By Ajay Kumar
There is a cardinal rule of legal ethics which is often referred to as the "cab rank rule". Just like a taxi cab at a taxi stand, a lawyer must accept any brief in the area they profess to practice so long as the client is willing to pay the fare. The destination is immaterial and most importantly so is the client.
The Bar Council in its rules on professional standards says this:
“An advocate is bound to accept any brief in the courts or tribunals or before any other authority in or before which he proposes to practise. He should levy fees, which is at par with the fees collected by fellow advocates of his standing at the Bar and the nature of the case. Special circumstances may justify his refusal to accept a particular brief.”
I remember once I had a rather heated argument with a fellow advocate, in my view activist lawyers were being unethical as their practice did not conform to the cab rank rule. They would take briefs only from people who their causes supported but wouldn't take work from the opposition. In my view a lawyer who was a defender of labourers should also accept briefs from employers as well. He disagreed and maintained that it was the duty of lawyers to fight for the weak and that the rule did not make sense in a society filled with so much injustice.
I wonder, if the flip side of that argument is advocates like Vikram Singh Chauhan, who proudly stated that "Lawyer hone ka ye matlab nahi hai ki deshbhakti ghar pe rakh ke aayenge" (Being a lawyer doesn't mean we will keep patriotism at home) as he defended the ruckus created by him and his fellow lawyers at the Patiala House Courts Complex.
Fact is under the rules of professional conduct, Kanhaiya Kumar should ideally be able to approach Chauhan to represent him and in terms of that rule it would be unethical for Chauhan to refuse to take up the brief.
Advocates as officers of the court hold a very important place in our legal system by being the single point of access to most forms of justice. Most people are only able to gain access to justice once they have access to a lawyer. We are the facilitators of this system and that is why we are termed "officers of the court" and like the court while we are acting as officers and wearing our black coats, we leave our personal views at home.
Officers can never have views, they can only have their duties. An advocate may have the highest contempt for the views of his client, but it is his professional duty to represent him to the best of his ability anyway. Just like the humble cab driver may have utmost contempt for a rude passenger, but he is expected to make the journey nonetheless.
What happened at the Patiala House Courts Complex was a dark day for the Bar in India. Lawyers crossed the line and let their personal views dictate their professional conduct. This should never be the case, just like a cab driver should not be able to reject a fare merely because they don't like what their passenger looks like.
Chauhan is free to protest, but he is not free do so while in uniform. While in uniform he stands as an officer of the court and officers like bureaucrats and doctors should not take sides while they are acting in their professional capacity. Be it a "human rights" lawyer or a "nationalist one" and advocate is an advocate and while they are in uniform and doing their job, that is all they should aim to be. Cause everyone has the right to approach a lawyer, if lawyers begin to judge their client's before taking up cases, then the legal system will fail. Can you imagine the utter chaos if your police officers refused to register FIR's just cause they didn't like something you had said earlier?
At the end of days play, everyone is free to take sides, but not while the match is going on. Just like an umpire in the middle of a cricket match, Advocates should not cheer either side. Legal services should be available to all and the independence of the Bar requires strict neutrality in terms of personal opinion while a matter is being heard in court.
The lawyers who created the ruckus need to be punished by the Bar Council, along with Bar Associations across the country who pass resolutions not to defend certain people accused of certain crimes. A good lawyer, like a good officer, should be available to all. As Advocates, our only duty as officers is to the Court and the Constitution, not the public at large, no matter how much we may agree with their sentiments. Officers should remain Officers.
The author is an advocate at the Bombay High Court. Views are personal.