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Hope for undertrials without legal aid

The Delhi High Court has acquitted Shyam Sunder, a dowry death accused convicted by a lower court way back in 1999, taking strong note of the fact that he did not get proper legal aid, reports Harish V Nair.

delhi Updated: Jan 26, 2009 00:41 IST
Harish V Nair

The argument that Ajmal Kasab, the lone militant captured alive after the Mumbai terror attacks, stands to benefit because he is not getting a lawyer is not without any basis. Here is the latest example.

The Delhi High Court has acquitted Shyam Sunder, a dowry death accused convicted by a lower court way back in 1999, taking strong note of the fact that he did not get proper legal aid.

On January 14, 1994, Sunder's wife Rajni's body was found on the terrace of his house in Bapa Nagar four years after their marriage.

The trial court convicted him based on Rajni's mother and brother's deposition. Denying all charges, Sunder, a financially weak tea stall owner, maintained his wife was driven to suicide frustrated over a long-pending ailment.

In his appeal before the HC, Sunder contended the legal aid lawyer provided by the lower court never appeared in court and the trial proceeded without the proper cross-examination of Rajni's mother and brother, "causing great prejudice to him".

Sunder, who got bail a year after his conviction, had to cross-examine them himself on the court's directions.

Perusing the records, Justice Sunil Gaur of the High Court found that the evidence was completely silent as to what happened during one-and-half years before her unnatural death. Observing that the trial court gravely erred in overlooking the vital aspects, the judge set aside the judgement.

Acquitting Sunder, Justice Gaur directed judges of subordinate courts to provide experienced legal aid lawyers who are serious about their job to unrepresented accused facing trials for serious offences. He sent a copy of this order to the district judge to "sensitise all trial court judges in matter of providing legal aid counsels".

Sunder's lawyer submitted that in trial for crimes like murder, rape and dowry death, "immature legal aid counsels are randomly provided by the trial courts" causing serious prejudice to financially weak accused who can't afford a lawyer.

"A word of caution, which needs to be sounded to the trial courts, is that the free legal assistance to be provided has to be adequate. Meaning thereby, in the sessions trial, legal aid counsels of reasonable standing and experience ought to be provided to unrepresented accused and in any case, trial court should desist from examining material witnesses, in the absence of legal aid counsels," said the High Court.