In India, there are about 90 nuns and 15 priests who are law graduates and have accepted legal practice as their ministry. They think that law is an effective instrument for helping people and that it is an important avenue by which they can bring the good news to the poor. However, it has been observed that the lawyer priests and nuns do not work as an individual advocate, but through various NGOs, Associations or Women’s Groups that have been formed by them. Two years ago, during a seminar at Guwahati (Assam), organised by the Jesuit-run Legal Cell for Human Rights (LCHR), the lawyer priests and nuns expressed their disappointment that support of the Church was not forthcoming for them.
However, there are legitimate apprehensions on the part of the Church and the laity on the functioning of the religious lawyers. It is true that the legal ministry is a relatively new area and therefore the religious men and women need to tread on the path cautiously as there are certain inherent dangers.
The lawyer priests and nuns are not like other lawyers. They also function as priests and nuns. Sometimes, they are directors, in-charge of or head of some NGO, Association or Women’s Group. Their institutes, NGOs are also registered with the government under various laws and that they receive donations and funds from various sources. Hence, the lawyer priests and nuns are required to follow the cardinal principle of natural justice.
A lawyer priest or nun should never get swayed by the story of a “victim” who approaches them first, but need to hear the other side of the case from the person against whom the “victim” has complained and then impartially decide the further course of action.
There are cases where in a dispute between two Christian families, a religious lawyer has sided with one party without hearing the other side of the story from the other Christian family. This is highly objectionable as the priests and nuns belong to the whole Christian community and they are treated with respect because they are considered living a higher spiritual level of life above the laity. However, partisan actions of priests and nuns create bitterness in one of the two Christian families.
Also, lawyers are required to be active full time and available to the clients. They are also required not to be preoccupied with other duties. Hence, as per guidelines of the Bar Council of India, a lawyer cannot be a Managing Director of a company. However, the religious lawyers do not practise law full time and have to carry out their other assignments as religious priests and nuns. Due to this, they are not always available to the clients and court cases get delayed. This is against the code of ethics for advocates issued by the Bar Council of India.
The religious lawyers often say that they are not practising law for money, but as a service to the poor. But, the religious lawyers work as a head of some organisation, institute, NGO etc. and they get donations, funds from various sources, including funds from abroad. This can also be viewed as a way of making money in a clever manner.
The religious lawyers are also found to be harbouring certain ideology and this makes them biased and one sided. For example, the nun director of one NGO, claiming to be working for women empowerment, thinks that only women are being harassed and wronged by their husband or in laws and men are always wrong. But it is not true. Some ultra-modern brides are very proud and behave arrogantly and disrespectfully with their in laws. Also, taking up cases of women only is against the code of ethics for advocates issued by the Bar Council of India. The Supreme Court has ruled that a lawyer cannot refuse a brief provided the client is willing to pay the lawyer’s fees and the lawyer is not otherwise engaged. The religious advocates also get emotionally involved in the cases and treat the opposite party with disdain, much against the code of ethics for advocates issued by the Bar Council of India.
When there is a dispute between two Christian families, the religious lawyers should be impartial and neutral and try to find amicable settlement in the dispute, keeping in mind the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mathew: 5:9). If the religious lawyers fail to maintain dignity of their vocation as priests and nuns, there is every possibility that they will create enemies from within the community.
– Vincent, Mumbai