‘Good quality legal aid possible only if senior lawyers join outreach drive’: SC judge justice Uday U Lalit

Justice Lalit has a vision – to make access to justice not just a slogan but a reality for the person living in the remotest part of the country.
Justice U U Lalit interview: ‘Good quality legal aid possible only if senior lawyers join outreach drive’
Justice U U Lalit interview: ‘Good quality legal aid possible only if senior lawyers join outreach drive’
Updated on Nov 14, 2021 04:44 AM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has been in a power-drive mode ever since justice Uday U Lalit took over as its executive chairperson in June this year. New records were made in disposal of cases in Lok Adalats as the Supreme Court judge infused renewed vigour and use of technological tools to facilitate settlement of cases without overstretched trials. Justice Lalit has a vision – to make access to justice not just a slogan but a reality for the person living in the remotest part of the country. In his interview to Hindi Hindustan’s Shashi Shekhar and Shyam Suman, the judge, who is in line to become the Chief Justice of India in August 2022, highlights the achievements of NALSA and the need to spread awareness, besides improving the quality of legal aid.

How difficult was it to initiate the work as NALSA’s chairperson during the Covid-19 pandemic?

It was virtually impossible to have physical interactions with officials of NALSA during the pandemic. Therefore, I immediately started having day-long interactive sessions with chairpersons of state-level services authorities and committees virtually to come to a common platform on areas that we needed to focus on. Following several rounds of deliberation, we were able to devise what is called a common module after identifying the major challenges before us.

What emerged as chief areas of concern for NALSA that was set up to ensure fair and meaningful justice to the marginalised and disadvantaged sector?

There were three or four issues that we could zero in on. First, we found out that legal aid in criminal cases constituted just about 1% of total cases. At a pre-arrest stage, legal aid cases constituted not even 1% of the total 1%. Therefore, the entire apparatus of legal aid seems to come to the rescue of a man only after his arrest. Why? We realised that awareness is something which is terribly lacking. We then took several measures. We got in touch with the Union ministry of home affairs to see that all first information reports (FIRs) give information that every suspect or accused is entitled to free legal aid, which can be secured through legal aid services clinics, etc. The MHA agreed and such instructions were issued to the home departments of all the states. FIRs now have such endorsements for awareness of those fearing arrests or arrested. We also said that all police stations should display information about free legal aid and the MHA has agreed to this.

To spread awareness in rural areas, we had meetings with the department of post and telegraph and they have also agreed that every post office will display such information. Magistrates have also been asked to ensure that all those being produced before them in custody are provided legal aid before their cases are taken up. We are also ensuring those in jails get legal aid to move appropriate petitions and applications before courts. When I visited Cherlapally prison in Hyderabad, I saw inmates getting psychological help to ensure mental well-being. We also sent NALSA director Puneet Sehgal to Bulandshahr prison in Uttar Pradesh in July to collect inputs about capacity of prisons and prison management systems so that we can bring about necessary reforms for the inmates.

Are there any special programmes for awareness and assistance to women and children?

This is an area that has drawn our serious attention. We need to have para legal volunteers who can help women in the rural setups to raise their voice against domestic violence so that adequate legal aid can be provided. For children, we are focussing on providing them good quality education as enforcement of their constitutional right to education. For juveniles who are in conflict with law, we are going to focus on continuation of their education, besides access to rights as per the law. We are also mulling programmes for children with special needs in order to see that there is an inclusive setup.

How has the endeavour to spread awareness worked so far?

Spreading awareness is the most important step. In July this year, we had to organise the first Lok Adalat after I took over. During discussion, it was agreed that before the cases are considered in Lok Adalats, litigants and parties should be contacted so that they come prepared with terms of amicable settlements and the disputes can be laid to rest in just one sitting. We could, thus, settle 2.9 million cases in Lok Adalats held in July. This was as against the previous highest of 1.4 million cases. We utilised the virtual platform and technological tools to our advantage. While we initially thought that disposal of 2.9 million cases in July could be a result of the backlog of the Covid period, we were pleasantly surprised when we disposed of more than 4.2 million cases in the Lok Adalats that were held in September.

What are your views on the quality of legal aid?

There must be good quality legal aid. And good quality legal aid will be ensured only if senior advocates and established lawyers become part of the legal outreach programmes. People don’t come for legal aid because they are not assured of good quality assistance. If good seniors get associated, it will always ensure that. If a lawyer’s ability does not inspire confidence in a litigant, then however strong your outreach programmes are, they are not going to fructify in actual rendering of legal aid in court-based litigation. Some high courts call for records in cases where lawyers appeared as pro bono when they are considered for being designated as senior advocates. That kind of emphasis must be everywhere. We are also working on a module where a senior lawyer and a junior lawyer can be bracketed together in certain kinds of cases for a more effective representation.

Has NALSA been able to reach every nook and corner of the country?

As part of this programme, today, every village has been covered by our legal services authority. I have visited 13 states personally. I visited Ladakh in the north, Kanyakumari in the south, Kutch in the western front and Agartala and Mizoram on the eastern front. I must congratulate all persons who are part of the legal services. To commemorate 75 years of Independence of our country, NALSA devised a six-week long pan-Indian legal awareness and outreach campaign. In the last three phases, between October 2 and November 7, we have visited more than 1.5 million villages through door-to-door visits, interacting with around 630 million people and organising 464,000 legal awareness programmes. This programme culminates on November 14. We will galvanise all our resources and manpower in action and will reach every nook and corner by then.

In a country as vast as ours, how do you see law colleges and students playing a role in the legal outreach programmes?

In medical colleges, we have internship programmes that contemplate giving back to society whatever you have learnt. But there is no such internship in law colleges. Rather than making it compulsory, we got in touch with the Bar Council of India (BCI) with an idea that every law college adopt three talukas in the vicinity and send their law students as participants in the legal outreach programmes. Budding lawyers’ horizons are ever-expanding. If you indoctrinate law students, when they become lawyers, they are the surest sort of crop for you to induct in your legal aid service clinics. Fresh talent will keep coming in. The BCI has accepted this suggestion and has given us the list of colleges.

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Monday, January 24, 2022