Mumbai: Cost of civic body's legal wrangles is over Rs 100 crore and counting

Aug 08, 2018, 18:00 IST | Sanjeev Shivadekar

Alarmed by backlog of cases and the ever-increasing bills, BMC caps fees, and redistributes cases

Mumbai: Cost of civic body's legal wrangles is over Rs 100 crore and counting

A whole Rs 100 crore is what the BMC needs to keep its law department running, and the civic chief is not amused. Alarmed by the amount pumped in to fight legal cases and for administrative expenses of the department, the civic body now wants to curtail expenses and cut down on cases by at least 25% by next year.

Last week, in a meeting with senior officials, Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta expressed concern over the amount the corporation has been spending for court cases and functioning of its law department, instructing Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) Nidhi Choudhari to chalk out a strategy to reduce expenses and number of litigations.

Mehta told mid-day, "I have observed that several cases are pending for years and expenses are on the rise. The law department cannot continue to function this way. I have categorically asked them to prepare a road map to reduce expenses and bring down pendency."

Nidhi Choudhari, DMC
Nidhi Choudhari, DMC

Staggering numbers
According to primary information, there are 76,000 cases pending in various courts. Of the total budget allotted to the law department, 55-60 per cent is for administrative expenses, while the rest is incurred on fees to private counsels. In 2017-18, BMC spent Rs 46 crore with 60 per cent of it on hiring counsels. For the current year, the expenditure will be much higher, given the long list of dues of counsels pending for the last couple of years.

Taking stock
The corporation has now started micro-level management and monitoring of the department. "Earlier, cases were randomly allotted to lawyers, and the result would be one lawyer with too many cases and another with hardly any. To end this, we are digitising records and making it mandatory to enter every case into the system. This will help us to monitor cases and assign lawyers as per the gravity of a case. For example, fresh law graduates and juniors are asked to handle smaller cases, while senior counsels are entrusted with bigger and complicated ones," said Choudhari, who is handling the law department.

"There are pending bills of lawyers since 2011, 2012 and 2013. Hence, the budgetary provisions are higher. But in the next one to two years, we plan to reduce both — pendency and expenses."

As per the new strategy, BMC has already hired/empanelled on contract a pool of 225-odd lawyers. Of this, 50 are with over 10 years' experience and will handle ongoing cases at the Bombay High Court, while 75 are middle-level lawyers, who will look after cases in city civil court, consumer court and human rights. The remaining 100 are junior lawyers and fresh law graduates who will deal with lower court cases.

New action plan
* Monthly review: Every month, the DMC (head of law department) will review performance of all officers and focus on pending cases with special stress on important ones in HC and SC.
* Empanelling of advocates/law firms: From random, and on-demand, fee payment, an item-wise schedule of fees with capping for non-effective hearing has been fixed. And, to avoid arbitrary assignment of cases to advocates, a digital roster has been introduced, a first in the corporation's history.
* Schedule of fees: Senior lawyers earlier charging fixed fees of R1 lakh and above have accepted the new fee schedule, which ranges between Rs 45,000 and Rs 50,000 per effective hearing for HC, and between Rs 70,000 and Rs 75,000 per effective hearing for SC.
* Limiting expense: Capping on budgetary expenditure of each lawyer to be decided. For any expenditure above the annual capping limit, permission from competent authority must be taken in writing.
* Scrapping of old panel: Old advocates' panel to be scrapped. If they are interested, s/he will have to accept all conditions as per the new schedule.
* Capping on case allotment: For fair distribution of cases, number to be assigned to an individual advocate will be capped.
* Own photocopying machine: As the department spends around R10 lakh a year on photocopying, BMC will install its own machine.

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