The first-ever conclave of the India Legal Research Foundation held in Ranchi took a long hard look at the reasons why access to justice still eludes the poor and powerless. Addressing this vexed question is the mission of the India Legal magazine which will carry this message to all major cities in India to involve judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, law students and community leaders

By Sucheta Dasgupta  and Sandeep Sharma

“There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”                                                                                  —Justice Hugo Black, US Supreme Court in 1964

The first ever conclave of India Legal on Access to Justice held in Ranchi this fortnight was a re-sounding success as it was attended by Droupadi Murmu, the Governor of Jharkhand, Justice Virender Singh, the Chief Justice of the High Court of Jharkhand, Justice Anant Bijay Singh, Justice Apresh Singh, Justice Harish Chandra Mishra, Pravin H Parekh, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and other luminaries, including bureaucrats and lawyers. The conclave discussed how justice to all was a must as it was a fundamental right but was not reaching many of those who needed it most.

There are various causes for unequal justice. These include lack of infrastructure, shortage of judges, rising pendency, administrative lapses like shoddy police investigation, presence of a criminal-politician nexus, undertrial prisoners not being able to secure bail even after many years in jail and so on.

Droupadi Murmu, Jharkhand’s first woman governor, said that access to justice as a human rights concept based on dharma was familiar in ancient India. The state in ancient India was neither sacerdotal, nor paternalistic. The concept of dharma was multi-dimensional. It was embraced and sustained in a compassionate sweep. It gave birth to both human rights and laws to safeguard them, she said.

Stressing on the link between poverty and lack of knowledge of law, she said law education should become part of our curriculum so that justice becomes accessible to all. She congratulated the India Legal Research Foundation (ILRF) for its bold initiative to make justice accessible to all (see box).

CREATIVE ALTERNATIVES

Making use of the alternate dispute resolution mechanism is one such way to provide access to justice. Justice Virender Singh noted the importance of this method of case disposal in jurisprudence and underscored how it would go a long way in reducing the already-humongous caseload on Indian judges and make way for speedy justice. Enactment of the Legal Services Authorities Act on the strength of Article 39A of the Constitution of India paved the path for establishment of legal services authorities across the country with this objective in sight, he said.

“It is a matter of great satisfaction for us that the Jharkhand Legal Services Authority (JHALSA) and the District Legal Services Authorities are playing a tremendous role towards giving the citizens access to justice. Apart from enhancing legal literacy among common people, conflicts are being resolved through the Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism in large numbers. At present, the success rate of mediation in Jharkhand is 49 percent,” Singh said.

JHALSA and DLSAs are also playing an important role in extending a helping hand to victims of crime, he noted. After an amendment was brought in Section 357A CrPC, victim compensation schemes were formulated by state governments. Till June this year, a sum of Rs 81,061,000 was disbursed to victims under the Jharkhand Welfare Scheme 2012 and Rs 13 lakh given out under Victim Welfare Fund Rules 2014 as interim compensation to victims, he said.

“Awareness of ADR, coupled with the contributions of the legal services authorities and organizations such as the ILRF, are effective means for combating the menace of huge numbers of pending cases and increasing litigation. I feel that adhering to them will help us reach the ultimate goal of access to justice for all,” Singh stated.

Justice Singh said it was noteworthy that India Legal was holding up the legal issues of the day before society. “Its excellent analysis of our legal system to strengthen our democracy adds remarkable value to it. In a nutshell, I can say that India Legal has been nicely performing its role as the fourth pillar of democracy.” He said he agreed with all the issues that India Legal had raised on issues like pendency and the reach of justice to all.

Justice Anant Bijay Singh led an interactive session with lawyers, NGO representatives, media-persons and law students. Questions were asked regarding the ambit of the Right to Information Act, delay in court hearings, predominance of the English language in the conduct of hearings which was a handicap for the poorest of poor as well as other pertinent topics relating to access to justice. A panel of experts comprising the judge himself, as well as National Law University registrar Prof GS Bajpai, senior advocate with the Supreme Court Pravin Parekh, and senior advocate Mani Mala Pal, took part.

Parekh said the Constitution had ensured justice and fundamental rights for all, which was interpreted by our courts in a purposive way. “It is important that the lowest of the low in the country get justice at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, many clients have to shell out lakhs of rupees today to get justice,” Parekh said.

Senior advocate Pradeep Rai said that the mission of the newly-formed ILRF was to wipe every tear from every eye. He said that as early as in 1956 the apex court, while interpreting Article 14, decided that our Constitution is not meant only for the elite, but is also for “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker”. “In subsequent years, it incorporated access to justice in Article 21 by various judicial interpretations. Articles 22(1) and 22(2) specifically ensure access to justice for persons who are arrested and detained in custody…. A judiciary where access is gagged and the institutions which are responsible do nothing to remove the obstacles ceases to be an independent system,” he said.

Vimal Kirti Singh, former principal secretary, energy, Jharkhand, pointed out that authorities should be alert enough to protect the rights of citizens so that they do not have to go to court to secure them. He also advised automation and digitization wherever possible to promote transparency and efficient governance. “Karnataka has made sure that the number of property disputes there goes down. It has computerized records, making it easy for people to access them and confirm which piece of land belongs to whom and who has paid for it. In comparison, the people of Jharkhand still take ages to figure out the same thing,” he said.

INDIA LEGAL’S JOURNEY

India Legal editor-in-chief Inderjit Badhwar said that soon after launching India Legal it attracted some of the finest writers, reporters and editors in the country, many of whom were legendary in their own lifetimes.

A short film by APN TV was shown at the conclave which highlighted the infrastructural problems currently plaguing our judiciary, resulting in a huge case backlog. 

The film highlighted that justice delayed is justice denied. At present, there is only one judge for 73,000 people or, 17 judges for 10 lakh people. Transpose this with the Law Commission recommendation saying there should be 50 judges per 10 lakh people. Pendency of cases is a serious issue. Till June this year, about 60,000 cases were pending in the Supreme Court. In the high courts, the figure has crossed a staggering 42 lakh and in the lower courts it is nearly 2.65 crore! There are only 16,438 judges currently operating in the lower courts. In the 24 high courts of the country, there are 621 judges against a sanctioned figure of 1,079 judges. In the Supreme Court, there are 29 judges while the sanctioned strength is 31.

There are about 80,000 cases pending in the Jharkhand High Court of which more than a half have been pending for over a year. But there is a silver lining. In the year 2015, the Supreme Court cleared over 47,000 cases. In 2013, it was 40,000 cases in which the judges reached a verdict and in 2014, the judges dispensed with 45,000 cases. Clearly, we have a long way to go to ensure that justice reaches the litigant faster, but a beginning has been made. 

“JAILS ARE FULL OF POOR PEOPLE”

Administration of justice was one of the paramount functions of the state, Droupadi Murmu, Governor of Jharkhand held, adding that it was the duty of the state to promote justice on the basis of equal opportunity and provide legal aid to all citizens of the country. “The Supreme Court has emphasized, while interpreting Article 21 in the light of Article 39A, that legal assistance to the accused who is arrested with jeopardy of his life or personal liberty, is a constitutional imperative mandate not only by Article 39A but also by Articles 14 and 21. In the absence of legal assistance, injustice may result and every act of injustice corrodes the foundations of democracy,” she said.

Droupadi Murmu

She said: “Gaon ke log teen jagah jane se hichkichate hain—thana, doctor khana aur court. Sochte hai jo bacha khucha hai, who bhi chala jayega.” (People in villages are scared of visiting three places—police station, doctor’s clinic and court. They are apprehensive that they would lose whatever they have.) 

“I am aware of these facts as I also come from the poorest among the poor families,” she said.

Murmu said that when she visited jails, she always found that it was full of poor people who had no knowledge of the law. It is therefore important that law education should be included in the academic curriculum to make justice accessible to all, she stressed.

She praised the effort of the India Legal Research Foundation (ILRF) to address this need. “Considering all those important aspects and the challenges ahead, I express my best wishes to ILRF. I also commend them for taking up a bold initiative which would go a long way in realizing the cherished goals enshrined in our Constitution.”

MEDIA LAPS UP INDIA LEGAL CONCLAVE

The India Legal Conclave on “Access to Justice” was extensively reported by the national and local press. Among the publications that reported on the event include The Telegraph. The Pioneer, Prabhat Khabar, Hindustan Times, Azad Sipahi, Ranchi Express, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, among others.

To know more, visit http://ilrf.in/media/

THE CONCLAVE IN PICTURES

They say pictures speak a thousand words. The India Legal Conclave had all the trappings of a mega event—the ambience, the kind of people who attended the event, the venue, the guests who graced the conclave, the speakers, and of course the topic of discussion, “Access to Justice” which brought out the best from all confabulating on the subject.

To browse through pictures, go to http://ilrf.in/gallery/

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