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House Panel: Legal Aid Or Eyewash ! – By Mukesh Jhangiani

                                                                                                                           June 22, 2006

House Panel: Legal Aid Or Eyewash !

By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India

New Delhi (UNI) – India’s poor litigants see legal aid provided to them by an authority set up eleven years ago as ”mere eyewash,” a parliamentary panel has reported.

”Poor litigants feel that legal aid being provided to them is mere eyewash,” according to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law and Justice.

E M Sudarsana Natchiappan (Photo: NoCorruption)

The National Legal Services Authority was set up in 1995 under the Legal Services Authorities Act 1987 to provide ”free and competent” legal services to the needy.

The views of the Committee headed by EM Sudarsana Natchiappan are contained in its latest Report on the Law and Justice Ministry’s 2006-07 Demands for Grants.

The Committee said the programme lacked proper planning and suffered from paucity of funds and failure at the level of states to utilise even the grants made.

It said, ”the actual benefit of this scheme is not gaining access to poor litigants” and the programme is ”confined to high profile areas or capital cities only.”

The NALSA’s goal, according to the Committee, was to ensure that no Indian citizen is denied opportunity to secure justice because of economic or other disabilities.

Experts call it a tall order considering the high litigation costs– unbridled lawyers’ fees and protracted court processes– which a vast many Indians find hard to afford.

The NALSA’S budget to achieve it all in 2004-05, for instance, was Rs 5.98 crores– raised in 2005-06 to Rs ten crores and sought to be maintained thereat this year.

To be eligible for legal aid, the annual income limit fixed by the central government for cases before the Supreme Court is Rs 50,000. Fourteen states have to catch up with even that.

Over the past decade, the Authority claims to have aided 8.25 million individuals, besides holding 4,86,000 Lok Adalats or conciliation courts nationwide and settling 18.3 million cases.

But critics say that tells little about the sort of cases in which the Authority helped individuals, the quality of legal aid or the outcome.

Nor does it tell the plight of citizens who are neither eligible for legal aid nor can afford legal recourse on their own– with no limits enforced on lawyers’ fees or duration of proceedings.

As in ordinary cases, in aided cases, too, the quality of lawyering is a key issue, only perhaps more so given the ‘meagre’ fees NALSA advocates supposedly get, critics say.

The Committee noted that counsels engaged for the poor under the legal aid programme ”are paid meagerly” and ”good and reputed lawyers do not come forward to take up the cases. Even Senior Advocates do not take up such cases.”

”As a result,” the Committee said, ”the poor litigants feel that legal aid being provided to them is mere eyewash.”

The Committee recommended ”reasonably” enhancing the fee structure– and standardising it nationwide– so as to draw experienced and competent lawyers to legal aid.

The Committee was ”given to understand that the government has been providing adequate funds to NALSA from year to year. However, there has not been total utilisation of the allocated grants.”

Some years ago, the Committee had suggested ”hundred percent central funding for implementing NALSA and also to ensure that the central grants released to the State Governments are utilised fully.”

But the government says NALSA has yet to submit a consolidated scheme for its consideration covering all its plans and programmes ”for formulating a Centrally Sponsored Scheme and seeking due approval.”

In what it calls a ‘vision document,’ NALSA has listed sections of Indian population it hopes to empower through legal literacy– knowledge of the law and the confidence to use this knowledge.

They include children, the elderly, workers, women, victims of mental or other disabilities, floods, tsunamis, drought, insurgency, Devadasi or other trafficking and those stigmatised by such conditions as Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

The Committee took note of it but said ”certain grey areas need to be addressed by the Ministry.

”One such problem relates to lack of proper planning. Moreover, non-utilisation of grants by the States Legal Services Authorities is another area of concern.”

It asked the Ministry to ”effectively monitor” utilisation of funds and implementation of NALSA’s schemes and programmes.

”Constraints of funds should not come in the way of successful implementation of the scheme,” it stressed.

Experts discount the value of sheer legal literacy unless it is accompanied by reforms that make adjudication more responsive to the litigants’ needs.

UNI MJ RP BD1051

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Simplify Language Of Laws Of Land: PM – By Mukesh Jhangiani

March 6, 2005

Simplify Language Of Laws Of Land: PM*

By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India

New Delhi (UNI) – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today launched India’s first national legal literacy mission: 2005-10 with a call to simplify the language of laws of the land.

”The complex legal language of our statutes acts as a hurdle to legal literacy… compounded by the intricacies of legal language in judicial pronouncements,” Dr Singh told invitees at the launch at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi.

He said ”an attempt should be made to simplify the language of the law so that any one who reads judgements and laws can easily understand their true meaning.”
The legal literacy mission is intended to empower millions of disadvantaged and other Indian citizens through awareness and free legal aid.
”This mission is a step in the direction of empowering people to enjoy their rights,” Dr Singh said. ”Equality in law requires equal access to law for this noble principle to translate into reality.”
Prime Minister Singh reminded that Article 39A of the Constitution gives a directive to the States to ensure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity.
”It directs the State to provide free legal aid with the aid of suitable legislation or schemes. It also directs it to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen for reason of economic or other disabilities.”
He said the dictum that ignorance of law is no excuse ”creates a duty on the part of government” to make people aware of laws it enacts.
In spite of their publication in Gazette, due to low literacy, a majority of the population is not aware of its rights and duties, he said.
”This is an initiative that is dear to me and has my whole hearted support,” Dr Singh said.
The Mission has identified a set of beneficiaries it immediately expects to address: children, minority communities, victims of militancy, victims of crime, disaster and disease, child and bonded labour, landless farming community, dalits and tribal communities, especially in the northeast, farmers hit by droughts and floods, trafficked girls and sex workers and the poorest of the poor.
”From Ignorance to Legal Empowerment” was the goal proclaimed as part of the Mission’s emblem and mascot unveiled by the Prime Minister jointly with India’s Chief Justice Ramesh Chandra Lahoti and Law and Justice Minister Hans Raj Bhardwaj.
Justice Lahoti recalled the founding fathers’ vision of India as just and equitable for all citizens, but said ”this dream is yet to find fruition.”
In the 21st century– 57 years after independence– ”concepts such as just and equitable remain unfamiliar for the millions of people who still remain beyond the safety net of law and justice.”
Justice Lahoti said when citizens, particularly marginalised or underprivileged groups, know what the law has to offer them, they can recognise and challenge the injustices forcefully.
”The first step towards that knowledge of the law, which can transform people’s lives, is legal literacy.”
Bhardwaj told audience that the Mission was aimed at addressing the farthest geographical areas and the most vulnerable sections of the population in the first phase.
”The people need to be told the benefits of legal aid… otherwise they will continue to resign to their fate for exploitation and discrimination.”
The ceremony was also attended by Supreme Court Judges N Santosh Hegde and Y K Sabharwal and a number of other sitting and retired Judges, including Chief Justices of various High Courts.
Justice Hegde, Chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), which has undertaken the Mission, reminded that legal aid was not charity– but an obligation of the State ”enshrined in Article 39A of our Constitution.”
He said NALSA was formed for this very purpose– ”to provide free and competent legal services and encourage the general public to settle their disputes amicably.”
A note of caution and realism was struck by Justice Sabharwal, Chairman of the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee.
”I must emphasise,” Justice Sabharwal said, ”that from Ignorance to Empowerment is a long journey and let us not hope that one NALSA will achieve it in next five years like a magic.”
”Only providing legal aid to settle a dispute is not a solution for the progress of our country.
”The solution lies in our hands if we can grant these people a window of social justice by way of monitoring why such benefits meant for them have not been delivered to them and if not delivered to them, then who in this country is responsible for such a lapse.
”We need to set examples of accountability in our Governance,” Justice Sabharwal said.
Asked afterwards whether legal literacy would include informing beneficiaries as to delays or other inadequacy involved in litigation, Justice Hegde said the effort would be to have matters resolved through pre-trial options.
These include Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques such as conciliation, mediation, arbitration and so on. Litigation would be the last step, he said.
Justice Lahoti said three steps were being taken to reduce pendencies in courts.
They included relying in a big way on ADR, making justice delivery system more effective and introducing information technology in judiciary.
Justice Lahoti also mentioned two major studies which have been undertaken jointly along with Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Progamme to identify shortcomings in the system.
Asked about inquiry commissions, some of which end up in the archives, Justice Lahoti said governments– he was not referring to incumbent government– sometimes buy time by appointing inquiries essentially to let tempers cool.
UNI MJ RP GR1823