Many lawyers in the Capital are affected by the pandemic with reduced cases and technical challenges induced by virtual hearings
From facing financial difficulties to overcoming technical problems, many advocates practising in the Capital had to adapt to the unprecedented challenges thrust by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the imposition of the first lockdown in March, the Delhi High Court and its subordinate courts have been conducting hearings mainly through videoconferencing.
While standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the videoconference hearing have since been chalked out, and even limited physical hearing resumed recently, it has been a bumpy ride for lawyers who are just starting their career.
Advocate Rajnish Kumar Jha, who began practising from 2012, stressed many lawyers do not have access to technology for virtual court hearing. “There are many who don’t have a smartphone. They never needed one earlier,” he said.
“Many of them would come to the court, do their work, earn and go home. But the pandemic has changed all this. There is less work now. Besides, with virtual hearing, the client might not want to pay the same amount they used to for physical hearing, wherein a lawyer has to travel to court premises and reserve time to appear before the court,” he added.
There were times when the clients have had genuine difficulties. “If the client himself is not in a good financial position, say his business is not doing well, we as lawyers don’t feel like asking for a fee. Here we have to balance the client-lawyer relation,” he said.
Advocate Neeraj Mishra, who is a decade into the profession, said there is a standing order of the High Court not to pass any adverse order when the opposite parties are unable to appear for hearing due to the pandemic. Because of this, many of the litigants are avoiding court appearance as they do not want the case to proceed, he said.
Mr. Mishra explained: “In case of clients who are plaintiff or complainant, they don’t want to pay the lawyers’ fees. Their arguments being firstly that nothing has happened in court, secondly that lawyers don’t have to go to court premises for physical hearing, and thirdly, even the defendant has not joined the virtual hearing.”
Another issue that lawyers encounter regarding payment from clients is that while most of them don’t want to meet personally, some are hesitant to pay online either. “Also in the limited physical hearings that are happening these days, the presence of the client is not necessary. Hence, they don’t usually show up for hearing,” Mr. Mishra added.
“While the Bar Council of Delhi and various bar associations in the Capital had been helping lawyers monetarily, I know lawyers who, despite needing the money, have not applied for it out of their self regard,” he said.
Former Bar Council of Delhi Chairman K.C. Mittal said the crisis has caused serious financial problems for many advocates. It was then that the council decided to invite applications from needy advocates for financial assistance from March 27, 2020. The sum of ₹5,000 was granted to them, Mr. Mittal added.
Advocate Gyanant Kumar Singh said that while a majority of cases are being heard through videoconferencing, there are times when lawyers are unable to argue properly due to technical glitches.
“Recently, I appeared in a virtual hearing in which my client’s case was clubbed with three other similar cases. But somehow, my mic was put to ‘mute’ by the technical staff. I could not argue my case. I also had two other cases, but could not argue those too as my mic was muted throughout the proceedings,” he said.
“Also, the issue with virtual hearing is that litigants are not willing to pay the rightful due of the lawyer. We used to charge date-wise but are not getting it these days. The court registry is also taking up only those cases which are of urgent nature. Hence, the number of cases being heard has gone down,” he said.
Advocate Abhishek Kumar Pathak also highlighted other technical hurdles with virtual hearing. “There are times when, due to network glitches, what we say on our side is heard or recorded differently. There are times when we wanted to refer certain documents during the virtual hearing. In a physical hearing we could just place the document to the court directly, but during virtual hearing, it is not always possible,” Mr. Pathak added.
“Even if we email the documents, it would usually come up during the next date of hearing,” he said, adding that many litigants also do not have an email account which causes problems with serving proper notice.