Supreme Court and CHRI’s Legal Aid Report

By Raja Bagga

The Supreme Court is currently addressing crucial prison reform issues through a writ petition titled ‘Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons’. In its latest order in September 2017, the court has ordered all the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) to conduct a study on prisons in their state based on Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s Rajasthan legal aid study- Legal Aid for Prisoners

This petition is based on a letter written by Justice R.C. Lahoti, former Chief Justice of India to the then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir highlighting systemic problems of overcrowding, unnatural deaths of prisoners, gross inadequacy and training of prison staff.

In the last four years, the court has issued orders to address these issues plaguing the prison system. CHRI has been assisting the Amicus Curiae (‘friend of the court’) on how to improve the current situation in prisons and is also monitoring the implementation of directions of the Supreme Court in this matter.

One of the important orders of the court was to constitute undertrial review committees in every district in the country. These committees are expected to meet quarterly and review cases of undertrial prisoners. Early this year, through CHRI’s advocacy, the mandate of these committees have been expanded from looking at three categories of undertrial cases to 14.

In its latest order dated 15th September 2017, the court has issued multiple directions relating to un-natural deaths inside prisons. Acknowledging the importance of a lawyer during trial and the consequences of his absence, the court also issued directions to strengthen the legal aid system. In light of this observation, the court has asked all the SLSA to urgently conduct a study on the lines of the study conducted by the Bihar SLSA in Bihar and CHRI in Rajasthan. The court stated:

“The State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) should urgently conduct a study on the lines conducted by the Bihar State Legal Services Authority in Bihar and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Rajasthan in respect of the overall conditions in prisons in the State and the facilities available."

CHRI's Rajasthan Report, Legal Aid for Prisoners looks at the legal aid authorities’ compliance to three national legal aid schemes- a) National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Free and Competent Legal Services 2010 Regulations; b) NALSA Legal Aid Clinics 2011 Regulations and c) Rajasthan SLSA’s Legal Assistance to Person’s in Custody scheme based on NALSA’s Legal Aid to Counsel in all Courts of Magistrates Scheme.

The RTI based study points out the gaps in the legal aid machinery and looks at the implementation of the schemes in prisons, police stations, courts and at the legal services authority. The study shows that the chasm between the mandate and practice is extremely wide as Rajasthan has only been compliant with 23% of the provisions mandated by the NALSA schemes. 

The Supreme Court, through these orders, have dealt with important issues pertaining to prisons, one at a time.  While the efforts made by the court in not only issuing detailed directions on each aspect, but also looking at its implementation needs to be highlighted, for the change to be lasting, it needs to go beyond this. The court needs to develop mechanisms which follow and review a case beyond its conclusion.