Our duty to ensure no one is deprived of legal assistance: Uday Umesh Lalit
Supreme Court justice Uday Umesh Lalit says the time has come for the leaders in society to use their abilities to ensure that no person is deprived of legal assistance due to financial or any other disability
Not transgenders, nor people with disabilities, and not those who are financially strained – no one should be deprived of legal assistance, Supreme Court justice Uday Umesh Lalit said on Saturday at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.
“This is a podium where leadership is the crux of the matter, and if these are distinguished persons who matter the most in their respective fields, it is through you that I wish to pass on the message to get associated with legal aid framework…Lend your talent to those who require legal aid. It is just one or two percent of your work, but that will give a sense of confidence,” said justice Lalit, who is in line to become the Chief Justice of India in August 2022.
The time has come for the leaders in society to use their abilities to ensure that no person is deprived of legal assistance due to financial or any other disability, he said. He also talked about the need for society where a transgender person should not be discriminated against in any manner, including the right to be buried in a common burial ground, and prisoners who end in depression should be provided counselling to be given hope beyond their punishment.
“If we consider it is our duty that no person should be deprived of legal assistance merely because of financial or other disability, then as fellow citizens, for an inclusive setup, the motto of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) – the apex body providing legal aid to marginalized – will be successful if we make our contribution in whichever way possible,” justice Lalit said.
Later, interacting with HT’s national legal editor Utkarsh Anand, justice Lalit, who is also the chairperson of NALSA, spoke about the challenge of integrating transgender persons into the mainstream of society despite the top court’s landmark decision of 2014 securing for the third gender a legitimate place and a legal recognition in society.
Recounting an instance from Kanyakumari where local residents prevented transgender people from burying their dead, justice Lalit underscored how NALSA, through its state legal aid body, got an opportunity to ensure a separate burial place for transgender persons.
“But I would say that is only half success. A separate burial ground otherwise means maintaining your identity in a separate way. It should be part of the same (common) burial ground. Where inclusiveness will step in, we will see the results at every juncture,” he said.
Justice Lalit added that NALSA has paralegal volunteers who are transgenders and some of them are most competent when it comes to engaging with the marginalized sections of society to spread awareness about their legal rights and help them fight litigation in courts.
Justice Lalit also spoke about how depression affects the psyche of criminals, driving them to commit more crimes, which makes it important to have psychological counselling in prisons across the country.
Sharing an instance from his visit to a jail in Secunderabad, the second most senior judge in the top court said that the proportion of prisoners who go back to jail after committing further crimes was nearly 6-7%. After counselling and psychological support was provided to these prisoners, this percentage was brought down to a negligible 1%.
“The moment sentence is handed down to convicts, that person enters the realm of depression. They become s so depressed that they lose faith in everything. That depression is something that needs to be addressed,” justice Lalit said, adding that NALSA will be adopting such a model in its legal aid outreach programme.
At the event, justice Lalit further underscored the importance of virtual hearing of cases which could reduce pendency of cases.
“In the physical world, before the advent of coronavirus pandemic, the maximum number of cases disposed of on a given date was 1.4 million by Lok Adalats (out of court settlement of cases through mediation). In September 2021, we could dispose 4.2 million cases through Lok Adalats (using virtual mode).” Hearing of cases through virtual platform establishes a four-way communication between the district legal service authority, those sitting in jails, their relatives, and lawyers, he added.
Justice Lalit said that NALSA has undertaken several awareness campaigns to reach legal rights awareness to the masses, covering 700 million people in 1.9 million villages in the country, as part of a recent six-week outreach programme from October 2 to November 14.
But “mere awareness will not guarantee everything,” he added. “Those rights need to be fructified and taken to their logical conclusion…A confidence must be built (in the mind of every person seeking legal aid), that even if I enter through the gates of legal aid, my case will not be botched, but handled with that same expertise and command (as it would have been) if I were to engage the services of a lawyer on regular basis,” he said.
This confidence, justice Lalit added, can come only if leading senior advocates are brought within the fold of legal aid. “Once there is confidence in legal aid machinery, only then awareness (of legal aid) can bear fruit…If that flame is taken through the hands of senior counsels, it will lead to its destination and show us greater light.”
NALSA, under justice Lalit has been focusing on providing better and more legal aid. Having been a leading lawyer at the bar prior to his elevation as judge of the Supreme Court in 2014, justice Lalit has begun to take steps to get the best legal minds involved in providing legal aid by forging associations with bar associations and law schools.
“It is a very disturbing situation that out of the total cases pending in the country, only 1% of cases are under the belt of legal service authorities,” justice Lalit said, explaining that this is at odds with the number of poor people in India. “We found, perhaps, this is due to lack of awareness and complete ignorance of the (legal aid) apparatus. This shackle regarding lack of awareness has to be broken.”