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.
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