Who Is a Senior Advocate?

The high court has drawn up the procedures related to the position of Senior Advocates. Section 16 of the 1961 Advocates Act provides for two categories of lawyers, i.e., Advocates and Senior Advocates. It also empowers the High Court and Supreme Court with the authority to grant the new status of Senior Advocates. Recently Women lawyers in Supreme Court were jubilant since for the first time the Supreme Court conferred the distinction on three women advocates.

An advocate is conferred with such distinction by the high court based on the ability standing at the bar or special knowledge or experience and they are allowed to wear the robes worn by the judges. They are forbidden to deal directly with litigants and accept fees. They can appear only along with another advocate. These norms have been imported from England. There they are called the Queen’s Counsel / King’s Counsel.

Why this categorization amongst people in the same profession? This question is often raised. This special status has been conferred to them on the basis that they would not be mere mouthpieces of litigants before the judges but would provide proper counsel in dealing with complicated legal issues. Just as most honours are getting sullied today, even the lawyers with this special status fail to follow the rules of the Bar Council. Contacting litigants, directly demanding and accepting fees, drawing up their pleadings and permitting running of partnerships in their own names – all such dishonourable practices continue.

The Supreme Court and the High Courts have established rules and procedures regarding the grant of the status of Senior Advocate. Two years ago more than twenty lawyers were conferred  the Senior Advocate’s status in the Sikkim High Court consisting of only three judges, of which one post was always kept vacant  since it that court pendency of cases never exceeds two digit figures.  None of these lawyers practiced in Sikkim State. The Supreme Court raised a question as to how these lawyers who could not get the special status in the High Court where they practiced could get the same status at the Sikkim High Court.

A case was filed in the Allahabad High Court against the norms and practices concerning the conferment of Senior Advocate’s status. In that case, a full bench ordered that such discussions should be taken only in a meeting of all the judges.

A panel of seven judges was formed in 1995 in Madras High Court to formulate the norms and procedures in this regard. Only lawyers with an experience of fifteen years and an annual income of above two lakhs rupees may apply duly backed by the recommendations of two Senior Advocates. These applications will be reviewed by the judges in the panel and only those applicants who obtain 75% votes in a secret ballot would be conferred the status of Senior Advocate.

Appeals seeking a revision of these stringent norms were rejected at various points by the court headed by Chief Justices A.P.Shah, A.K.Ganguly and H.L.Gokhale. Thanks to the efforts of Chief Justice Eqbal it was decided that two-thirds of vote would be sufficient. Further he gave himself the right to confer the status to anyone as he wished. Notwithstanding opposition from some fellow judges, he was not prepared to give up this right.

In the procedure formulated by a panel of five judges have recommended as follows:  A panel of ten judges would make recommendations taking into account qualifications and competence of the applicants and in case of unanimity they will be conferred the status. If there is no unanimity among the members of this panel, the Chief Justice will have a veto power to take a final decision.

Whoever attains this status of a Senior Advocate, the honour of this status can be safeguarded only if they act in conformity with the rules formed by the Bar Council of India, both in letter and spirit.