To be able to deliver appropriate legal services to the rural and tribal communities, we need an alternative delivery system with a different model of legal service providers
Delivery of legal services to the rich and the corporate class is organised not through individual lawyers but through a series of networked law firms. These firms employ hundreds of lawyers and domain experts all over the country to provide highly specialised single-window services to their clients, of course at prices determined by the market. The middle class, which cannot afford their services, go to individual lawyers or publicly-funded legal aid services organised under the Legal Services Authorities Act. In this scheme of things, it is the poor and marginalised rural and tribal communities who are left out. They suffer injustice or seek justice through informal systems, including the so-called “khap panchayats.” It is this sort of situation prevailing in the countryside that provides a fertile ground for the exploitation of the poor and for the growth of extremist forces, undermining the rule of law and constitutional governance.
Myth of legal aid
The 1973 Expert Committee on Legal Aid, titled “Processual Justice to the People,” which eventually led to the enactment of the Legal Services Authorities Act, discussed the futility of the court-centric litigative aid to the poor and marginalised sections, and recommended a series of alternative strategies. Obviously, the emphasis was on legal empowerment and mobilisation, preventive and strategic legal services intended to avoid victimisation, and the development of a public sector in the legal profession capable of responding to the problems of the rural and tribal communities. Unfortunately, when the legal aid law was enacted, the focus again was on assigning a lawyer to the needy client who took the task in a traditional style of protracted litigation with its attendant costs, uncertainty and delay — much to the dismay of the poor. Moreover, the system was premised on three assumptions which were contrary to ground realities — that the victim was aware of her rights and knew how to approach courts; that legal aid offices were available in far-flung villages and tribal settlements; and that the lawyer assigned had the right values, attitudes and competence to do a professional job appropriate to the justice needs of the rural/tribal population. These assumptions did not hold good in a majority of villages and, as such, conventional legal aid became irrelevant to the rural population. Language and communication compounded the situation, alienating the marginalised from a court-centric justice system. One alternative the Legal Services Authorities Act provided was the “Lok Adalat”, which lawyers disliked. The judges, honourable exceptions apart, turned it into an exercise to reduce arrears in courts through what some people call “forced settlements or hurried justice.”
Nonetheless, the Lok Adalat did serve the cause of justice for those who could reach the court despite all the odds. For others, legal aid had very little to offer. The Supreme Court did help them in a big way in the 1980s and the 1990s through the instrument of public interest litigation (PIL), which later lost its importance because of wide abuse by the urban elite and vested interests. Although it is difficult to generalise the legal needs of the rural poor because of the diversity of population, the need for food, shelter, education, health and work are admittedly the priority. The Constitution has left it to the legislature and the executive to progressively realise these needs through laws, schemes and special measures.
At the same time, the Constitution promises to all its citizens equality of status and opportunity, as well as equal protection of the law. Finding that large sections of the poor are unable to fulfil their basic needs even after decades of democratic governance, the Supreme Court sought to interpret socio-economic rights (Directive Principles) as civil and political rights (Fundamental Rights), compelling the state to come forward with laws empowering the poor with rights enforceable under the law. The Right to Education Act, the Food Security Act, and the Employment Guarantee Act were promising initiatives in this direction. However, the poor continue to be at the receiving end of an indifferent administration because of the difficulties in accessing justice through conventional legal aid.
We, therefore, need an alternative delivery system with a different model of legal service providers in rural and tribal areas. How can one fix the land rights of the poor when they have neither ‘pattas’ nor other valid documents? How do water rights and forest rights get protected from exploitation? What happens to government-sponsored schemes for food, sanitation, health and employment, aimed at alleviating the misery of the poorest of the poor? How to ensure that children are in school and are not abused and exploited? What can be done to prevent atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in villages, and their forcible displacement? Where do they get credit for their livelihood activities and how are we to prevent victimisation in the process? Do they have fair market access for their produce? What happens to the bio-diversity of rural and tribal areas? How best to preserve and protect traditional knowledge and other intellectual property rights of the rural poor?
What about the labour rights of the unorganised rural poor? How are the rights of farmers to be protected against profit-hungry multinationals’ monopoly on seed, fertilizer and pesticide business? Are the villagers being exploited by state agencies like police, forest officials, banks, revenue officials and mining lobbies with impunity because of the inaccessibility of the justice system? Why is it that the Gram Nyayalaya Act, supposed to extend quick and cheap justice to the rural poor, is neglected by lawyers and judges?
Need for an alternative
When these questions were raised in a professional development workshop recently at Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, the consensus was that we need an alternative model of legal service delivery to rural and tribal communities, for which a new pattern of legal education needs to be developed. The mainstream law schools are not clear in their mission. Legal educators blindly follow the Bar Council-prescribed court-centric curriculum, producing law graduates unfit to serve the justice needs of the tribal and rural communities. With such advocates, even a well-intentioned legal aid scheme cannot deliver justice to the marginalised sections.
The Bilaspur Workshop evolved a framework of an alternative LLB curriculum for the education and training of legal service providers, appropriate to rural and tribal needs. While the mandatory part of the BCI curriculum is accommodated, the alternative model identified over 40 subjects relevant to rural needs to be included in the optional component of the curriculum. However, the workshop felt that the new type of legal service providers proposed under the alternative model is not distinguished on the basis of knowledge of law only, but in terms of a different set of skills, attitudes and values relevant to the rural/tribal communities. It was proposed that the final year of the five-year LLB programme be devoted to experiential learning through social justice and legal aid activities in rural areas under the supervision of NGOs, self-government authorities, collectorates, and legal aid committees besides law school professors. The experiential learning is through clinical courses developed by law schools for appropriate credits.
Students seeking to set up practice in rural areas will form themselves into what may be called lawyers’ cooperatives or rural law firms, and train in advocacy before public bodies, administrative authorities, Gram Nyayalayas and regulatory agencies, besides courts and tribunals. They will be assisted by trained para-legals from among school dropouts and social activists of the area. The fee for each legal service will be fixed and notified by firms and they will be affordable. These rural law firms will be organised professionally on the lines of urban law firms in terms of technology and quality of services. Cheap, prompt and reliable services will be the hallmark of rural law firms. The law school will give the successful candidates not only an LLB degree but also a diploma in rural legal practice, which will distinguish them from the rest.
It will be the endeavour of law schools adopting this curriculum to assist the graduates to set up their practice in rural and tribal areas, organisationally and financially. Towards this end, the law school will approach the large urban law firms to extend their help as part of their corporate social responsibility. Besides, State governments and the National Legal Services Authority will be asked to give them subsidy in locating their offices in villages and recognising them as public defenders for identified services. Some law schools in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and northeastern India have shown interest in adopting this model of legal education. The immediate problem, of course, is to find the right kind of teachers who can deliver under this alternative curriculum. To meet this challenge, there is a proposal to offer a one-year diploma in Law Teaching and Research to teachers of law schools in these States, with a view to augmenting the available resources.
To conclude, the Bilaspur Declaration offers the hope that Indian legal education will turn round and look at the constitutional mandate on responding to the unmet justice needs of the large body of rural and tribal communities in the near future. Professions are, after all, for the people and no profession can survive without their trust and support. The earlier this is recognised by the organised Bar and the government, the better it will be for the country and the professions themselves.
(Professor Madhava Menon is IBA Chair on Continuing Legal Education at National Law School of India, and a Member of the Advisory Council to the National Mission on Justice Delivery and Legal Reform, Government of India.)
The Constitution of India provides for special treatment of women, guarantees equality and prohibits discrimination. The government of India has been strengthening various laws focused on women and children. This has been more visible since the Beijing CEDAW Conference. The recent years have been witness to some landmark interpretations and directives related to Violence against Women. Despite the constitutional mandate of equal legal status for men and women, the same is yet to be realized. The dejure laws have not been translated into defacto situation for various reasons such as illiteracy, social practices, prejudices, cultural norms based on patriarchal values, poor representation of women in policy-making, poverty, regional disparity in development, lack of access and opportunity to information and resources, etc. The ground situation more or less remains the same.
Most of the laws come with various institutional machinery, partnership between various stakeholders and active role of NGOs. These institutions need to be in existence in order for the law to be effective. Also the policies and programmes made at the top takes a long time to percolate to the bottom and there is an urgent need of sharing information and resoursces.
The awareness on laws and access to justice remains dismal. At the district and the state level sensitivity on women rights among judicial officers, administration and the police is very low. This leads to a situation where the implementation of the law becomes difficult. Recently India has increased its budgetary support for the implementation of various laws on violence against women and it becomes increasingly more important for the organization like Shakti Vahini to work on governance specially related to women and children issuesThe National Legal Research Desk (NLRD) has been instituted to strengthen the implementation of the laws related to Women and Children in India. NLRD focuses on documenting the recent changes in the law, collect and compile the Recent Landmark Judgments of the Supreme Courts of India & the High Courts and ensure wide scale dissemination of the same through the government and the non government machinery. The NLRD will work with Law Enforcement Agencies, Police Academies, Judicial Agencies, Government Agencies, Statutory Agencies, NGOs, Civil Society and Mass Media on promoting Access to Justice for Women and Children. The NLRD website is a knowledge Hub for compilation of all Laws, Judgements and Resource materials on Violence against Women and Children in India. In the first phase (2012) it will focus on the laws related to Human Trafficking, Domestic Violence, Juvenile Justice, Rape Laws, PCPNDT Act , Honour Crimes and Victim Compensation.
U. Sarathchandran IN THE HINDU
The provision of legal aid to the poor and the disadvantaged exists in all civilised countries, often guided by charitable and philanthropic concerns. In a democratic set-up, the philosophy of legal aid has acquired a new meaning, with an emphasis on the concept of equality of all human beings, increasingly drawn from the universal principles of human rights. Free legal aid to the poor and marginalised members of society is now viewed as a tool to empower them to use the power of the law to advance their rights and interests as citizens, and as economic actors. Such a paradigm shift in the concept of legal aid gains greater importance when India is viewed as a growing economic power.
Parliament enacted the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 in order to give effect to Article 39-A of the Constitution to extend free legal aid, to ensure that the legal system promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity. (November 9 is observed as National Legal Services Day, to commemorate the enactment of the legislation.) Those entitled to free legal services are members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, women, children, persons with disability, victims of ethnic violence, industrial workmen, persons in custody, and those whose income does not exceed a level set by the government (currently it is Rs.1 lakh a year in most States). The Act empowers legal services authorities at the district, State and national levels, and the different committees (legal services institutions) to organise Lok Adalats to resolve pending and pre-litigation disputes. It provides for permanent Lok Adalats to settle disputes involving public utility services. Under the Act, “legal services” have a meaning that includes rendering of service in the conduct of any court-annexed proceedings or proceedings before any authority, tribunal and so on, and giving advice on legal matters. Promoting legal literacy and conducting legal awareness programmes are functions of legal services institutions.
Access to justice
The Constitution treats all citizens as being equal and provides them equal protection under the law. Yet, the common person faces barriers to ‘access to justice.’
Illiteracy, lack of financial resources and social backwardness are major factors that hinder the common person from accessing justice. There are other invisible barriers: lack of courage to exercise legal rights, the proclivity to suffer silently the denial of rights, and geographical and spatial barriers are examples. Such barriers keep people disempowered and subjected to exploitation by powerful people. This results in their being shoved away from the mainstream, and they become constrained in becoming potential economic actors contributing to the nation’s development.
The Act provides for a machinery to ensure access to justice to all through the institutions of legal services authorities and committees. These institutions are manned by judges and judicial officers. Parliament entrusted the judiciary with the task of implementing the provisions of the Act, as the other pillars of the government were neither inclined nor had the expertise to take up the responsibility to provide access to justice to the weaker sections.
One of the problems faced by legal services institutions is their inability to reach out to the common people. This hiatus between them and the common people was perceived as indirectly defeating the objectives of the Act. It is in this context that the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has come up with the idea of para-legal volunteers to bridge the gap between the common person and legal services institutions.
The scheme seeks to utilise community-based volunteers selected from villages and other localities to provide basic legal services to the common people. Educated persons with commitment to social service and with a record of good character are selected. The volunteers are trained by district legal services authorities. The training equips them to identify the law-related needs of the marginalised in their locality. Such needs include assistance to secure legal rights, benefits and actionable entitlements under different government schemes that are denied to them. Coming as they do from the same locality, they are in a better position to identify those who need assistance and bring them to the nearest legal services institutions to solve their problems within the framework of law. They can assist disempowered people to get their entitlements from government offices where ordinary people often face hassles on account of bureaucratic lethargy and apathy.
Legal aid clinics in villages
In order to reach out to the common people, NALSA has come up with a project to set up legal aid clinics in all villages, subject to financial viability. Ignorance of what to do when faced with law-related situations is a common problem for disempowered people. Legal aid clinics work on the lines of primary health centres, where assistance is given for simple ailments and other minor medical requirements of village residents. Legal aid clinics assist in drafting simple notices, filling up forms to avail benefits under governmental schemes and by giving initial advice on simple problems. A legal aid clinic is a facility to assist and empower people who face barriers to ‘access to justice.’
Trained para-legal volunteers are available to run legal aid clinics in villages. The common people in villages will feel more confident to discuss their problems with a friendly volunteer from their own community rather than with a city-based legal professional. The volunteers will refer any complicated legal matters that require professional assistance to the nearest legal services institutions. When complex legal problems are involved, the services of professional lawyers will be made available in the legal aid clinics.
Free and competent legal services
There has been a widespread grievance that lawyers engaged by legal services institutions do not perform their duties effectively and that the lawyers are not paid commensurately for their work. In order to solve these problems, NALSA has framed the National Legal Services Authority (Free and Competent Legal services) Regulations, 2010 to provide free and competent legal services. Scrutiny of legal aid applications, monitoring of cases where legal aid is provided, and engaging senior lawyers on payment of regular fees in special cases, are the salient features of the Regulations. In serious matters where the life and liberty of a person are in jeopardy, the Regulations empower legal services authorities to specially engage senior lawyers.
Children’s rights, a neglected field
Juveniles including children constitute more than a third of India’s population. Yet, children and their rights are neglected. The problems of children are often seen through the spectacles of an adult. Consequently, the rights of children who are orphaned, abandoned and in conflict with the law are not properly handled by government officials and juvenile justice institutions. Denied care and protection, they may end up as children in conflict with law. At the same time, children in conflict with the law need care and protection. In October 2011, the Supreme Court, in Sampurna Behrua v. Union of India , a public interest litigation, directed the Directors General of Police of the States to designate one police officer in each police station as juvenile/child welfare officer. The court directed legal services authorities to train such police officials and give free legal services to all children in conflict with law on an incremental basis, starting with the State capital cities.
Legal services to the mentally-ill and the mentally-retarded, to workers in the unorganised sector, and to solve disputes arising out of the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, are other schemes drawn up by NALSA for implementation by legal services institutions. A web-based monitoring system is in place to monitor their activities. NALSA works with civil society organisations, specialised statutory bodies and government departments.
Legal services institutions have until now functioned in uncharted waters, often making their presence felt only at certain ports of call like court-based legal services, organising legal literacy camps and Lok Adalats. Now, with a paradigm shift in the concept of legal services, legal services authorities are reaching out to the people to facilitate ‘access to justice’ to all in the most practicable and economical manner.
(The author is Member-Secretary, National Legal Services Authority, New Delhi.)
Para-legal volunteers can help bridge the gap between the ordinary citizen and legal services institutions.