Free legal aid for socially and economically vulnerable people was introduced across India in 1995, when the Legal Services Authorities Act came into force. The law is aimed at ensuring justice for all on the basis of equal opportunity and on its key provisions mandates offering free services of lawyers who volunteer their time for pro bono cases to those who cannot afford to pay. However, the Legal Services Authorities Act has become yet another example of a social justice law that is well-intentioned on paper but riddled with problems on the ground. From daunting procedures that deter lawyers from taking up free cases to lack of awareness and accountability, to corruption and inexperienced lawyers -- legal aid is far from being ideally implemented finds Rajeshree Nagarsekar.
When Vasanti (30 something) wanted to file a case of domestic violence against her husband, she had no means of hiring a lawyer. Her aged father was forced to provide her money from his meagre savings to pay the fees of the lawyer. The case has since prolonged. Pranita (36) is another victim of domestic violence. Hailing from Cotigao, a remote village of Canacona taluka, she had no idea about her legal rights. An NGO who she approached for help informed her of the free legal aid she was entitled to leading her to approach the District Legal Services Authority which is mandated to provide free legal assistance to women. Shehnaz (24), a native of Valpoi in North Goa, is a young mother of two girls, whose husband has remarried without divorcing her. She has sought free legal aid but is aggrieved that the lawyer does not come for all her hearings in court. Similar is the case of Ruhi, an anganwadi worker, who complained that her lawyer demands a little money under one pretext or the other, every time. Matilda from a village in Salcete is aggrieved about the process of applying for free legal aid. “I am told to get the signature of the sarpanch of the village on the form. He is hardly available. There are other formalities as well,” she laments. Several affected women spoke about such issues at a programme that aimed to highlight the hurdles and harassment women face when they approach the police, courts and other state services while seeking justice in sexual or domestic violence cases. (All names are changed to conceal identity)
From the above it emerges that a host of problems plague the legal aid service system in Goa causing impediments to securing justice for women, especially from the backward communities in the state. Women are most vulnerable to social exclusion, and experience the most civil justice problems. Therefore for the prevention and resolution of these, legal advice is a key. But even as legal aid has been held to be necessary adjunct of the rule of law, the free legal aid movement has not achieved its goal and is marred by lack of awareness leading to exploitation and deprivation of rights and benefits of the poor. Stakeholders lament that legal aid work is almost completely neglected on the ground, and there is simply no judicial and political will to implement the Act in its true spirit.
Legal aid programmes are run through the National Legal Services Authority and the State Legal Services Authorities. In addition to laying down policies for legal aid, these agencies are tasked by the law to raise legal literacy by conducting awareness camps. They are also mandated to organise Lok Adalat, or people’s tribunal, in the districts to encourage the settlement of disputes through arbitration, conciliation and out-of-court negotiations. To run these programmes, the Centre gives funds to the National Legal Services Authority, which annually disburses the money to the state authorities under it and their various agencies. As per the Act, free legal aid can be granted to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, women, children, victims of human trafficking, mentally ill or disabled persons, industrial workers, under-trials, victims of natural disasters and ethnic violence as well people with an annual income less than Rs 50,000.
Aires serves legal notice on CCP for failure to constitute ward committees
Complainants of domestic violence are among the most common seekers of legal aid. Legal aid is a huge problem for women, both in terms of getting lawyers and fighting the case after they get a lawyer. According to statistics, there are 187 lawyers empanelled on the free legal service panel in the state of Goa. There is a need to hire quality lawyers to improve the legal representation given to women, says Adv Surel Tilve who stands for incentivising lawyers who are on the panel of legal service authorities. Emphasising the need for competent legal aid lawyers for providing effective legal representation, Tilve says, “Fees of empanelled lawyers should be hiked. Lawyers are not very keen on taking up free cases or do not show interest in taking up cases where the honorarium is less." Similar are the views of Adv Mini Mathew. “It rarely works efficiently. The fees are so less that a lawyer will not even afford lunch, leave alone conduct trial. In criminal matters, if you get a legal aid lawyer, you will mostly lose,” she informs.
Adv Shruthi Kothare is an empanelled lawyer since 2009. Quoting her experience she suggests, “Legal services Authority Act should be amended to include eligibility criteria of income for lady litigants too. Income margin per year can be kept little higher. Free legal services cater to the needy litigants who cannot afford legal services of advocates to seek justice in courts. Lady litigants who earn well don't need free legal aid. Thereby, these fees can be utilised to help needy litigants.” Most importantly, she expresses her concern about the mediation or conciliation litigants who are mostly forced or brain-washed to settle the matter. “For example if the woman does not wish to go back to her matrimonial house since she fears for her life, then she should not be told that it is ok or normal for the husband to assault her on one or two occasions,” she opines.
The aspect of creating awareness is paramount in effective delivery of the service. “Instead of organising awareness programmes in halls, we should try to organise them in courtyards, during jatras, dhalo, and other local festivals, where the footfall is more. Konkani language should be used. Legal camps are emerging as an important part of the legal education. The authorities must realise and recognise the needs of every area where the legal awareness camps are organized and should mainly focus to make a reach to the people at the ground level,” opines Adv Tilve.
Para-Legal Volunteers (PLVs) are supposed to impart awareness on laws and the legal system, and must be trained to counsel and amicably settle simple disputes between the parties at the source itself. “Considering spreading legal awareness is such a responsible job,” says Maria D’Costa, a PLV working in the jurisdiction of Quepem. Moreover, the total number of PLVs working in the state of Goa is 88, as per the official figure.
Another hurdle is absence of effective tracking measures of the work undertaken by a legal aid lawyer, after he/she is appointed. “The mandatory monthly meetings between the lawyers, NGO, BDO, police to be conducted by the CJM have not taken place for the past three years,” divulged a senior empanelled lawyer, thus pointing out the various flaws in the system.
More power to ZPs will lessen burden on MLAs says Kavlekar