New Delhi | The Supreme Court Friday said the process of designating 'senior advocate', which has always been held as an "honour conferred", should be carried out at least once a year.
A bench headed by Justice S K Kaul, while fine-tuning the guidelines for the apex court and high courts for designating lawyers as senior advocates which were laid down by the top court in a 2017 verdict, said voting by secret ballot by the full court should not be the rule but an exception.
It said in case it has to be resorted to, the reasons for the same should be recorded.
The bench, also comprising Justices A Amanullah and Aravind Kumar, said due consideration should be given in the interest of diversity, particularly with respect to gender and first-generation lawyers, and this would encourage meritorious advocates who will come into the field knowing that there is scope for them to rise to the top.
It said legal profession is no longer considered as a "family profession" and newcomers must be encouraged.
The apex court delivered its judgement on applications seeking certain modifications in the guidelines.
It dealt with several aspects, including cut-off marks, points assigned for publications and personal interview of candidates.
The bench said younger advocates are not precluded from applying for the designation, particularly as the Supreme Court Guidelines to Regulate Conferment of Designation of Senior Advocates, 2018 do not require anything more than 10 years of practice.
"Although designations in the Supreme Court in comparison to high courts have usually taken place at the age of 45 plus, younger advocates have also been designated. While we would not like to restrict applications only to advocates who are above 45 years of age, only exceptional advocates should be designated below this age," the bench said.
"We say no more and leave this aspect to the wisdom of the permanent committee and the full court," it said.
In 2017, the top court had laid down guidelines for itself and high courts to govern the exercise of designating lawyers as seniors and said all matters relating to the designation of senior advocates in the apex court and the high courts shall be dealt with by a permanent committee to be known as 'Committee for Designation of Senior Advocates'.
In its judgement delivered on Friday, the bench said it is not inclined either to do away with or to reduce the 25 points assigned under the category of personal interview of the candidate.
It said allocation of 15 points for publications was high and reduced it to five points noting that most practising advocates find very little time to write academic articles.
"However, given that senior advocates are expected to make nuanced and sophisticated submissions, academic knowledge of the law is an important pre-requisite. Thus, we would not like to do away with this criteria, but expand what should fall under this criteria, while reducing the points under this category," the bench said.
"Here, we would also like to add that the quality of writing by an advocate should be an important factor in allocating points under this category. We leave it to the permanent committee to decide on the manner of assigning points under this category, including the possibility of taking external assistance to gauge the quality of publications," it said.
The bench said the legal profession has seen a paradigm shift over a period of time, particularly with the advent of newer law schools such as National Law Universities. The legal profession is no longer considered as a family profession and instead there are newer entrants from all parts of the country with different backgrounds who must be encouraged, it said. The top court noted currently, as per the 2018 guidelines, the process of designation is to be undertaken twice a year in the months of January and July.
The bench also noted the submissions made before it that if the exercise has to be undertaken in an elaborate form, it would be very difficult to undertake the process twice a year.
"In this regard, we would only like to say that the process should be carried out at least once a year so that applications do not accumulate. In this respect, some disturbing instances have emerged from certain high courts where the exercise of designation has not been undertaken for many years.
"As a consequence, meritorious advocates at the relevant time lose out on the opportunity of being considered for designation," it said.
It noted that an endeavour was made by the Centre to "reopen" the 2017 judgment itself. "That however is not our remit in the present applications. We are not at the stage of a review or a reference of the matter to a larger bench. We are only on the aspect of fine-tuning what has been laid down by this court in the 2017 judgment," it said.
On the aspect of pending applications for designation, it said once the apex court has fine-tuned the norms, it cannot say that the pending applications will be considered under the old norms.
"We only hope that our endeavour to simplify some aspects of the process results in the designation of more meritorious candidates. The process of improvement is a continuous one and we learn from every experience," it said, adding the ultimate objective is to provide better assistance to litigants and courts.