Kathmandu: In recent months, the Supreme Court of Nepal has faced arguably the biggest protests the judiciary has ever experienced. The protesters are lawyers from Nepal’s politically divided Bar Association, who had temporarily put aside their frequent squabbles. As scuffles broke out, truckloads of security forces were mobilized inside the Supreme Court’s premises to quell the protests. The protests arose with a critical demand, among others, that Chief Justice Cholendra Sumsher Rana resign. Moreover, the agitating lawyers demanded reforms to the Court, alleging that Rana had brought the institution to a virtual dysfunction. The protests appear to have now reached a stalemate, with protest turnout decreasing by the day. The otherwise adamant protestors appear to have recognized the recent implementation of the lottery system in allocating cases to benches as a victory. The CJ remains in his position for the time being.
This necessitates an assessment of how inclusive the protests were, particularly for younger lawyers, and whether pertinent issues concerning them were addressed. This also calls for a close examination of the issues raised in the protests, as well as whether symptoms of underlying dysfunctions in the court were misrepresented as systemic causes in and of themselves.
Was the protest’s method ideal? Barun Ghimire, a young lawyer and a passionate advocate of migrant rights, believes that the protests’ impression on the general public is equally important. He is not, by any means, involved in the protests and believes that the protesters could have pursued legal action. “A general expectation falls on practitioners of the law to follow procedural pathways to getting what they want,” he says. “Even after weighing the possibility that a legal recourse could have been more time consuming, the protests could have been graceful. The means do not justify the ends.”
Another question is whether younger lawyers were given a voice in the protests. Senior advocates could be seen delivering speeches during the protests, giving interviews, even meeting Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to press their demands. Young lawyers were relegated to the periphery, frequently serving as human barriers between security forces and senior advocates, as well as foot soldiers manning the protests. Another independent lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, cautioned young lawyers against being “pushed around” for the political agendas of senior mobilizers.
So, are senior lawyers in charge of the entire protest narrative? Sanjay Adhikari, a young lawyer specializing in environmental and cultural conservation, denies ever being invited by the Bar Association to discuss the protests. “Those at the forefront of the protests are establishing the narrative and others are reacting accordingly,” he says. He has also not participated in the protests so far.
The momentum that any sustained protest carries in terms of media attention, unity among stakeholders on core issues, and cumulative impact on policy making can be used to facilitate a larger discourse about the reform required in any sector. Could young lawyers hope that the protests that now appear to be fizzling out will eventually bear fruit for them? Ghimire approaches it as a realist. “I see this as a continuation of events rather than a precursor to a larger reform in the judiciary,” he says. “We might expect minor changes, but structural reform is still a long shot.”
‘I see this as a continuation of events rather than a precursor to a larger reform in the judiciary. We might expect minor changes, but structural reform is still a long shot.’
He also offers his reasoning for reaching such a bleak conclusion. He believes that the issues being heralded as ones that, if resolved, will allegedly restore the sanctity of the courts are themselves the symptoms of much graver underlying issues. “Judges, judicial officials, and legal professionals do not emerge from isolation,” he says, “but are part and parcel of the environment in which they exist.” He adds that the process of introducing some form of moral deliberation throughout the judicial system must begin in law schools, alluding to two major issues: the quality of education and the impact the judiciary’s politicization has on students. He thinks that measures like a broad curriculum revision and a balancing of teacher to student ratio are prerequisites to bring positive changes in the judiciary from the ground up.
Bibek Kumar Thakur, another young lawyer, agrees with Ghimire that the nature of legal education that law schools provide should be an issue that should come to the forefront. He discovers a startling disparity between how law is taught in schools and how it is practiced outside of them. When asked what academic shifts could be made to balance this, he suggests that procedural aspects—that pertain to the processes to seek judicial remedies—of the law should be given more priority when teaching.
Ghimire provides an illustration of the general practice in judicial appointments in Nepal. He believes that there are lack of fair grounds for a student who wants to study rigorously and become a judge at the present. “Depending on one’s political connections, aspirants appear to bypass lower courts and come directly to the Supreme Court to be judges,” he says. Ghimire is not alone in pointing out these dysfunctions. Former Chief Judges of the Supreme Court have openly written about these issues in their autobiographies. He also shares an anecdote about a student who missed a class to attend a political event. When asked about his absence from class, the student responds that success in the legal field is determined by your connections rather than your merit, and thus political events are more important than classes.
Sampurna Basnet, a law graduate and the founder of Mero Wokil, an online platform that provides legal consultations, believes that law students are “indoctrinated” in law schools to have “utopian” views on the judiciary. If one speaks with law students interning at various law firms, it becomes clear what Basnet is attempting to convey. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, almost all of the interns agree that they were misled about how the judicial system works. Ideals appear to be necessary, but when students are not taught how to confront immoral legal practices, the ideals devolve into rigid, out-of-context utopian misrepresentations.
Internal corruption in the judiciary is a problem that the protests have failed to address adequately. A bribe of as little as two rupees per page is the norm to obtain something as simple as photocopies of documents that are at the court’s disposal. With pages per document ranging in the hundreds, this translates to an additional financial burden even in the normal course of business. Law interns who are required to perform duties in court quickly learn the quid pro quo arrangement for getting things done. The stakes get higher with experience.
So, how difficult is it for young lawyers to work in the judiciary without being affiliated with any political party? Ghimire believes that because litigation is such a public profession, networking is critical to professional success. He says that competition exists in the legal profession just like it does in any other profession. Clients themselves inquire whether any favors can be obtained through political patronage, proximity to judges, and middlemen. But, Ghimire believes, the important question here is to consider what kind of lawyer one wants to be and to choose an ethical path. “Working long hours and putting in the effort will, of course, result in long-term rewards, but the ratio of effort to reward is significantly affected by one’s affiliation to a particular party,” he says. “This leads to frustration among young lawyers.”
Another source of frustration for almost all law students who spoke with Nepal Live Today is law firms’ refusal to adequately pay their interns for their work. They believe that this is not because of firms’ inability to pay, but because of their disregard for the labor of interns out of which they are profiting.
When students are not taught how to confront immoral legal practices, the ideals devolve into rigid, out-of-context utopian misrepresentations.
One of the major reasons the legitimate concerns of young lawyers are subdued is because of a lack of discourse about these issues among young lawyers. Nepal Bar Association is sharply divided along party lines, Supreme Court Bar, High Court Bar, and District Court Bar Units follow through in the same trend. Students of law also have no method of engaging in collective discourse for their legitimate issues. Some law schools have banned all political student unions while they exist in others. But an apolitical communion of law students is nonexistent in Nepal. A once functional Nepalese Law Students’ Association now remains virtually obsolete. It is however another concern whether an apolitical union will also be a victim of constant bickering more than collaborative pursuits.
While all these points of discussion exist, the legitimate concerns of the young legal professionals remain overshadowed by larger political agendas. It brings upon a risk of the optimistic and idealistic young legal professionals paling in their ethical determination as they get to know the insidious workings of the judicial machinery—to ultimately become part of the system they once despised.