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‘Now every village of the country has a legal aid structure’, Justice Umesh Lalit gave his opinion in an interview with the editor-in-chief

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Legal aid is a fundamental right of every person in the country, he should get it. This is to say of Uday Umesh Lalit, the senior-most Justice of the Supreme Court. Justice Lalit is the working chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) since June 2021. He will take oath as the next Chief Justice of the country in August 2022. Dozens of such efforts are being made under NALSA that even the last man of a remote village should not be deprived of legal help. Here are the excerpts of a detailed conversation between editor-in-chief Shashi Shekhar and law correspondent Shyamsuman:-

With what motive and inspiration are you engaged in the work of taking legal aid to the needy?

When I became acting chairman of Legal Aid in June, I noticed that physical contact was not possible due to the restrictions of COVID-19. Whatever legal aid was being given was being given only after the person was arrested. It was only one percent of the total legal aid. I called a meeting of all the district, state and taluk level legal authorities, chairman of committees. It was decided that if the details of legal aid are recorded in the FIR, the accused and the suspect can get legal aid from the very beginning in the police station.

We contacted the Home Ministry and it agreed. Today, in every FIR, the details of how and from where to get legal aid, phone numbers and office addresses are all being written. Apart from this, a board has been put up at the entrance and inside of every police station where information about seeking legal help is available.

There is a lot of illiteracy in the country especially in the rural areas. So how were they made aware of legal aid?

See, we studied and saw that rural areas are running on money orders which send their families who have gone to work in the cities. We have seen that this work can be done through the post office. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs and the Union Home Ministry were contacted regarding this and the ministries agreed to it. Now legal aid boards have been put up in every post office like a police station.

In criminal cases the accused has to be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours, has he started getting legal aid from there, as the provision of legal aid starts from the stage of trial?

Exactly right. We also took note of this issue and held a quick meeting with all the High Courts. The High Court agreed and necessary directions were given to every magistrate that the person produced should get legal aid from day one. We have even said that if there is delay in providing counsel, the matter should be adjourned till lunch and after that legal aid should be given by calling a lawyer.

Legal aid has been provided in criminal cases but how is it being given on other social issues?

Of course, legal aid was not the end with criminal matters. This was very important for us because you saw that in criminal cases like one per cent people were taking legal aid, it does not mean that 99 per cent do not want legal aid. The direct reason for this was that he was not aware of it. After that we had immediate meetings. We saw that people are not aware about other social schemes like free education, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme. They were given the help of quasi-judicial assistants (paralegals) to make them aware and bring the children to school. These are the same assistants who also help in the police station.

Lok Adalat is also a part of legal aid, there is a huge lack of awareness about it, how do you see it?

Very true, we decided to start an awareness campaign about Lok Adalat from one month ago. Till now people used to reach there on the same day the Lok Adalat was held. In such a situation, their cases could not be decided because it takes time for settlement etc. We activated quasi-judicial assistants who contacted both the parties through digital means, prepared them for settlement and the result was 29 lakh cases were settled in the nationwide Lok Adalat held on 11 July 2021, while the Lok Adalat held in 2020 Only 14 lakh cases were disposed of. It was more than double that and it was during the lockdown. Lok Adalat was organized in September in which more than 42 lakh cases were disposed of.

Prisoners in jail go through mental agony as they fall into depression while in jail during a legal battle. How are they getting help?

In July I visited Cherlapally and Gurgaon jails in Hyderabad. Member Secretary Puneet Sehgal sent to Bulandshahr Jail. We took stock of the number of prisoners lodged in the jails, the capacity of the jails and other conditions there and likewise sought reports from all the jails. Taking inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India Movement’ day on August 8, 1942, we issued the Vision Statement on August 8. In this, we have directed all the High Courts to provide quality legal aid to the people, so that confidence is instilled in it. Lawyers should be competent so that their ability instills confidence in the people.

But the awareness campaign is limited to court and quasi-judicial assistants while there are also law related institutions like law colleges, judicial academies etc.?

We have done a lot of work on this issue. Unlike medical and dental courses, there is no internship in any course. We spoke to the Bar Council of India and asked that every law college adopt three talukas in its vicinity and send fourth and final year law students there regularly. This will inculcate in them a sense of social service along with legal knowledge and in the coming times when they come into the profession, they can be appointed as an excellent legal aid panel lawyer. They should not only become money making machines but also do social service. Most of the law colleges have agreed and the Bar Council has given us a list of such colleges as well. This program for the students is going to start very soon.

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Apart from this, we have got seven weeks on ‘Azadi Ke Amrit Mahotsav’ which will end on November 14. We are taking every legal aid committee, quasi-judicial assistant, Ashawarkar, Anganwadi worker and student to raise legal awareness during this time. The result of this is that today every village in the country is associated with a legal service worker. I have personally visited 13 states, Ladakh in the north, Kanyakumari in the south, Kutch in the west and Tripura and Mizoram in the east, besides Varanasi, Sangareddy, Beed, Gulbarga, Goa, Rajasthan etc in the centre.

What is the initiative for rural women and children?

Women quasi-judicial assistants are providing legal aid to women living in rural areas who are victims of domestic violence. As far as the children are concerned, efforts are being made to provide quality education to them, which is also their right under the Right to Education Act. Along with this, help is also being given to the children out of schools during the Kovid-19 period so that their education is not interrupted. There are also quasi-judicial aides making efforts for children with special needs.

Shouldn’t there be a permanent office for legal aid as is the case of a public prosecutor in every district?

Of course, it has been proposed to set up a permanent legal aid office in every district with a legal aid head who will be a senior advocate, assisted by lawyers with 15 years of practice.

Can’t permanent Lok Adalats be made on the same lines?

Of course, work is being done and to some extent there has been an arrangement for arbitration before litigation. That is, before the trial, the intervention is done to see the possibilities of settlement. In this regard two seminars were held in Lucknow and Allahabad, all the judges were in favor of Permanent Lok Adalat.

That is fine, but will the duty of providing legal aid to district judges be fixed on their accountability?

As I said if legal help is being given from the court then you are dependent on the lawyer. This lawyer should be of good quality, but for this you have to pay him good money, give him good facilities like Legal Book- AIR (Book of Supreme Court Judgments). We have spoken to AIR in this direction and they have agreed to make available AIR’s online legal aid library in every district legal aid clinic.

But seeking legal aid is a complex task as how a person will be treated by a lawyer when he is in jail. Is there any arrangement for doing his paperwork. Where there are too many prisoners and at some places very few, what is the arrangement for this?

This is exactly the system in jails. Let me give you the example of Gurgaon and Nagpur jails there an online system has been created where if the prisoner puts his thumb, his complete details will appear on the screen. Since when is he in jail, when is the next production, who is the lawyer, what should he do etc. This system is built in every jail. This allows him to talk to his family and lawyers who will help him prepare his case.

Any surprising personal experiences?

Yes, it has happened, when I went to Gurgaon Jail, I saw an online system in which complete details of prisoners were available. I asked the jailer who made it. So to my surprise, that system was created by a prisoner in jail. Later, the Haryana government implemented this system in jails across the state.

How sensitive are the prison authorities in sending the petitions of prisoners to the court and getting them legal aid?

The prison authorities are very sensitive, the jailers are taking a lot of initiative and the response of the jailers in helping the prisoners is very positive.

Are you satisfied with the work you have done on Legal Aid so far?

Yes, absolutely I am very satisfied. In the COVID-19 era, we were a little worried about how connectivity would be possible in the online system, but when the initiative was taken, the results turned out to be very positive, with everyone using online technology profusely and it yielded results. On November 14, we will all organize a function on this achievement together in the presence of the President.

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