Legal aid lawyers are human rights defenders: Justice Muralidhar CHRI national report, ‘HOPE BEHIND BARS?’ on legal aid launched

Sep 09, 2018

New Delhi, India

Justice S Muralidhar, Justice of the Delhi High Court, today defined legal aid lawyers as ‘human rights defenders’, and urged them to abide by laws addressing human rights issues and not solely depend on the IPC and CrPC. Justice Muralidhar also spoke of the need for legal aid lawyers to be paid at the same level as public prosecutors.

Chairing a panel discussion on “Improving quality of legal representation” Justice Muralidhar also highlighted the need of having a “human-rights based approach to legal aid instead of an approach based on criminal law and procedures.”

Speaking at the launch of a National Report on Legal Aid for Persons in Custody – Hope Behind Bars? of the  Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI, he also emphasized the need for “incentivizing lawyers”.

The report draws on hundreds of RTI applications and material available on the public domain on the legal aid framework in the country. The report was launched by Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court and other experts and specialists from the field of legal aid.

Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court, launched the report and highlighted that still “many prisoners are unaware of their status of cases as well as their basic human rights”. He stated that “access to justice is the most basic human right” and emphasized on the need of competent legal aid lawyers providing effective legal representation.

Dr. Srikrishna Deva Rao, Vice Chancellor, NLU Odisha, a leader in the field of clinical legal education urged to “extensively use para-legal volunteers in the legal system as a link between the community and courts”. In order to spread awareness, he recommended that “schools and colleges need to have systems in place to familiarize them on the role of police”. He also highlighted the importance of legal representation immediately after arrest, he pointed out the necessity of legal aid at different stages including, at the point of arrest, during first production, and during remand orders passed by magistrates.

Mr. S.S. Rathi, Director of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), informed the audience about the new developments in legal aid. He appreciated the recommendations made in CHRI’s report and urged to have greater collaborations with CHRI and other civil society organisations.

The event was attended by 65 people comprising representatives from legal services institutions, judiciary, prison department, law schools, media and civil society. The launch was followed by panel and open house discussions on role of civil society and university-based law clinics on strengthening legal aid for persons in custody.

Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika, International Director, CHRI stated at the outset that legal aid is essentially “about the Idea of Justice meeting the Idea of India.” He stated that central focus of legal aid should be on “rights and constitutional justice which is delivered in time”. The report authored by Raja Bagga, Programme Officer (Prison Reforms), CHRI, raises two crucial questions: 1) How early is early access to legal aid? and 2) How effective and competent is the legal aid, that is being provided? While highlighting the importance of such a study conducted by CHRI, Mr. Hazarika also emphasized that “such a study can and should pave way for analysing legal aid mechanisms across other country members of the Commonwealth”.

Following the launch, Mr. Raja Bagga, author of the report shared six key findings:

  • The per capita spending on legal aid in India is just Rs 0.75 ($0.008 USD).
  • 14% under-utilisation of funds allocated to State Legal Services Authorities,  wherein states like Bihar, Sikkim and Uttarakhand utilised less than 50% of their allocated funds.
  • Only 339 of the 520 DLSAs, for which information was received, have full time secretaries at the helm, to manage legal aid delivery in each district.
  • There is at present no national scheme which establishes a mechanism to provide legal aid at the police station.
  • 92% of the 659 jails, for which information was received, had constituted a jail legal aid clinic.
  • 60% of the districts which responded to the RTI constituted a monitoring committee. Monitoring committees are mandated to review each case to ensure the quality of legal aid provided by lawyers.
  • Maintaining records and registers and keeping a separate staff to manage monitoring committees are crucial for its working. Only 16% of the committees had staff and 23% maintained registers.

By engaging with stakeholders engaged in the process of ensuring prompt and effective access to legal aid for persons in custody, the event created the framework upon which further actions are to be taken at both policy and implementation level. The role of civil society and law clinics is vital to the entire process of enabling equal access to justice for all, especially to those in jail.

The reports can be downloaded here:-  Legal Aid Report Hope Behind Bars Volume 1 | Legal Aid Report Hope Behind Bars Volume 2

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