How many Senior Advocates volunteer free Legal Aid?
As per the list published on 1 October 2019, 16% of all Supreme Court Senior Advocates volunteer to do legal services.
Article 39A of the Constitution places a responsibility on the State to ensure that all citizens enjoy equal opportunity to approach the courts. It stipulates that free legal aid should be secured for disadvantaged citizens.
In order to realize this Directive Principle, Parliament passed the Legal Services Authorities Act on 11 October 1987. The Act institutes the National Legal Services Authority to manage legal aid services nation-wide. Further, Section 3A establishes the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee (SCLSC) to ensure free legal aid services for litigants approaching the Apex Court.
To ensure its aim of providing free legal aid, the SCLSC maintains a ‘panel of advocates’, who voluntarily file and argue cases on behalf of disadvantaged litigants. The panel comprises Senior Advocates (Sr Advs), Advocates-on-Record (AoRs) and Non-Advocates-on-Record (Non-AoRs)
The SCLSC relies on advocates voluntarily offering their pro-bono services. It currently reports having 66 Sr Advs and 109 AoRs (Non-AoRs not reported).
Understanding the numbers
One way to contextualise these figures is to think about them in proportion to how many total designated Senior Advocates and AoRs there exist. Put differently, what proportion of Senior Advocates and AoRs are volunteering for the SCLSC?
In total, the Supreme Court has designated 416 lawyers as Senior Advocates, according to its list published on 1 October 2019. This would suggest that 16% of all Supreme Court Senior Advocates volunteer to do legal services.
In actual fact, this percentage is closer to 9%. Many of the SCLSC’s Senior Advocates weren’t given their designation by the Supreme Court, but rather a High Court. For example, the Bombay High Court designated Indira Jaising as a Senior Advocate. Such High Court Senior Advocates are not included in the Supreme Court’s 2019 list. In fact, only 39 SCLSC Senior Advocates are on the Supreme Court list – i.e. 9% of 416.
Proportionally, the SCLSC has very many fewer AoRs. Only roughly 4% of AoRs on the Supreme Court’s May 2020 list volunteer for the SCLSC. The SCLSC has 109 AoRs – the Supreme Court recognises 2777 AoRs. This may reflect that it is more difficult for AoRs to volunteer their time, as they generally lack the same financial security that Senior Advocates enjoy.
Another explanation may be that the SCLSC simply doesn’t require many more than a 100 AoRs. Potential litigants who lack the means to approach the Court, may not be aware of the free legal aid that the SCLSC provides. As a result, relatively few litigants may be seeking to avail of SCLSC services.
Currently, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about whether the SCLSC has enough advocates on its roster, since the SCLSC doesn’t publish data about how many cases it takes up per year. Finding out likely requires a Right to Information request.