Mumbai lockdown: 'We have money only for a few weeks of groceries,' say lawyers
A majority of the country's 16 lakh advocates work in lower courts and quasi-judicial bodies and don't have enough savings to fall back on
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, income has stopped for several professionals, including lawyers who are among the sections that has taken the worst hit. Those who earned lakhs practising law are now struggling to make ends meet. One of them is even considering pulling his son out of school for a year if the situation doesn't improve.
The Bar Council of India recently filed a writ petition in Supreme Court, seeking direction to the Finance Ministry and State Chief Secretaries to provide financial assistance, including disbursal of soft loans of at least Rs 3 lakh each, to the advocates facing financial difficulties in the wake of the unprecedented global crisis.
"At present, about 16 lakh advocates are enrolled with the different State Bar Councils in the country. A large number of advocates have enrolled and started practice over the past 10 years. These advocates are solely dependent on the regular, though meagre, income they get from appearing in different courts and various tribunals as well as before the quasi-judicial authorities and have no real savings to fall back on. They are particularly vulnerable financially since they are beginners and therefore, their financial position is very precarious," the writ petition stated.
Advocate Rajeshwar Panchal and Advocate Dhananjay Singh
"Almost about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the enrolled advocates would be in need of immediate financial help."
The BCI, in the petition, said the lawyers should be asked to pay back the loan "at least 12 months after the normal functioning of the courts begins and in reasonable instalments."
mid-day spoke to some of the lawyers and found that their situation was grim. While many did not wish to speak on record, some shared their experiences during these trying times.
Advocate Rajeshwar Panchal, 39, has been practising law for over 15 years, and easily made a few lakhs monthly, even as he offered free consultations to the needy and took up pro bono cases.
However, Panchal, who lives with his wife and two children in their Kandivli house, hasn't earned anything for the past four months, and is now finding it difficult to afford daily expenses. "The limited cash that I have is only for basic groceries, so that my family doesn't starve," said an emotional Panchal.
With the lockdown still in place, Panchal doesn't hope to return to work anytime soon, so he has decided to give up his rented office in Fort for which he used to pay Rs 20,000 a month when he could afford. He has not even been able to pay the home loan EMI of Rs 7,000.
"I have not paid the society maintenance charge of Rs 2,500 for the past six months, and have no contingency fund left to handle any emergency or medical need at home, if it ever arises," he said.
Panchal said if the lockdown continues, he might have to stop sending his son who is in Std II to school for a year at least. He has not been able to arrange Rs 45,000 to pay the first instalment of his son's school fees. The school has started online classes, but his son has not been attending them. His daughter, 4, has also been missing her classes.
"I have informed the school that I do not have money to pay the fees for now. The school has been regularly calling, asking for my son to join the online class. If physical classes start by the end of August, I will arrange the funds and if need be, even take out a loan, but if the lockdown continues, I won't send my son to school for a year. Remaining safe is the first priority."
"Our funds for the groceries will last a few more weeks, and we hope courts will open by then," said Panchal, who added that once the work starts, he will have to "curtail my charity work and focus on earning enough so that I can give education and a decent life to my children". "No parent should be in a situation where he is forced to deprive his children of education," he added.
The money that he earned from his legal practice, panchal said, "My wife had to undergo a major dual surgery, mid last year and with no insurance coverage, he had to use all his savings for her supra major surgery, to save her life."
Advocate Dhananjay Singh, 39, who practised at Dindoshi Sessions Court and was on the free legal aid panel, said his retired father has been supporting him through this difficult time. "I used to earn Rs 900 per hearing, and with a few other cases I would earn a total of about Rs 20,000-Rs 25,000 per month, which stopped with the lockdown."
Dhananjay currently lives at Tanaji Nagar in Malad, which is under strict lockdown due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. His father, Manbahadur Singh, 72, lives in Uttar Pradesh and has been supporting him financially.
He has now decided to return to Uttar Pradesh, as he doesn't wish to put more financial burden on his father by staying in the city. His wife, too, is back in UP. "I will return after three months, and hopefully, the pandemic would have been controlled by then and I would be able to earn again."
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