Making ease of justice a reality
Address the gaps in the judicial and police system to ensure all undertrials can access legal rights
A new dimension was added to an ongoing conversation on the right of undertrials to speedy bail this week when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi underscored the impo-rtance of quality legal aid lawyers in helping incarce-rated people, especially those from marginalised communities, access their legal rights. Speaking at a conference, the PM stressed that ease of justice was just as important as ease of business, and exhorted the judiciary to speed up the process of releasing undertrials. The remark came on a day Supreme Court (SC) judge justice DY Chandrachud underlined the importance of preserving individual liberty in an address to judicial officers and Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, at another event, shone light on the crucial link between socioeconomic status and access to legal remedies.
The proportion of undertrials in the country’s prison population, at around 75%, is one of the worst in the world. There are three reasons for this: One, the tendency of the police and law enforcement agencies to use their powers of arrest, sometimes without proper investigation and often against people who are either socioeconomically marginalised or face significant barriers in accessing their legal rights. Two, an overburdened lower judiciary that doesn’t have the time to consider a person’s bail arguments carefully, or allots only a few minutes before agreeing with the prosecution in extending their detention. The government told Parliament earlier this year that of the 47 million cases pending before courts, 41 million were in district and subordinate courts, showing that the problem is concentrated at the first port of call. And three, the overstretched legal aid system that functions with little incentive for lawyers to fight on behalf of their clients or oversight to ensure that someone’s right to a counsel is not being violated.
As this newspaper has noted before, addressing these gaps requires strong political will and judicial resolve. The executive and the judiciary need to work in tandem to transform the mindsets of the lower courts, train the police and other agencies to move away from their default adversarial position to bail, and effect institutional changes that bolster legal aid and enhance judicial infrastructure. The words of the highest political and judicial authorities of the land this week hold out hope that soon, the only people condemned to jail time will be those convicted after adequate and fair opportunities to defend themselves.