Making justice accessible to the poor

March 30, 2010 12:47 pm | Updated November 18, 2016 10:25 pm IST - Chennai

Amartya Sen in his recent book An Idea of Justice commends the comparative method of discoursing on key questions of social justice. Even as one finds Sen's suggestion unexceptionable, its practical application is difficult because of the paucity of comparative material. To be precise, the Anglo-American outlook on key social questions occupies so much of the knowledge space that it virtually blocks every other perspective. This book breaks this embargo as it deliberates on the accessibility of justice to the poor through essays which specially dwell on the UNDP-supported experiments.


The 18 essays in this collection have been organised around five themes: access to justice, first, in the international context and then in plural legal systems; the link between public interest litigation and access to justice; the relationship between democracy, governance and justice programming; and the developments and obstacles encountered in the implementation of various regional initiatives. And the editors have provided an introduction to each of these segments, apart from the one for the entire group. This methodology has, apart from ensuring that no contribution suffered editorial neglect (because a succinct summary of each essay is given by the editors), rendered the work reader-friendly in the sense that one can easily zero in on the theme of one's interest. However, in opting for the descriptive, the editors have lost an opportunity to interlink the various contributions and meld them into a composite entity. As a consequence, the book remains just a collection of discrete essays.

The book is truly a mine of information on the state of justice in various countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Central and Eastern Europe. In some cases, these rich descriptions are accompanied by a deep analysis. For example, the piece by Geof Budlender is a fascinating analysis of how, in South Africa, public interest lawyering combined with work at the level of the public interest movement and subverted an unjust system. Jill Cotterell and Yash Ghai point to the difficulties of using the Constitution as an instrument of empowerment in Kenya, where large sections of the people are poor and marginalised. And Upendra Baxi provides the overarching conceptual framework to these country-wise descriptions by bringing out the multiple connotations of globalisation and the resultant interplay between neo-liberalism and access to justice.

Since authentic information must come ahead of analysis, the material provided in the book can form the basis for a comparative study and assessment of developments vis-à-vis access to justice in India. Thus, for example, the liberalisation of locus standi, a precursor to the concept of ‘public interest litigation' (PIL), has come to be regarded as ‘routine.' Both the legal profession and the lay people have ceased to appreciate the radical import of this development. In order to continue reflecting on legitimate liberalisation, it may be appropriate to keep examining the purpose of the standing rule and to study case law where the refusal to liberalise is manifestly unjust. The essay on ‘PIL in Nigeria' provides umpteen such examples.


In India, the colonial lineage of the legal system provokes questions about its relevance to the poor and the dispossessed who neither understand the language nor the practice of the courts. This situation often causes people to hark back to institutions of community justice. Such nostalgia is far from uniform on account of the sexist and casteist decisions that are pronounced by many an institution of the non-state legal system. The need to adopt a nuanced approach is ably brought home by Julio Faundez, who in his analysis of the community justice institutions in rural Peru exposes the limitations of that system and also explains how it often helps in restoring people's faith in a political system. That there is no right without a remedy is a clichéd proposition of rights jurisprudence. The 13th Finance Commission has earmarked Rs.5,000 crore during the five-year period, 2010-15, for improving the justice delivery system. If this allocation is to yield the intended result, it is imperative that those involved in drawing up action plans stop recycling worn-out ideas and come up with something fresh and innovative. This book could be of great assistance in such a reform process.

JUSTICE FOR THE POOR — Perspectives on Accelerating Access: Edited by Ayesha Kadwani Dass and Gita Honwana Wench; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 895.

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