The colonial-era building with a red sandstone dome on Delhi’s Bhagwan Dass Road is home to an elite class of lawyers who are likely to be the most expensive in the world: they are typically paid between Rs.5 lakh and Rs.15 lakh per hearing.
Interviews by Legally India with more than more than 32 Delhi law firm partners and advocates working with business clients have revealed that the top bracket in terms of pay is dominated by advocates who are or were also politicians (mainly from the Congress).
All the lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity.Most of the ‘class 1’ seniors (although there’s no actual such term for them) can be retained to represent clients on ordinary matters in the Supreme Court for between Rs.5 lakh and Rs.7 lakh, said one of the lawyers interviewed.
The nonagenarian Ram Jethmalani is one of the oldest senior advocates still regularly practising and is also one of the highest-paid senior advocates in India at the apex or any other court. According to several briefing lawyers, it generally costs at least Rs.25 lakh to have Jethmalani’s name attached to the case file and for him to read it.
Jethmalani can afford to price himself out of the market for all but the most affluent clients because a majority of the cases he does take up these days, he handles pro bono, or without charging a fee, according to lawyers, and he only appears in a few cases per week.
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram charges in the range of Rs.6-7 lakh for one appearance before a bench of Supreme Court judges. Former Rajya Sabha member Fali S. Nariman, who by most accounts rarely takes up cases any more, charges between Rs.11 lakh and Rs.15 lakh per appearance in the Supreme Court.
“(Nariman), like Chidambaram, is very choosy. He only accepts (a case) if it involves a challenging question of law. (He accepts) not more than one (case) in a day,” explained a Delhi advocate who has previously engaged Nariman and Chidambaram for clients.
Former law minister Kapil Sibal charges at least Rs.8 lakh and up to Rs.15 lakh for one appearance at the Supreme Court. Congress politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Harish Salve (the son of late Congress politician NKP Salve), who is now also a London barrister, generally charge upwards of Rs.6 lakh for one day’s appearance in a case in the Supreme Court, with Salve charging up to Rs.15 lakh.
However, the fees charged in that top bracket are fairly variable, depending on the complexity of a case and how interesting it is, the relationship with the client or briefing lawyer or a variety of other factors, including the day of the week it is listed to be heard.
The rates are usually lowest in the Supreme Court on Mondays and Fridays—the so-called miscellaneous days when the apex court hears new matters before deciding whether to admit them for a proper hearing.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the Supreme Court hears arguments in cases, and fees for advocates such as Sibal, Singhvi and Salve can range between Rs.11 lakh and Rs.15 lakh.
The grass is greener
Some of the Supreme Court seniors can also be enticed to leave their traditional home turf of the Supreme Court and cross the road to Sher Shah Suri Road, but it will cost clients—usually a minimum of Rs.7 lakh at the top end.
One extreme is that since most successful senior counsel on the above list are extremely busy, those specializing in one court generally don’t want to waste their time travelling between courts when they could be arguing another matter in their home court at the same time.
Various Delhi advocates told Legally India that preparation for appearing in the high court was similar to the preparation required for final arguments at the Supreme Court, given that the high court hears full and detailed arguments every day.
Seniors, therefore, usually appear in the Delhi high court on any day for around the same fee which they charge to appear in the Supreme Court on a Tuesday, Wednesdays or Thursday—a non-miscellaneous day.
Sometimes their high court fees are also intentionally set at a bar so high as to discourage all but the wealthiest from retaining them. Gopal Subramanium is one extreme example. His Supreme Court fee of Rs.7-15 lakh per appearance is up there with the rest of the elder statesmen (despite Subramanium never having been in elected office, other than his short stint as solicitor general under the previous United Progressive Alliance government).
But when Subramanium goes to the Delhi high court he charges Rs.11-16.5 lakh. And when he heads to tribunals, his rates are at least Rs.25 lakh per month.
Rajya Sabha member and Congress politician K.T.S. Tulsi, who is also a former additional solicitor general (ASG) of India, charges between Rs.5 lakh and Rs.6 lakh in the Supreme Court. But the sought-after criminal attorney is busier in the lower courts and the high court where he charges around Rs.9 lakh.
Others charging in the range of Rs.5-6 lakh in the Supreme Court are Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave, C.A. Sundaram, and former ASGs L. Nageswara Rao and Parag Tripathi.
Dave and Sundaram are rarely seen in the Delhi high court by most accounts, but Rao charges in the range of Rs.3-4 lakh and Tripathi charges in the range of Rs.7-10 lakh for one Delhi high court hearing. There are also seniors in Delhi who appear almost exclusively in the high courts.
The more popular ones among them charge in the range ofRs.3-5 lakh per appearance while the ones in nearly as high demand charge in the range of Rs.1-3 lakh. Former ASG A.S. Chandhiok is the exception to the rule, with his fee ranging from Rs.6-7 lakh.
There are also a whole range of senior counsel who can be retained by clients for between Rs.1 lakh and Rs.5 lakh, and many younger non-senior counsel are also coming up and becoming acceptable to clients in high-profile matters, said several lawyers who were interviewed.
From outstation to free
The fee for any senior, be it in the outlier, high or low division, will sky-rocket even further if they are called to appear outside Delhi, after adding the bills of business class or charter flights and potential five-star hotel accommodation.
Add to this the billings for losses incurred on unattended cases in Delhi during the outstation trip.
One senior counsel half-joked that his colleagues did four “outstation matters” per month and are set for a month with income of Rs.1 crore.
But then there are also cheap or free cases they argue, as several of the lawyers contacted for this story were quick to point out.
Subramanium said he took up eight to nine pro bono briefs per month; K.K. Venugopal said he handled a large number of cases for free and charged government institutions less. Dave said that he argued three to five cases for free per week (particularly for individuals, members of the armed forces, civil services, teachers, doctors, non-governmental organizations, lawyers and their relatives).
Luthra said that 30-40% of his cases were pro bono; Chandhiok said he took up around 15 matters per month for free; and of the other senior advocates contacted who replied, Sundaram’s junior Rohini Musa, Salman Khurshid, Harin Raval and Meet Malhotra also said they accepted briefs to argue for free in some circumstances.
While seniors charge for “appearances” in courts, their role in these appearances, according to the Advocates Act 1961, is to argue for the litigant who has engaged them. And yet, there is little the litigant or lawyer can do to ensure they honour their obligation, short of filing a bar council complaint against them if they don’t.
A Delhi law firm advocate who engaged a senior in the Rs.5-7 lakh range for his firm’s client, on a retainer of Rs.18 lakh and an appearance fee of Rs.12 lakh, said: “He didn’t even get up to argue. It was bloody disappointing. I argued myself on the next hearing, (with big names as opposing counsel) and kicked their ass—something he couldn’t do.”
One advocate explained the repetitive cases of not turning up at hearings in which a senior was paid to appear. He said that this senior was overburdened by Delhi high court cases. It is common for Delhi seniors to appear in between seven and 15 hearings in one day.
If a litigant is engaging Singhvi, Salve or certain other very busy seniors, it is usually common to engage other seniors too as back-up, said one advocate, adding that in such cases if the back-up senior is from a lower-fee range, they are usually prompt to demand an increase in fees comparable to the top-tier senior engaged.
But short of these measures, the litigant, who is usually asked to pay up 100% of the appearance fee in advance, can only hope for the best. On failing to turn up, most seniors have been known to refund the fee, after some deductions—usually the fee for one appearance includes one case-discussion meeting with the senior and the fee of the senior’s clerk, which is 10%. One top-of-the-line senior is known to not refund any fee in any situation.
As one advocate commented: “The seniors do not directly interact with the client unless the client is a real big shot... It is up to (the advocate acting for and engaging the senior on the litigant’s behalf) to ensure that the senior gives him a reasonable rate and does a good job of it.”
When contacted, K.K. Venugopal, Gopal Subramanium, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Dushyant Dave, Salman Khurshid, Shanti Bhushan, Balbir Singh, Gopal Jain, Harin Raval, Ravi Sikri, A.S. Chandhiok, Pinky Anand and Meet Malhotra confirmed that the published fees were either accurate or in the right ball park. Sidharth Luthra declined to confirm or deny the fees, while Dayan Krishnan declined to comment.
Others among the more than 40 senior counsel mentioned in the story or accompanying table did not respond to emails or phone requests for comment.
Legally India’s Kian Ganz contributed to this story,