‘At least 25 cases are being heard in each of the 24 legal aid clinics in Madurai every day’

Eighty-two-year-old Muneeswaran, a resident of Anna Nagar, has been running from pillar to post for the past three months to retrieve his property from the clutches of his three sons.

When his grievance was not redressed by police, he decided to approach the Free Legal Aid Clinic in Vilakuthoon here. The Legal Aid Clinic provided him the assistance of an advocate and the octogenarian is initiating legal action to recover his property, fraudulently appropriated by his sons.

At least 25 cases are being heard in each of the 24 legal aid clinics in Madurai every day, says Jacintha Martin, secretary of the Madurai District Legal Services Authority (MDLSA). The services offered by MDLSA are not confined just to legal aid alone, she adds.

According to Ms. Martin, a good number of the cases is non-legal in nature. The legal cases include civil disputes, criminal appeals and matrimonial disputes; whereas non-legal cases involve the non-issuance of birth and death certificates, ration cards, legal heir certificates and other documents.

On a few occasions, the legal aid clinics have arranged shelter for the mentally challenged who are abandoned by their families, as in the case of 20-year-old Azhagar. His mother had approached the legal aid clinic, which appointed an advocate to ensure that the youth got medical care from Government Rajaji Hospital before being shifted to a private trust.

The legal aid clinic also arranged for the medical treatment of a 24-year-old HIV-infected transgender.

As per the data available with MDLSA, in September alone a total of 1,039 cases were heard in the 24 legal aid clinics, of which 793 were legal and 246 non-legal. From January to September 2013, not less than 10,500 cases were heard in the clinics, Ms. Martin added.

S. Rameshkumar, a senior panel member of MDLSA, says an average of around 10 non-legal cases are addressed in each of the legal aid clinics every day. “For the non-legal cases, we send representations to revenue officials seeking issuance of certificates at the earliest,” he explains.

Ms. Martin claims that MDLSA pursues the matter with the revenue department until the certificates are issued to the litigants.

Irulayee, a resident of Ponnagaram, says she was tipped off by one of her neighbours who got a ration card by approaching MDLSA. “I was not aware of MDLSA until my neighbour told me about it. I lost my ration card a few years ago. My husband died recently and my son does not take care of me. I am hoping to get a new ration card through MDLSA since my earlier representations to the officials have gone unheeded”, Mrs. Irulayee said.

Seventy-year-old M. Manickam Ambalam of A. Vellalapatti approached the district police after he felt that he was duped of Rs.5 lakh by Bose, who promised to get him a shop on lease in Azhagarkoil. Bose neither fulfilled his promise nor returned the money.

Bose gained time for repaying the money in the presence of Melavalavu police. But he did not keep his word.

Mr. Manickam, a farmer, went to Superintendent of Police V. Balakrishnan, who directed him to the Free Legal Aid Clinic at the District Police Office.

The legal adviser heard both the parties. After prolonged negotiation, Bose agreed to return the money in three instalments. Mr. Manickam is a happy man as he has a written assurance from Bose.

“I had never heard of such a facility until the Melavalavu police sent me to the clinic,” Mr. Manickam said.

Like Mr. Manickam, many of the petitioners who come to the DPO and the Collectorate are unaware of the free legal aid clinic.

“The petitioner who comes to me for the first time is directed to go to the police station concerned. But when they return for the second time after not being satisfied with the police action, I send them to the legal aid clinic,” Mr. Balakrishnan said.

Out of the 150 to 200 petitions he receives on the petition days – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – at least 40 are related to property disputes.

“We can get a clarification on the legal issues, — for example, whether the complaint on a land-related issue is civil or criminal in nature — for further action,” he added.

S. Kasamuthu, one of the panel advocates at the DPO, said that property disputes among siblings and the status of widows inheriting ancestral property from in-laws were the cases mostly dealt with at the clinic.

“Here we focus on finer legal aspects and perusal of documents, for which the police have very little time. We are here for an amicable settlement between the aggrieved parties. If they agree, we get written statements from them. However, when the agreement is breached, they are free to approach the court. The legal aid clinics lessen the burden of the police and the courts,” he says.

The major advantage of the legal aid clinic is that it attempts to solve the problems through mutual understanding. “In cases of disputes among family members, there is a likelihood of the relationship among aggrieved people getting strengthened, unlike the break-up that happens after fighting cases in courts,” Mr. Kasamuthu notes.

The panel members of MDLSA visit the Madurai Central Jail at least three days a week to aid the economically disadvantaged prisoners who want to file appeals.

“The panel members interact with the prisoners and programmes are organised within the prison to create awareness among the prisoners of the free legal aid. We get at least 10 petitions from the prisoners every week. Most of the prisoners, who seek our aid, are the ones booked under petty offences such as theft”, Ms. Martin says.

R. Arivudainambi, superintendent of the Madurai Central Prison, told The Hindu that the prisoners are briefed about the free legal aid when they enter the jail. “The prison welfare officers also explain the provisions to them. We have arranged for free legal aid through MDLSA to file bail petitions for murder accused on a few occasions”, he adds.

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