Access to Justice in India

The Constitution of India, through its preamble itself, strives to secure all its citizens social, economic and political justice. But what is justice? Justice basically implies giving people their due. To delve deeper, social justice denotes equal treatment of all, absence of privileges, and improvement of the impoverished. Economic justice relates to non-discrimination between people on economic factors and elimination of glaring inequalities in wealth and income. Political justice implies that all citizens have equal political rights and equal access to public offices.

Our Constitution provides remedial measures as well, in case the government surpasses them. We have a legal framework too to seek justice. However, high legal fees, costs of proceedings among other expenses that concern trials, creates inequality of opportunities for the impoverished to seek justice, since they are not able to meet such expenses at large. This necessitates free legal aid. Free legal aid implies free legal assistance extended to the poor and weaker sections of the society, aimed to ensure equal justice to all and to enable them exercise their rights.

Article 39A provides that the states shall secure the operations of the legal system which promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity and provides free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes. Our Constitution embodies this provision to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. This article under the Directive Principles of State Policy was incorporated by the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976.

It is under Article 14 and Article 21 to ensures equality before law and equal protection of laws. To ensure that there is equality, equal opportunities must be given to parties in accessing the court. As per section 304(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, the court must provide the accused with a lawyer to defend him at the cost of the state, in case the accused lacks the required means to engage a lawyer for himself.

Also, in the Indira Gandhi versus Raj Narain case, it has been observed that since upholding the rule of law is of utmost importance, no one should be condemned unheard and without representation. This is constitutionally backed by Article 22(1) which provides that no person who has been arrested and detained shall be denied the right to consult or to defend himself.

Let’s take one of the most controversial cases. Kasab, a terrorist involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was granted the right to legal aid. However, people objected that he was an enemy and that he was not entitled to seek legal services. Eventually, it was observed that it could set a bad example for future cases if India denies Kasab, the right to counsel which, is a human right. This perfectly justifies the scenario of access to justice in India– even a terrorist is given the right to counsel.

In the year 1987, the Parliament enacted the Legal Services Authorities Act to establish a nationwide network for providing free legal services to the weaker sections on the basis of equal opportunity. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has been constituted under this act. Coming to what the free legal aid consists of, it primarily covers payment of court fees, process fees and charges payable to legal proceedings, providing service of lawyers, and preparation of appeal, paper book including printing and translation of documents in legal proceedings.

The Public Interest Litigation is also one of the means to seek justice. It helps in protecting rights of the impoverished, helpless or those who are not able to approach the court. In recent times, judiciary and judicial activism have played and are playing a proactive role in protecting rights of the citizens. It is again indicative of degree of justice in India.

But these few instances indicate that our country has arrangements in order to secure and promote justice in the society. It is the duty of the government to provide legal assistance. However, a few hindrances may be counted due to lack of awareness of legal aid, delayed trials and languished cases. To make justice more accessible and meaningful, legal awareness and literacy becomes essential. If justice delayed is justice denied, justice hurried is justice undone, then lack of legal awareness and literacy is justice concealed.

Picture Credit- Siliconeer

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