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May 23, 2020

SHC seeks proposal from Sindh to provide relief funds to affected lawyers


May 23, 2020

The Sindh High Court has directed the finance and law secretaries to apprise the court of a proposal for providing relief funds to the affected lawyers due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

The direction came on a petition filed by the Sindh Bar Council and lawyers, seeking direction to the federal and the provincial governments to provide an annual grant and at least Rs70 million to the bar council’s relief funds for the provision of financial assistance to the lawyers affected due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

The additional secretary for law informed the court that the Hyderabad circuit court had also taken up the case pertaining to the provision of a monitory package to the affected lawyers due to coronavirus pandemic and a committee had been constituted comprising the SBC chairman and other bar associations’ representatives, but the committee concluded its session without any fruitful result.

The provincial law officer submitted that presently the Sindh government had no funds for allocation to the lawyers, but the Sindh government’s finance secretary had submitted a communication on May 18, 2020, through the deputy secretary according to which the law department, being the administrative department, may work out a proposal after taking a proposal from the government of Punjab.

He said the law department was also asked to identify a suitable mechanism for identifying the most deserving lawyers and once the number of those deserving lawyers and suitable compensation package was crafted by the administrative department, the finance department would be able to commit the availability of funds.

The petitioners’ counsel argued that the government of Punjab had announced a package of Rs130 million for the deserving lawyers and they had also started distribution with the consultation of the Bar Council and Bar Associations. The counsel said that under Section 57 of the Legal Practitioners & Bar Councils Act, 1973, the minister in charge of the federal government or a provincial government may make a grant in aid to a bar council or a bar association in the manner and on conditions as may be determined by the federal government or the provincial governments.

The SHC’s division bench, headed by Justice Mohammad Ali Mazzhar, observed that although the additional advocate general was of the view that this was a discretionary power but at the same time the finance deputy secretary himself had produced a letter to demonstrate that communication had been made to the chief secretary that some proposal may be worked out.

The court directed the law and finance secretaries to apprise the court of a proposal on the next date in view of the letter produced in court which had also been sent to the chief secretary for its approval.

The court directed the chief secretary to file comments as to what efforts had been made so far on the basis of the finance department’s letter to the law department with regard to the provision of relief funds to the affected lawyers due to the COVID-19 pandemic and adjourned the hearing by April 1.

Earlier, the SBC and its members had filed the petition in the SHC, submitting that the bar council had 35,000 registered advocates entitled to practising law in the province and that lawyers were facing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown as all courts work had been suspended except for cases of urgent nature and bail matters.

Their counsel, Salahuddin Ahmed, submitted that the federal and the provincial law ministries had been seriously remiss in their obligations and responsibilities in relation to managing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the judicial system and the legal fraternity of Pakistan.

He said many advocates had been left without any work or means of sustenance, and the impact on the legal fraternity had been practically severe since most of them were self-employed and earned fees through routine litigation or assignments undertaken on behalf of litigants on a daily basis. He said they were unable to provide for even their family’s basic need.

The counsel submitted that despite the dire need, the legal fraternity had been entirely neglected in various relief packages announced by the federal and the provincial governments. He said numerous concessionary loan packages announced by the State Bank for small businesses and self-employed persons were completely useless for the lawyers because all commercial banks had adopted a policy whereby advocates and judges were not even advanced credit cards and in such circumstances, the legal fraternity had been subjected to discrimination as even though they were equally entitled to relief of the COVID-19 crises.

He said the SBC established its relief fund aimed to provide some financial relief to advocates in need and so far, it had managed to raise Rs.1 million from the donations of its own members for this purpose. He said as many as 7,000 applications had been received by the council which were 20 per cent of its members in the province from lawyers throughout the province for financial support and at least Rs.7,00,00,000 was required to distribute amongst the lawyers at the rate of Rs.10,000 per lawyer.

The court was requested to direct the federal and provincial law ministries to provide the SBC with an appropriate annual grant in aid sufficient for the performance of all its statutory duties and make a grant of at least Rs.70 million to the SBC relief funds for the purpose of distribution to the advocates in need.