When it comes to the robes, learning the ropes can elicit better results than pulling strings! Here’s a case in point. No Godfather. No famous surname. No financial or gestational cushion. No fancy educational springboard. Humble but gritty, with not much in the kitty but fire in the belly, a young Prabakaran stormed into the legal profession thirty-two years ago.
Picking up the nuances of litigation at the chambers of two doyens in the Madras Bar – former State Public Prosecutors Mr.Krishnamurthy and Mr.Sriramulu in barely twenty four months and starting independent practice was quite rare, back then. With “a passion for law”, Prabakaran fought both criminal and civil cases in the Madras High Court.
After a decade of independent practice, “circumstances” found him veered towards Association activities. A “historic” election victory catapulted him as the President of the Madras High Court Advocates Association in 2002, during which term he focussed on the “rights and welfare” of the legal fraternity. “The Articles of Association were amended in the year 2005 and new association bye-laws were brought into force”. Quite the man of the ‘bar’, he put together several rallies, seminars and conferences to promote legal knowledge among the members of the bar, aside of modules for new entrants.
After a four-year tenure, Prabakaran founded the Tamil Nadu Advocates Association in 2007 and has been the President since its inception. A slew of seminars on access to justice, public interest litigation as well as general legal awareness drives were held under its auspices.
With the pace of a four-year Olympic cycle, the next chapter began at the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. The cherry on the cake was his election as the State Representative to the Bar Council of India. That set the stage for an electoral encore in both capacities. “In 2015, the Bar Council of India hosted a high powered seminar featuring 9 Supreme Court judges and the Union Law Minister.” The professional graph has been headed in just one direction – all the way Up. And up. With a Senior Designation in 2016, Prabakaran was elected Vice Chairman of the Bar Council of India in 2020. And on a hat-trick, unopposed in 2022.
Firmly entrenched in the Bar Council saddle, as it were, Prabakaran has been galloping away. The immediate thrust was toning up legal education in the country. The approach has been progressive and liberal. Rewind to 2012 when the Bar Council of India had appointed him as a ‘One Man Committee’ to delve into the age restriction to pursue law. The report he submitted led to the shelving of a 2008 Bar Council embargo.
Cracking the whip on the ‘robes’ gallery and “weeding out” people with criminal antecedents masquerading as lawyers was a top priority. “More than 2000 fake advocates were suspended and criminal complaints were lodged.” In 2018, Prabakaran was part of the committee that was formed by the Bar Council of India pursuant to directions of the Supreme Court to “analyse and to report on the strikes and protests that were staged by the Bar Associations of Jammu & Kashmir in the aftermath of the Kathua rape case.”
In his second innings as Vice Chairman of the Bar Council of India, he has been holding a brief for sections of the bar hit due to the unprecedented pandemic. Does he feel that junior advocates need to be paid a decent living stipend by their seniors during their first few years of practice? “Stipend or some type of remuneration is necessary for anyone. However, my advice to the new law entrants or juniors is that they should not aim for money in their preliminary years of practice. Their goal must be to understand the concepts of law and they must strive to learn the nuances of practice. They must work with passion and that will ultimately lead to earning.”
The need to dispel the wrong public perception of advocates, resulting in discriminatory denial of loans, homes on rent and even brides to advocates is another area that calls for attention. “These stereotypes must be erased from the minds of people. The profession of lawyers is similar to that of doctors and other professions. The lawyers are the ones who safeguard the rights and interests of the general public. As for loans, the Bar Council of India has filed an application before the Supreme Court of India seeking assistance to indigent lawyers.”
For any lawyer, landmark legal battles fought would always be unforgettable. Prabakaran is quick to recall cases like a 2009 suo motu Public Interest Litigation “on the attack on Advocates of the Madras High Court.”
In R. Sankarasubbu & Others versus The Commissioner of Police, Chennai & Others, “the matter was adjudicated by a full bench of the Madras High Court from 2011 and now a Special Leave Petition is pending in the Apex Court.” Another case in Registrar General, High Court of Madras versus R. Gandhi “was adjudicated before the Supreme Court, in relation to the appointment of judges from various sections of society.” R.Parthiban versus Chief Secretary “was heard by the Madras High Court on the reservation of seats to women candidates not exceeding 50% in the 2022 local body elections.”
Do any of the provisions of the Advocates Act or Bar Council Rules need to be amended or tweaked such as the restrictions on advertising or other employment, especially during contingencies like a pandemic, what with reports of lawyers even selling vegetables to survive during Covid? “In my opinion the Advocates Act should be amended to improve the standard of legal education. More teeth must be given to the Bar Councils to eradicate fake and unruly lawyers. During the pandemic, the Bar Council of India contributed a crore and further collected another crore from Senior Counsels that was disbursed to junior and needy lawyers. As for advertising, it would not be appropriate to amend those rules because that will lead to inequality and cause a great divide in the legal fraternity.”
Is the hybrid – online & offline hearing of cases here to stay? “I prefer the physical mode as that is the essence of court proceedings. As certain cases in relation to this are pending before the Supreme Court, it will not be appropriate to comment as the Bar Council of India is filing its reply on the issue.”
Meanwhile, this bar leader continues to unmute himself to champion the cause of the men and women in black.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, an Arbitrator, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)