Amidst a huddle of black-gowned lawyers, the bright salwar suits of Leena Devasthali, 54, and her daughter, Deepti, 29, provided a sharp contrast.
Sentenced to death by a trial court in 2007 for kidnapping and murdering a Pune-based doctor, the Devasthalis’ prospects, however, didn’t look that bright.
Worse, alleging that “lawyers manipulate (the) truth”, they argued their own appeal in the high court. For almost four weeks, Deepti, studying to be a doctor, picked holes in the prosecution’s arguments, her nasal voice swinging from syrupy sweet to strident.
On Wednesday, the court acquitted the Devasthalis of murder and reduced their death sentence to a life term for kidnapping.
In another courtroom, social worker Bhagwanji Raiyani, 71, stood arguing his public interest litigation, urging the government to regulate coaching classes.
Be it Raiyani, who has filed 91 cases challenging government policies, or Pretti Jaiin, who forcefully argued that filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar had raped her, non-legal, or ‘pro se’, litigants, are standing up for themselves in courtrooms across the city.
Many are doing it effectively. Malad-resident Pratima Lakhotia, 41, for instance, obtained a landmark ruling from the high court that recognised a spouse’s HIV+ status to be a ground for divorce.
Many reasons are spurring the trend. Lakhotia, who spent hours preparing and rehearsing arguments, was simply unhappy with her lawyer’s services.
Former police officer, YP Singh, successfully challenged his punishment transfer in 1997 because he trusted only himself to represent the facts correctly.
“I won the case in the Supreme Court after losing in the lower courts,” said Singh, who subsequently passed his law exam with a gold medal and now argues slum re-development cases.
But lawyers’ hefty fees is the prime reason.
“Every day, we receive complaints about lawyers charging exorbitant fees, said M.P. Rao, Bombay Bar Association’s honorary secretary, adding that fees range from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15 lakh a day.
The Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority, set up to provide free legal aid to those earning less than Rs 50,000 a year, also assists ‘pro se’ litigants. It received 10,776 applications last year, compared with 5,524 in 2006-2007.
“We guide people on where to file their cases and the Acts applicable, and even help in drafting their pleas,” said K.K. Sonawane, the Authority’s member secretary.
Similarly, an online database of judgments and Acts, an e-filing option and a helpline for tracking the status of cases are helpful, said the high court’s technical director Mohan Krishnan. Raiyani also conducts workshops to help citizens argue their own cases.
Judges, too, have become more patient.
“I filed hand-written applications without worrying whether they were technically correct, yet judges were often sympathetic,” Lakhotia said.
Lawyers opposing <pro se> litigants, too, have to re-think their strategy. In her 20-year career, Usha Kejriwal found the Devasthalis one of her most challenging opponents.
Their arguments were “meticulous and detailed,” she said of the duo who the prosecution said had executed the crime with surgical precision.