ‘Special Police Officers’ are free to attack those who are critical of the actions of the security forces. As matters stand, the Chhattisgarh government is already in violation of Supreme Court orders on the rehabilitation of Adivasis displaced by the Salwa Judum. How long the state police will prevent Ms. Sodi from travelling to Delhi remains to be seen.

In their own way, Nitu Singh and Shambho Sodi are both victims of a security establishment which operates on the penumbra of legality and whose forays to the dark side frequently remain unseen and unheard. Rare are the moments when we get to shine the light on them, rarer still the times when senior ministers undertake to right a wrong. The media and the judiciary must make the most of these opportunities.