LAHORE - The government is completing its tenure at the end of this month. Everybody is curious about the interim setup that will be responsible for holding the general elections of 2018.

This is the phase of change. Perhaps, it is the reason that politicians are also struggling to join the parties of their choice and preparing for their future political careers. Many heads and chief executive officers of the public sector departments and companies will be changed. The entire system is in the phase of change. Similarly, the lawyers who remained close to the government and used to represent the government in courts are facing change; some of them are getting jobs as law officers and other are curious about their future careers, thinking that whether the new government will be as kind as the outgoing government was or it will be completely different.

Almost a week ago, the government issued a notification about appointment of 18 law officers, most of them associated with the ruling PML-N. During its five-year tenure, the government hired services of several private lawyers against heavy fees to plead cases in courts.

Recently, the country’s top court issued notices to two sitting judges of the Islamabad High Court -- Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani -- to explain their position for charging fee for Employees Old Age Benefit Institution (EOBI) case without authorisation of the federal law ministry.

The SC also issued notice to renowned lawyer Babar Sattar who was hired by the department in 34 cases and paid millions as fee without approval of the said ministry. Fakhar Zaman Tarar, Ahmed Shehzad Farooq, Sarfraz Ali Metlo, Syed Ahmed Ali Shah, Gohar Ali Khan are among those who have been issued notices by the court.

A law officer had informed the court that Rs50 million was spent on lawyer fees. He had said that two lawyers were elevated as judges to IHC. EOBI engaged Khawaja Haris and Rahseed A Rizvi but they were engaged after the law ministry’s approval, the law officer said.

Advocate Mustafa Ramday, son of former Supreme Court judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday; Advocate Salman Akram Raja; Advocate Shahid Hamid; Khwaja Haris; Advocate Salman Butt and Advocate Makhdoom Ali Khan are prominent among those who represented the government in courts in various cases.

Advocate Mustafa Ramday remained acting Advocate General of Punjab for almost one year. He assumed the charge in July 2013 and resigned in July 2014. The court was moved against him when he was appointed acting AGP. Despite many other legal advisers, Ramday remained favourite of the Lahore Development Authority for its cases. He was given commercialisation cases of the authority. Ramday was also consultant of the Punjab Safe City Project and represented the LDA in big cases. Ramday charged handsomely as compared to all other advisers of the Lahore Development Authority. A reliable source confirmed that Ramday charged heavy amount from the LDA, saying that “those who work hard get nothing”. He said, “Khwaja Haris, Shahid Hamid and Mustafa Ramday appeared before courts in prominent cases of the authority.”

Another renowned lawyer, Advocate Salman Akram Raja, represented the Sharif family in Panama Papers case and also appeared in Pemra’s DTH case. Salman Akram Raja, counsel for Pemra, was reprimanded by the Supreme Court last month for representing the authority as well as the PML-N leaders in various cases. Raja tendered an apology after the court warned of cancelling his licence.

Advocate Shahid Hamid, former Punjab governor, represented LDA in the Orange Line case before the Lahore High Court. He was also counsel for Nespak in the Supreme Court.

Khwaja Haris, the former Advocate General of Punjab, was hired by the Punjab government in Model Town case and he appeared in sugar mills case and as LDA counsel in Orange Line case before the Lahore High Court. Advocate Makhdoom Ali Khan represented the Punjab Mass Transit Authority before the Lahore High Court and was also hired by the government for Jail Road Corridor case.

The top court had asked the government time and again not to engage private counsels, but the government continued to do so instead of complying with the court orders.

A Supreme Court judgement (PLD 2017 SC 121) says: “The present Chief Justice of this court, honourable Mian Saqib Nisar, when he was a judge of the Lahore High Court, had taken exception to the engagement of a private counsel by the Punjab Housing Department in September 2007.

“The learned judge took umbrage at the waste of public resources, particularly when the office of the Advocate General had a budget of seventy nine million rupees, therefore, there was no justification to spend an amount of one million rupees on private counsel. This was a waste of resources.

“The government was causing a loss to the national exchequer by engaging private counsels despite availability of enough law officers to dispense its work,” the judgement said.

Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the SC took exception to the practice of engaging private counsel by the government departments for huge fees in the presence of a full-fledged attorney general’s office and provincial advocate general’s office.

“A division may, for compelling reasons for a particular case, engage a private counsel and for that purpose shall refer the case to Law and Justice Division which may, after consultation with the Attorney General, allow engagement of such counsel on payment of fee by the Division concerned. Inserted vide SRO 130 (1) 2017, dated 3rd March 2017,” according to (1A) of Rules of Business 1973 (as amended up to 3rd March 2017.

As far as private counsels’ fee is concerned, the Punjab Law and Parliamentary Affairs Department believes it could not be regularised and no mechanism could be evolved to fix it.

“No mechanism could be evolved to regularise the private counsels’ fee as it is like a free trade and business,” says Abul Hassan Najmi, the provincial law secretary.

“The government hardly hires private counsels to plead its cases in courts as mostly autonomous bodies do that,” the secretary says. However, the officer says that government’s rules of business allow him to hire a private lawyer up to Rs100,000 to plead a particular case. If the amount exceeds the limit of Rs100,000, it is discretion of the Punjab chief minister who may approve or disapprove.

When asked how many lawyers were hired and how much they were paid as fee last year for government cases, he said he did not remember. “I don’t remember how many private lawyers were hired by the government and how much they were paid,” said the secretary. However, he said that a lawyer was hired by the provincial government to assist the AGP in the Orange Line Metro Train case.

Some officials in Punjab Advocate General’s office said on condition of anonymity that law officers who plead government cases get very low salary compared to legal advisers of autonomous bodies and public sector companies.

“The government pays private counsels millions for cases but when it comes to our salaries it beats about the bush,” said a law officer working with the Advocate General’s Office.

However, Additional Advocate General of Punjab Muhammad Shan Gull said the government had approved increase in salaries of law officers. He said that credit goes to Law Secretary Abul Hassan Najmi and Advocate General of Punjab Shakil-ur-Rehman Khan who raised the issue and got increase in salaries approved.

The lawyers believe that law officers are bound to plead the cases of the government and the Supreme Court’s judgements must be implemented in letter and spirit so that the public money could be saved.

“I strongly reject the idea of hiring a private counsel for government cases,” says Advocate Azhar Siddique. He said, “The SC had several times asked the government to abandon this practice.” He said there was an army of law officers who were paid for this job. Then how could private counsels be hired against hefty amounts to do the same job, he asked.

“A mechanism must be evolved to determine fee of private lawyers so that public money could be saved,” said Advocate Sheraz Zaka. He said when private firms are contacted to plead government cases, they always demand millions of rupees as fee. This must be discouraged, he said.