To be able to deliver appropriate legal services to the rural and tribal communities, we need an alternative delivery system with a different model of legal service providers

Delivery of legal services to the rich and the corporate class is organised not through individual lawyers but through a series of networked law firms. These firms employ hundreds of lawyers and domain experts all over the country to provide highly specialised single-window services to their clients, of course at prices determined by the market. The middle class, which cannot afford their services, go to individual lawyers or publicly-funded legal aid services organised under the Legal Services Authorities Act. In this scheme of things, it is the poor and marginalised rural and tribal communities who are left out. They suffer injustice or seek justice through informal systems, including the so-called “khap panchayats.” It is this sort of situation prevailing in the countryside that provides a fertile ground for the exploitation of the poor and for the growth of extremist forces, undermining the rule of law and constitutional governance.

Myth of legal aid

The 1973 Expert Committee on Legal Aid, titled “Processual Justice to the People,” which eventually led to the enactment of the Legal Services Authorities Act, discussed the futility of the court-centric litigative aid to the poor and marginalised sections, and recommended a series of alternative strategies. Obviously, the emphasis was on legal empowerment and mobilisation, preventive and strategic legal services intended to avoid victimisation, and the development of a public sector in the legal profession capable of responding to the problems of the rural and tribal communities. Unfortunately, when the legal aid law was enacted, the focus again was on assigning a lawyer to the needy client who took the task in a traditional style of protracted litigation with its attendant costs, uncertainty and delay — much to the dismay of the poor. Moreover, the system was premised on three assumptions which were contrary to ground realities — that the victim was aware of her rights and knew how to approach courts; that legal aid offices were available in far-flung villages and tribal settlements; and that the lawyer assigned had the right values, attitudes and competence to do a professional job appropriate to the justice needs of the rural/tribal population. These assumptions did not hold good in a majority of villages and, as such, conventional legal aid became irrelevant to the rural population. Language and communication compounded the situation, alienating the marginalised from a court-centric justice system. One alternative the Legal Services Authorities Act provided was the “Lok Adalat”, which lawyers disliked. The judges, honourable exceptions apart, turned it into an exercise to reduce arrears in courts through what some people call “forced settlements or hurried justice.”

Nonetheless, the Lok Adalat did serve the cause of justice for those who could reach the court despite all the odds. For others, legal aid had very little to offer. The Supreme Court did help them in a big way in the 1980s and the 1990s through the instrument of public interest litigation (PIL), which later lost its importance because of wide abuse by the urban elite and vested interests. Although it is difficult to generalise the legal needs of the rural poor because of the diversity of population, the need for food, shelter, education, health and work are admittedly the priority. The Constitution has left it to the legislature and the executive to progressively realise these needs through laws, schemes and special measures.

At the same time, the Constitution promises to all its citizens equality of status and opportunity, as well as equal protection of the law. Finding that large sections of the poor are unable to fulfil their basic needs even after decades of democratic governance, the Supreme Court sought to interpret socio-economic rights (Directive Principles) as civil and political rights (Fundamental Rights), compelling the state to come forward with laws empowering the poor with rights enforceable under the law. The Right to Education Act, the Food Security Act, and the Employment Guarantee Act were promising initiatives in this direction. However, the poor continue to be at the receiving end of an indifferent administration because of the difficulties in accessing justice through conventional legal aid.

We, therefore, need an alternative delivery system with a different model of legal service providers in rural and tribal areas. How can one fix the land rights of the poor when they have neither ‘pattas’ nor other valid documents? How do water rights and forest rights get protected from exploitation? What happens to government-sponsored schemes for food, sanitation, health and employment, aimed at alleviating the misery of the poorest of the poor? How to ensure that children are in school and are not abused and exploited? What can be done to prevent atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in villages, and their forcible displacement? Where do they get credit for their livelihood activities and how are we to prevent victimisation in the process? Do they have fair market access for their produce? What happens to the bio-diversity of rural and tribal areas? How best to preserve and protect traditional knowledge and other intellectual property rights of the rural poor?

What about the labour rights of the unorganised rural poor? How are the rights of farmers to be protected against profit-hungry multinationals’ monopoly on seed, fertilizer and pesticide business? Are the villagers being exploited by state agencies like police, forest officials, banks, revenue officials and mining lobbies with impunity because of the inaccessibility of the justice system? Why is it that the Gram Nyayalaya Act, supposed to extend quick and cheap justice to the rural poor, is neglected by lawyers and judges?

Need for an alternative

When these questions were raised in a professional development workshop recently at Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, the consensus was that we need an alternative model of legal service delivery to rural and tribal communities, for which a new pattern of legal education needs to be developed. The mainstream law schools are not clear in their mission. Legal educators blindly follow the Bar Council-prescribed court-centric curriculum, producing law graduates unfit to serve the justice needs of the tribal and rural communities. With such advocates, even a well-intentioned legal aid scheme cannot deliver justice to the marginalised sections.

The Bilaspur Workshop evolved a framework of an alternative LLB curriculum for the education and training of legal service providers, appropriate to rural and tribal needs. While the mandatory part of the BCI curriculum is accommodated, the alternative model identified over 40 subjects relevant to rural needs to be included in the optional component of the curriculum. However, the workshop felt that the new type of legal service providers proposed under the alternative model is not distinguished on the basis of knowledge of law only, but in terms of a different set of skills, attitudes and values relevant to the rural/tribal communities. It was proposed that the final year of the five-year LLB programme be devoted to experiential learning through social justice and legal aid activities in rural areas under the supervision of NGOs, self-government authorities, collectorates, and legal aid committees besides law school professors. The experiential learning is through clinical courses developed by law schools for appropriate credits.

Lawyers’ cooperatives

Students seeking to set up practice in rural areas will form themselves into what may be called lawyers’ cooperatives or rural law firms, and train in advocacy before public bodies, administrative authorities, Gram Nyayalayas and regulatory agencies, besides courts and tribunals. They will be assisted by trained para-legals from among school dropouts and social activists of the area. The fee for each legal service will be fixed and notified by firms and they will be affordable. These rural law firms will be organised professionally on the lines of urban law firms in terms of technology and quality of services. Cheap, prompt and reliable services will be the hallmark of rural law firms. The law school will give the successful candidates not only an LLB degree but also a diploma in rural legal practice, which will distinguish them from the rest.

It will be the endeavour of law schools adopting this curriculum to assist the graduates to set up their practice in rural and tribal areas, organisationally and financially. Towards this end, the law school will approach the large urban law firms to extend their help as part of their corporate social responsibility. Besides, State governments and the National Legal Services Authority will be asked to give them subsidy in locating their offices in villages and recognising them as public defenders for identified services. Some law schools in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and northeastern India have shown interest in adopting this model of legal education. The immediate problem, of course, is to find the right kind of teachers who can deliver under this alternative curriculum. To meet this challenge, there is a proposal to offer a one-year diploma in Law Teaching and Research to teachers of law schools in these States, with a view to augmenting the available resources.

To conclude, the Bilaspur Declaration offers the hope that Indian legal education will turn round and look at the constitutional mandate on responding to the unmet justice needs of the large body of rural and tribal communities in the near future. Professions are, after all, for the people and no profession can survive without their trust and support. The earlier this is recognised by the organised Bar and the government, the better it will be for the country and the professions themselves.

(Professor Madhava Menon is IBA Chair on Continuing Legal Education at National Law School of India, and a Member of the Advisory Council to the National Mission on Justice Delivery and Legal Reform, Government of India.)

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