In a shot in the arm for the Legal Aid machinery in the State of Assam, the Gauhati High Court has asked the Centre as well as the Assam State Government to indicate their stand on provision of funds. This was in connection with a petition filed by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) seeking directions to the state to formulate effective and robust modalities for legal aid for people from marginalised sections who have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and will now be required to prove their citizenship.
A deluge of such applications could overwhelm the Legal Aid system given how over 19 lakh people were excluded from the NRC and will now be required to defend their Indian citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). Our petition asked for adequate provisions to be made in terms of trained panels of competent lawyers, and adequate front offices.
Senior counsel Mihir Desai and advocate Mrinmoy Dutta appeared for CJP. The case has now been adjourned till December 6, 2021.
Brief background of the Petition
CJP has played an integral role in providing paralegal and legal assistance to those excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), to help them gather requisite documents that will make their case for citizenship stronger before the FTs. CJP’s Assam Team’s continuous on-ground efforts included responding to distress calls from remote areas, on a daily basis. It is through this three-and-a-half-year effort, the team noticed that there was a lack of concerted efforts being made by the state government for providing legal aid to those excluded from NRC, despite directions to this effect by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Why has the petition been filed?
The petition seeks clarification on a press communication issued by MHA on August 20, 2019 which stated that legal assistance would be provided to those excluded from NRC, those who are in need of such legal aid.
In early 2020, CJP petitioned the High Court on the issue with three families of those excluded. Senior counsel Mihir Desai assisted by Advocate Mrinmoy Dutta appeared in the matter. The petition was withdrawn after the Hon’ble High Court opined that this was a fit case for a public interest litigation.
From April 2020 to November 2020, the organisation was involved in detailed correspondence and representations to both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA).
As CJP is actively involved in ground-work it never came across any concerted efforts in furtherance of the 2019 communication issued by MHA, and thus submitted a representation before Secretary of Home Department in Assam for framing scheme and modalities for providing effective legal aid to the NRC left outs. CJP also asked the Home Department about what steps had been taken by the government so it can, through its widespread ground-work, create awareness among the people in need.
The petition emphasises 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.
The Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) finally responded in November 2020 stating that it has enough machinery to deal with any action taken by the government with regards to NRC. The ASLSA letter also revealed that only two Taluk Level Legal Services Authorities are functioning, while there are 78 taluks in the state. The letter also states that once rejection slips are handed out, legal camps can then be organised.
CJP’s survey reveals woeful state of Legal Aid machinery
It was in response to this last communication that CJP, has in fact, gone one step further and conducted an independent survey in 10 districts of Assam to assess the preparedness of District Legal Services Authorities (DSLA) which revealed that the front offices were either not present or the ones that had front offices were inadequate in terms of space or in terms of staff.
It was also revealed that in none of the ten legal services authorities, were the personnel trained on Citizenship, NRC, Immigration or the Foreigners Act, all of which are germane to the impending situation of people having to appeal before Foreigners Tribunal to prove their citizenship. It also revealed that a total of 10 cases were handled by the counsel of these DSLA, all by Dhubri DLSA: 7 in 2019, and 3 in 2020.
The petition filed in the High Court points out how more such authorities need to be set up at Taluk level, otherwise the process of providing legal aid remains largely inadequate.
The petition has prayed for writs to direct state authorities to appoint adequate legal aid lawyers and provide them with manuals so that uniform legal assistance is provided, to formulate modalities of legal aid for NRC left outs. It also prays that the court directs that unless necessary advance arrangements for legal aid are made, rejection slips should not be handed out to those excluded.
Through this petition, CJP seeks to have a state machinery ready to assist the marginalised sections, among the 19 lakh excluded from NRC, so that no rightful citizen gets deprived of his/her citizenship merely because of lack of proper and effective legal aid.
Apart from the pleadings, the petition also places before the court certain suggestions for its due consideration:
- To set up Taluk level Legal Services Authority across all taluks
- Call for applications from those who are in need for legal aid at least 3 months before rejections slips are issued
- Basis these applications, modify front offices, empanel lawyers and paralegals, train them in citizenship laws, Foreigners Act and NRC
- Adequate monitoring committees for each taluk
- Set up legal aid camps for scrutinizing documents
- Draft Model appeal formats
- Appoint counsel with more than 15 years’ experience to guide conducting advocates
- Enable civil rights organisations like CJP to take trainings
The entire order may be read here:
Assam DSLAs woefully understaffed, staff under-trained to handle FT cases
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