Image: Hindustan Times
Justice UU Lalit, who is at present the second senior most judge in the Supreme Court has made a series of pertinent observations about the quality of legal aid in India, while addressing judges, lawyers and other legal service providers at the Maharashtra State Level Conference on the topic Early Access to Justice at Pre-arrest, Arrest and Remand stage on March 26. It is noteworthy that Justice UU Lalit is also the Executive Chairman of the National Legal Services Authority. He spoke about the importance of providing quality free legal aid services.
Justice Lalit said, “Free legal aid does not mean poor legal aid. Free legal aid must mean quality service.” As reported by the media including Livelaw, he expressed his concern about the extremely low percentage of cases which landed up with the Legal Services Authority and stressed upon the need to induct talented and committed persons.
Speaking on the importance of qualified legal assistance at pre-arrest, arrest and remand stage, Justice Lalit reportedly said, “At every possible stage the man must have the advantage or the benefit of qualified legal assistance. We don’t provide that legal assistance, we at National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), State Legal Services Authority (SLSA), District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Taluk Legal Services Committee (TLSC), what do we do? We are just facilitators. We are not the ones who is going to appear for that man and present his case, we simply facilitate that mechanics, we have an apparatus and that’s why one has to see this NALSA as a beautiful machinery which has been produced by the Parliament. There is no other scheme which is given in the hands of Judiciary, which is supposed to be in the interest of the society. The Judges right from top that is NALSA up to SLSA, DSLA or even TLSC, the entire apparatus is managed by the Judges. But management is the only part which is in our hands, execution of that, i.e. giving legal counsel, is in the hands of lawyer or is in the hands of the team of the lawyers and this is precisely why my predecessors who addressed you were stressing upon the fact that quality legal assistance, pro-bono services, senior advocates, getting inducted in the programme, that will provide you good quality assistance.”
He further said, “It is true that there are methods and methods in which we can induct, we can draft that talent. Like for instance, High Courts of Punjab and Haryana and Delhi before they designate a person as a senior counsel, they look into the profile and they say, how many matters have you done pro bono? Some of the High Courts go to the extent of getting an undertaking that after your designation you shall do at least 10 pro-bono matters every year.” But here, Justice Lalit made an important point, “Now, these are modalities, and methodology that a particular High Court, may adopt, may not adopt, that is not the point, point is legal aid, free legal aid does not mean poor legal aid, free legal aid must mean quality service. If I go through this door and approach the legal aid, I must be assured that good quality assistance will be given to me, rather than if I go through the other door, where may I have to sell ornaments of my wife in order to support the litigation to be sponsored. Why do I say that? Since the basic topic is arrest, pre-arrest, remand which is pertaining to criminal law, of all the matters which are in court, only 1% of that land up with Legal Aid Services Clinics. Is that proportion correct? If we say that 70% of our people are below poverty line, then going by the same logic, the same proportion perhaps 70% of the litigants must be those, who are below poverty line, rough and ready estimate then why is it only 1% of them land up in the legal aid services clinics.”
He suggested that law students be made to undergo mandatory rural services similar to medical students. Justice Lalit reportedly said, “I have been advocating, I have actually been in touch with the Bar Council of India and I have been telling them, make it part of your curriculum at LLB level and this I said just few days back – we have courses like medicine, where after a person graduates, he gives it back to the society by serving as an internship in rural areas. Why not with legal professional? Why is it that the service of rural areas is the prerogative and preserve only of medical professionals? So, we should adopt that, as a principle, when it comes to legal education. This is what I have been advocating, I have been stressing on this, with Bar Council of India persons and they have agreed, from 3rd year onwards, they will be regularly sending students, every law college will be adopting may be 2 or 3 taluks and send the law students to those nearby taluks, so that as young students, as young professional, they have first-hand experience. If that exposure, so far as students are concerned is achieved, as and when they pass out, they will be your first line, who will be inducted as qualified legal professionals, who can take charge of, or who can take care of, what is your legal aid services programmes. And thereby you will be ensuring, the third rung that is the legally qualified persons are of good quality. These are various facets, induct people on pro bono, increase remuneration, have good quality persons. I am not so touchy, about the fact that only senior persons must be give the charge. I have seen spark of talent even in youngsters and those youngsters do tremendous amount of work with so much of zeal, that perhaps I think that may not be matched by some of the older persons in the profession. So, seniority is not the only determining criteria.”
He also reportedly suggested that the marginalised sections of the society should be made more aware of the legal aid services that they could avail. As per his suggestion every First Information Report (FIR) should have details of the nearest legal aid services clinic and every police station must have a board giving information about the availability of legal aid services.
CJP’s PIL to Gauhati High Court seeking legal aid for marginalised people
Justice Lalit’s words are even more pertinent today as over 19 lakh people whose names have been left out of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) will now be required to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). Given how a large number of these people hail from economically weak backgrounds, they would invariably depend upon the DSLAs for help. But what if the DSLAs ar not prepared to handle this deluge of people seeking help?
Therefore, CJP had filed a petition before Guwahati High Court last year raising concerns over the quality of legal aid to be provided to these people. The petition sought directions to the State to formulate effective and robust modalities for legal aid in terms of having trained lawyers and adequate front offices in light of the several pending appeals to be filed before FTs by people from marginalised sections to prove their citizenship. The plea emphasised that those excluded cannot be deemed non-citizens till the remedies available before them are exhausted, and unless the marginalised among them are not provided adequate legal aid, they would suffer irreparable loss and injury.
CJP also raised concerns before the court that since NRC-excluded people are required to file an appeal within 120 days, there would not be sufficient funds for such persons to engage legal counsel and get legal aid in such a short span of time. Hence, the plea also contended that legal aid be provided by the Assam State Legislative Authority (ASLSA) as well as the National Legal Services Authority (NLSA) to the aggrieved people.
CJP conducted an independent survey between November and December 2019 in 10 districts of Assam to assess the preparedness of District Legal Services Authorities (DSLA). That’s when we discovered that the front offices were either not present at these DSLAs or the ones that had front offices did not have adequate space or properly trained staff. The survey revealed that the personnel were not trained in Citizenship laws, NRC related procedures, Immigration law or the Foreigners Act, in any of these 10 DSLAs, even though in-depth knowledge of all these laws, procedures and Acts are vital for offering quality legal assistance to NRC-excluded people who are required to defend their Indian citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals. As per the survey, only 10 cases had been handled by the counsel of these DSLAs until November 2021; all by Dhubri DLSA: 7 in 2019, and 3 in 2020.
In addition to that the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) even made a significant admission on record that the state government needs to revisit the budget allocation to enable it to provide the requisite legal aid. It stated that it has made endeavours to train its staff in citizenship matters however is lagging in financial resources for providing aid to the large population that has been left out of NRC.
The Court has granted a final chance to the State of Assam and the Union of India (UOI) to file their affidavits and has listed the matter on April 27, 2021.