“Ours is a strange country. The bigger the criminal, the bigger is the outrage. As we have seen before, the convict in a terror crime, who has failed up to the Supreme Court and also in his review, can get access to justice in a manner that we extend,” Chief Justice of India (CJI) Jagdish Singh Khehar said recently, an oblique reference to 1993 Bombay blast case convict Yakub Memon. What the CJI meant was the accused in any case, especially a criminal case, should not go unrepresented. In the same speech, the CJI asked legal volunteers to work for the victims of crime this year, saying he wondered what happens to the victims of rape or acid attacks or those who lose their bread earners, while the criminals got access to justice till the very end. The CJI asked National Legal Service Authority (NALSA), State Legal Services Authority and District Legal Service Authorities to send their para-legal volunteers to every trial court to inform the victims that their right to compensation is not closed.
On both counts, the CJI is spot on. Earlier this year, Amnesty International India (AII) filed RTI applications to every central and district jail in the country, and the replies revealed that legal aid system is largely dysfunctional. The legal rights programme, mandated by Centre, was not administered in a majority of jails. Several undertrials whom the AII spoke to said that they were not told that they were entitled to legal aid lawyers. Legal aid lawyers are poorly paid, and often over-burdened with cases. And there is no monitoring mechanism to evaluate the quality of legal aid representation in most states, wrote Leah Verghese, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International India, in Quint.
When it comes to compensation for victims, the story is the same. Earlier this year, the Bombay High Court pulled up the Maharashtra government for delaying the decision regarding grant of compensation to rape, acid attack and child abuse victims under the Manodhairya Scheme retrospectively. The court observed: “You [the government] are obligated to help these victims. It is your duty to ensure that they get proper counselling soon after the FIR is lodged and financial help is extended to them. You are not doing charity or doing them any favour by helping them.” Hopefully, the CJI’s plea will find support among the legal aid community.