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The Evolution and Unification of the Legal Profession in India

The modern legal profession in India has its roots in the colonial era, beginning with the establishment of the Mayor's Courts in Madras and Calcutta in 1726. However, it wasn't until 1846, with the passing of the Legal Practitioners Act, that the profession truly opened up. This Act allowed all qualified, certified, and good-character individuals to practice law, regardless of their nationality or religion.

Today, the legal profession in India, which includes both the practice of law and legal education, is regulated by the Advocates Act of 1961. A well-organized and independent legal profession is essential for the proper administration of justice and serves as a crucial component and guarantor of the rule of law.

Preliminary Development

Initially, only English and Irish barristers and members of the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland or British attorneys were allowed to appear in court, effectively barring Indians from the profession. Similar restrictions were later included in the Charters establishing the Supreme Courts in Bombay and Madras, which kept Indians out of the legal profession. However, in 1846, the Legal Practitioners Act changed this by allowing all persons certified by the Sadar Adalat as being of good character and duly qualified to become pleaders. This Act also allowed Vakils (Indian lawyers) to enter into agreements with their clients regarding their fees for professional services.

The Legal Practitioners Act, 1879

The Legal Practitioners Act gave broad powers to the High Courts to enroll lawyers for different courts and to take disciplinary actions against them. It authorized all High Courts, except the three chartered High Courts, to make rules regarding the qualifications and admission of suitable persons as advocates and vakils, with the prior approval of the respective provincial governments.

The Act also empowered these High Courts to dismiss advocates, after giving them a chance to defend themselves. During this period in British India, there were six grades of legal practitioners: Advocates, Solicitors (Attorneys), and Vakils of the High Court, and Pleaders, Mukhtars, and Revenue agents in the lower courts. Vakils became a distinct grade above Pleaders. The Act unified all six grades of legal practitioners into one system.

The Chamier Committee and The Indian Bar Council Act, 1926

In line with the Chamier Committee's recommendations, the Central Legislature enacted the Indian Bar Councils Act, 1926. This Act aimed to establish and incorporate Bar Councils, assign them powers and duties, and consolidate regulations related to the legal profession. With the High Court's consent, Bar Councils could make rules regarding the rights and duties of High Court Advocates, their professional conduct, and legal education and examinations.

The Act merged the two grades of practitioners, Vakils and Pleaders, into the class of Advocates, who were entitled to practice in the High Court where they were enrolled and in any other Court in British India, with certain exceptions. Despite these changes, the High Courts maintained significant influence, and the Legal Practitioners Act of 1879 remained intact.

The All India Bar Committee, 1951

Dissatisfaction among legal practitioners continued to grow under the existing arrangement. The establishment of the Supreme Court in 1950 provided new motivation for change. The Supreme Court Advocates (Practice in High Court) Act, 1951 allowed every Supreme Court advocate to practice in any High Court, but this was not enough. The legal community wanted a unified, autonomous system with no class distinctions among lawyers.

Responding to their demands, the Government of India appointed the All-India Bar Committee in 1951, to explore the creation of an all-India Bar Council and a separate Bar Council for the Supreme Court. The committee also looked into abolishing the distinction between counsel and solicitors in the Calcutta and Bombay High Courts, eliminating different classes of lawyers, consolidating existing laws, and other related matters. To implement these recommendations, a bill was introduced in Parliament in 1959, which eventually became the Advocates Act, 1961.

The Advocate Act, 1961

After the enactment of the Advocates Act, 1961, all the old categories of legal practitioners (vakils, barristers, pleaders of various grades, and mukhtars) were abolished and merged into a single category called "advocates," who have the right to practice in courts throughout India. The Act also established the All India Bar Council for the first time, with the Attorney-General and Solicitor General of India as ex-officio members. Each State Bar Council elects one member to the All India Bar Council, which in turn elects its own Chairman and Vice Chairman.

Additionally, the Act created a State Bar Council in each state, consisting of the Advocate General of the state as an ex-officio member and 15-25 elected advocates serving five-year terms. The main functions of the State Bar Councils include admitting law graduates, handling cases of misconduct against advocates, and organizing legal aid. Applications for enrolment are made to the State Bar Council. The Bar Council of India regulates the content, syllabus, and duration of law degrees, although universities can set their own provisions within this framework.

The Council has a Legal Education Committee for this purpose. While State Council rules need approval from the Bar Council of India, the Central Government holds overriding power to make rules. To be eligible for enrolment as an advocate, a person must be an Indian citizen, at least 21 years old, and possess an LLB degree from an Indian university. Foreign nationals can be enrolled on a reciprocal basis with their country of citizenship, provided their foreign degree is recognized by the Council.

Since 2010, advocates must also pass the All India Bar Examination to begin practicing. The Act recognizes only one class of practitioners, advocates, who can practice before any tribunal, authority, or court in India, including the Supreme Court. Advocates are classified into Senior Advocates and other advocates, with the designation of Senior Advocate based on ability, experience, and standing in the bar, decided by the Supreme Court or High Court. In 1977, the dual system of advocates and attorneys in the Bombay and Calcutta High Courts was abolished. An advocate enrolled in any State Roll can practice in the Supreme Court, with the Advocate-on-Record (AOR) being a special category of advocate in the Supreme Court.

The Bar Council of India, established by Parliament under the Advocates Act, 1961, regulates the legal profession by prescribing standards of professional conduct and discipline. It also sets standards for legal education and grants recognition to universities whose law degrees qualify for enrolment as advocates. Additionally, the Council protects the rights, privileges, and interests of advocates and creates funds for financial assistance and welfare activities. This regulatory and representative role of the Bar Council is reflected in its statutory functions.

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