Madras High Court says ‘no’ to reservation for women in designation of a lawyer as ‘Senior Advocate’ – The Hindu

Chennai News

Designation of a lawyer as ‘Senior Advocate’ is not a post but a privilege and honour conferred upon a member of the Bar purely on merit, ability, and his/her successful career, irrespective of gender. Therefore, such a privilege cannot be conferred through reservation, the Madras High Court has held.

Justices M. Sundar and N. Sathish Kumar held so while dismissing a writ petition filed by advocate S. Lawrence Vimalraj of Madurai, seeking 50% or at least 30% reservation for women lawyers in the designation. The judges held that the litigant had no locus standi to file the case since he was not an aggrieved party.

The Bench pointed out that the litigant himself had clarified in his affidavit that he had not filed the case as a public interest litigation petition and also conceded that he was not an applicant for being designated as ‘Senior Advocate’. It meant that he was not an aggrieved person whose rights had been affected, it said.

Lead verdict

Despite not finding any reason to entertain the writ petition on the preliminary ground of locus standi, the judges dealt with the merits of his contentions, too, and gave their findings. Authoring the lead verdict for the Bench, Justice Sundar held that the petitioner’s plea for reservation for women had no legs to stand.

He pointed out that a total of 161 lawyers had applied pursuant to notifications issued by the High Court in 2020 (99 names) and 2022 (62 names) calling for applications for the designation. Of the 161 applicants, only nine were women. Two of those women applicants did not attend an interaction with a committee headed by the Acting Chief Justice.

“This leaves us with seven women candidates. When there are only seven women candidates out of a total of 161 candidates, even on a demurrer, the plea for 50% or at least 1/3rd reservation for women has no legs to stand,” the judge wrote. He also highlighted that all nine women had applied only after accepting the rules which do not provide for reservation.

The judge said that even the Supreme Court in Indira Jaisigh vs Supreme Court of India (2017) had not suggested the provision of any reservation in the designation as Senior Advocate. He also refused to accept the contentions raised by the Women Lawyers Association (WLA) which had been permitted to intervene in the writ petition.

Full court

The WLA, represented by Senior Advocate Chitra Sampath, had contended that the entire list of 161 applicants must be placed before the Full Court (a body of all judges of the High Court) for taking a call on designation, without any filtering by a committee headed by the Acting Chief Justice and comprising the Advocate- General and others.

Justice Sundar said such a contention would amount to expanding the scope of the writ petition. He observed that the Madras High Court Designation of Senior Advocate Rules of 2020, as they stand today, do not permit the Full Court to scrutinise the wisdom of the committee which had the benefit of interacting with individual applicants before shortlisting the candidates.

The judge also rejected the plea that a candidate nominated by the Acting Chief Justice or any other judge of the High Court should be kept on a higher pedestal than those who had been nominated by two existing Senior Advocates or those who had applied on their own with the endorsement of two Senior Advocates.

He said the 2020 Rules envisage complete parity among the candidates, irrespective of whether they were recommended by the Chief Justice, named by a permanent judge, proposed by two designated Senior Advocates with more than 15 years of standing in the Bar, or on a self application endorsed by two designated Senior Advocates.

“The Rules do not make a distinction even between a candidate recommended by the honourable Chief Justice and a candidate recommended by a permanent judge though the honourable Chief Justice is the administrative head of the High Court and is the first amongst equals only on the judicial side,” the judge concluded.

Concurring verdict

In his separate but concurring opinion, Justice Sathish Kumar traced the history of designation of senior advocates since the British era and said the distinction of Senior Advocate does not come about automatically but gets conferred on a lawyer of repute upon achieving known or predetermined standards.

“It is a privilege based upon the opinion of the court considering ability, standing at the Bar or special knowledge of or experience in law. Thus, it is a subjective decision, though, based on objective considerations. In such a view of the matter, this court considers it appropriate to hold that such a claim cannot be made as a matter of right,” he wrote.

After the judges pronounced their verdict, the writ petitioner’s counsel sought a certificate from the Division Bench permitting his client to take the matter on appeal to the Supreme Court. However, the judges rejected this plea, too, on the ground that they did not find any substantial question of law to be answered by the Supreme Court.