On the recommendation of Nanda, the Punjab government hired senior advocates, Hiren P. Raval, Sidharth Luthra, and Gopal Subramanium. They, respectively, raised bills to the tune of Rs 8.60 crore, Rs 4.53 crore, and Rs 22 lakh. But suspecting something amiss in the matter, the government has now held back the payment of Rs 4.25 crore to Hiren Raval and Rs 2.15 crore to Sidharth Luthra out of the total amount of the bills raised.
Gopal Subramanium “officially” charged for one appearance only and was promptly paid Rs 22 lakh.
Two of these lawyers raised bills at the rate of Rs 25 lakh and above per appearance which is unprecedented. Questions are being raised as to how a cash-strapped state that has often not been able to pay the salaries of its teachers and health staff in time was approving such huge fees for these lawyers.
Former Punjab A-G Rupinder Khosla disclosed that during his tenure senior advocate Harish Salve was engaged by the state for most of the Supreme Court hearings at a maximum fixed rate of Rs 4.40 lakh per appearance.
In fact, it was only during his tenure that Salve’s remuneration was increased from Rs 3.30 lakh to Rs 4.40 lakh, Khosla explained.
Sources revealed that according to a Punjab government circular containing a list of over 100 category A and B lawyers the maximum fee prescribed was Rs 3.30 lakh per appearance starting from Rs 1.50 lakh.
Inquiries with the present Advocate General, Vinod Ghai’s office confirmed that never before in its history, such exorbitant fees were paid to the lawyers hired by the state from outside. Besides, it was only for the Supreme Court that private counsel had been hired but never for the High Court in Chandigarh.
Information available on the websites of the Supreme Court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court shows that Hiren Raval made a total of 30 appearances, Sidharth Luthra made a total of 33 appearances, and Gopal Subramanium made 6 appearances in different courts.
Hiren P. Raval took up the Punjab government assignment in July 2019, Sidharth Luthra in September 2019, and G. Subramanium in September 2020. They made appearances in the Supreme Court, the High Court, and even the Sessions Court, Mohali.
Going by the Punjab government records, Hiren Raval was paid Rs 25 lakh per appearance for 9 hearings and Rs 10 lakh per appearance for the other 21 hearings. Most of these proceedings were conducted virtually due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, Raval had raised 17 bills at a rate of Rs 25 lakh per appearance, but the government disputed the claim and refused to release the full payment.
Payment to Sidharth Luthra was staggered. For five hearings, he charged Rs 27.50 lakh per appearance, for the other 3-hearings, he charged Rs 9.90 lakh each, Rs 14.85 lakh on another date, and Rs. 11.55 lakh for yet another date. One more hearing cost the state Rs 11.50 lakh, Rs. 9 lakh for another hearing, Rs 6.60 lakh for each of the 2-hearings, and Rs 4.95 lakh per appearance for another 2-hearings. The Punjab government has refused to release payments of his 15 bills.
The High Court website also shows that Hiren Raval and Sidharth Luthra jointly argued on 12-occasions, implying that the government paid both senior lawyers separately on the same date of the hearing of the same case. G. Subramanium, jointly argued with Sidharth Luthra and Hiren Raval on 5-occasions, while on one of the hearings, he argued alone.
The Punjab government is pleased with G. Subramanium as he did not seek full payment for his 6 appearances and went home satisfied with the fee of Rs 22 lakh for a single appearance only, providing financial relief to the state exchequer.
According to the Supreme Court website record, G. Subramanium appeared virtually before the Apex court on September 25, 2020, with Luthra and Raval in attendance. Then again, on October 1, 2020, he appeared with Luthra and Raval. On October 9, 2020, Luthra and Raval accompanied G. Subramanium. On October 5, 2020, Luthra and Raval assisted him. On the 5th hearing on October 14, 2020, G. Subramanium was in the company of Luthra and Raval again. Lastly, on January 5, 2021, he appeared alone. Importantly, during all these hearings Advocate General Atul Nanda was also part of the state lawyers’ team to contribute his bit.
A senior High Court lawyer explained that the right and the need to position one or more than one senior counsel for the state could not be questioned. It was the sole discretion of the Advocate General and his team to recommend to the government to hire lawyers that he thought to be competent to deliver positive results.
Ex-AG Nanda, when contacted to ask about the exorbitant fee paid to Delhi lawyers during his tenure said, “Get your facts right — I did not hire anybody, you are levelling allegations… I don’t want to comment.”
He abruptly hung up the phone. It is common knowledge that the Advocate General only recommends names of lawyers to be hired; it is the government that hires them after paperwork.
Sidharth Luthra said: “It is something between me and my client (Punjab government). I don’t know who you are — Why are you asking this? A lot of my money is held up… I have taken up the matter.” He refused to comment if the fee charged was exorbitant.
Hiren Raval said, “I don’t talk to strangers… It is (charging an exorbitant fee) between me and them… I am not obliged to answer any of your questions.” He hung up the phone.
To seek clarification about Subramanium’s magnanimity, Karan Bharihoke was contacted, who was an advocate on record for Punjab earlier. He said, “I am no longer on the Punjab government panel as an advocate on record — I am sorry, I don’t know you… It is between him (Gopal Subramanium) and them… I have no comments to make.”
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