Legal Aid in India: The Need for Strong Laws and High Minds
By Persis Sidhva
The Indian legal system has been ineffective in promoting a pro bono culture. The Legal Services Authorities Act 1987 provides for free legal services to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, women and children without any qualification regarding their financial status, persons with disabilities, victims of human trafficking, persons with an annual income less than Rs. 9,000/- (approximately 100 GBP) or such other higher amount as may be prescribed, amongst others. It is well documented that advocates selected to be a part of the legal aid panels are paid paltry sums for each case and successive governments have failed to provide the necessary infrastructural facilities and incentives to improve the quality and skills of these advocates. As a result of the apathy towards this vital section of the legal system, these legal aid panels have failed to attract the best talent from the legal profession. This has resulted in inequality of representation in Court between the contesting parties, thereby negating the very purpose of this legislation.
In the absence of impetus from the existing legal framework, pro bono work in India is taken up ad hoc by individual lawyers and public interest organisations. Presently, there are a number of distinguished Senior Advocates in several High Courts and the Supreme Court who are committed to various public interest matters. However, the number of crucial public interest causes by far exceeds the number of committed lawyers willing to take up these briefs pro bono. There are also a number of non-governmental organisations such as Alternative Law Forum, Human Rights Law Network and Majlis, amongst others which provide legal support to marginalised sections of society including women, children, persons with disabilities and HIV/Aids. An encouraging development is the entry of i-probono, a UK-based not-for-profit online platform which seeks to connect skilled lawyers with those in need of legal assistance. The portal is engaging with Indian law firms to promote a culture of legal aid within their existing framework. More concrete steps like this must be taken to strengthen pro bono work.
Pro bono work received a tremendous boost from the Supreme Court in the 1970s when rules of locus standi were expanded to allow any person to approach the Court on behalf of disadvantaged classes unable to access the Court for the enforcement of their fundamental rights. This marked the start of a wave of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), which contributed to the development of jurisprudence on a wide range of important issues such as sexual harassment at the workplace, the custodial torture of women and the right to a speedy trial.
However, so long as PIL is driven by individual lawyers and organisations, its development will remain sporadic. On the other hand, mandatory pro bono service has its own shortfalls. In order to create a culture of pro bono law in India, the existing statutory framework must be strengthened. Unfortunately, reforms in the legal aid system are not a priority of the Government and legal community. These changes could include better fees as well as facilities and training for lawyers on the legal aid panels, especially those in the lower courts. A fair, competitive and transparent selection process, adequate monitoring of the empanelled advocates’ work and an effective complaints mechanism (easily accessible to the litigant) are also recommended. Further, law firms must incorporate pro bono work within their current structure. Changes in the law as well as in attitudes within the legal profession are essential to ensure a sustainable system of legal aid and access for justice to all in a country steeped in caste, class, economic and gender inequality.
Persis Sidhva graduated from Government Law College, Mumbai in 2011 and works with Majlis, an organisation committed to the protection and promotion of women’s rights through legal representation, advocacy and training.