Women as senior advocates, any takers?
Bombay High Court : Since 1991, there have been only 3 women among 81 designations
MEENA MENON IN THE HINDU
There have been only three women among the 81 senior advocates designated by the Bombay High Court from 1991 to 2010. Since 2006, no women have been designated as senior advocates; this year too, there were none among the 15 names decided by the High Court.
This year, only one woman, a senior lawyer with over 35 years’ experience, had applied, and she was not selected. Women are diffident about applying for the senior advocates’ designation and even if they do, they are not sure of getting it. And the whole process is shrouded in secrecy. S B Shukre, Registrar General, Bombay High Court, refused to give any details regarding the selection process, the number of applicants and how many women had applied for the designation of senior advocate. Saying that the information was confidential, he suggested that an application may be filed under the Right to Information Act. Rajani Iyer, who was made senior advocate in 2006 along with Ms. K.V. Sirpurkar, says: “I waited to apply till I was invited/asked to apply. I didn’t want to do so otherwise. Perhaps I got lucky when I was appointed.” In addition to a certain amount of diffidence, there is a lack of women applicants. It is a two way-street, she explains. “Why don’t senior women advocates apply for this position despite having a well-rounded practice?” she asks. To be appointed senior advocate is prestigious. “You don’t have to draft petitions and you are given sole responsibility for the case. It’s exciting and challenging,” Ms. Iyer says.
When asked if there was discrimination in the selection process, she points out that the question of discrimination can arise only if women are denied from among a large number of applicants. “The bias or inequity is in the number of women applying. How many women can get recommendations from four senior advocates for the application? That is also the question. Also there are so few women from the criminal side. Freny Ponda was the last advocate from the criminal side.” So far there have been only eight women senior advocates in Mumbai, and among them are Indira Jaising, Sujata Manohar and Phiroza Anklesaria.
To apply for the position, one must have four recommendations from senior advocates, at least 15 years standing as an advocate, reference to at least ten reported judgments in cases in which the applicant has appeared as arguing counsel and contributed to the making of law, among other things. The proposals from advocates are vetted by the Registrar General and then decided upon by the Full Court. The acceptance of the Full Court shall be accorded only if not less then two-thirds of the judges present in the meeting vote in favour of the applications from the advocates.
‘Election, not selection’
A senior lawyer who was turned away after applying for the position in 2011 says, on condition of anonymity, that the voting is done in a secret ballot and is an election, rather than a selection. And the results and number of votes each candidate gets is not made public. While a list had been put up on the high court website, the rejected candidates had not been informed. They cannot apply for two years now. The applicant must know how many votes he or she has got. The whole process, the senior lawyer says, lacks transparency and is vitiated by this secrecy.
A senior woman lawyer, who does not wish to be named, too says the process lacks transparency and that there has to be some objective criteria. If deserving people do not get elevated, then the whole systems suffers, she feels. As a woman lawyer, she herself has not experienced discrimination like many others. However, she concedes that there is a low opinion in general about women lawyers, who lack ambition, albeit that was changing now. She adds that family connections matter in the appointments to the senior counsel.
The appointment of senior counsels is one area where women find no place. Male lawyers never let you feel like an insider; women remain outsiders, according to a young lawyer. Another senior lawyer said there were fewer women lawyers out there but that they were bright. However, many drop out due to various reasons and the judiciary has its own caste system and hierarchy, which was perpetuated everywhere. Women have no place in this. “You join a particular chamber so you go ahead in your career. Women can’t even get into these places,” he says. There are few women judges and if they are appointed it’s a quota.
In addition to this, it is difficult for women, sometimes, who have families to look after, and the court offers no flexibility in terms of time and place, according to a yound woman lawyer. Once you take a break it is difficult to re-establish yourself and not many women make it through the first 20 years of their practice. Things could also be changing with more women coming into the profession determined to stick it out.
Meanwhile, when advocate M.P. Vashi filed a PIL petition in the Bombay High Court on the selection of senior advocates under section 16 of the Advocates Act, he was told to file it in the Supreme Court. Mr. Vashi said the rules setting the criteria for senior advocates went against the principles of making legal aid available cheaply. To apply for the position of senior advocate one had to have an annual income of Rs.7.5 lakh. “The idea is to make legal aid cheaper and here the rules are encouraging the lawyers to charge more fees,” he said. He said there was no clear criteria to judge the competence of those who would be selected for the position of senior advocate and the whole practice must be done away with.
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