Robbing legal services to pay the advocates

Thiruvananthapuram: The Kerala Court Fees and Suits Valuation (Amendment) Bill, now before the Assembly, proposes to allocate most of the funds intended for legal services to the general public for welfare of advocates and their clerks.

The Kerala Court Fees and Suits Valuation Act specifies constitution of a Legal Benefit Fund for the purpose of providing efficient legal services to the people of the State and to provide social security measures for the legal profession. Though the Act was enacted in 1959, the Fund came into being only in 2002.

The Amendment proposes that 70 per cent of the Fund should now go to Kerala Advocates’ Welfare Fund and 30 per cent to the Advocates’ Clerks Welfare Fund after retaining just 10 per cent for ‘providing infrastructure to the litigants’. The words ‘legal services’ are being omitted.

The revenues of the Fund consist of court fees earmarked for the Fund and additional court fees collected for credit to the fund. Until now, 50 per cent of the fund was being used for legal services while the balance was being handed over the Secretary, Bar Council of Kerala, to be credited to the Kerala Advocates’ Welfare Fund.

According to the rules, the Fund was to be used for purposes such as provision for working space for the Advocate’s Clerks, resting place and other facilities for the parties and witnesses attending the courts, conducting legal aid camps for people interested in the legal service, expenditure for engaging advocates in special cases and publications relating to legal issues and important decisions of the Kerala High Court to create legal awareness among people of the State.

Since the formation of the Fund, money has been used for allotting work space, litigant benches, drinking water and toilet facilities for litigant public and advocate clerks. It is not clear whether any funds had been routed for legal services to the poor.

It is notable the Advocates Welfare Fund, to which a major chunk of the Benefit Fund is now proposed to be diverted, has its own sources of income by way of subscriptions and revenue from welfare fund stamp. Legislation, now before the House in report stage, proposes hefty increase in welfare fund stamps to be affixed on vakkalaths. Even advocates who are not members of the Fund will be required to affix the stamp as per the Amendment. So, now there is actually a case for discontinuing allocation of money from the Legal Benefit Fund to the Welfare Fund instead of increasing the allocation.

As to the Clerks, the Benefit Fund was intended to be used only for providing them work space in courts. Now, 30 per cent of the Fund is proposed to be used for personal welfare of the Clerks.

It is to be noted that all the entire contribution to the Benefit Fund comes from the litigants who pay the court fees. It should be used for providing legal services and basic amenities in courts some of which even lack toilets not to speak of other amenities. Instead of diverting 90 per cent of the funds to welfare schemes, part of it should be routed to the Legal Services Authority or other set up to provide legal services to the poor.