‘15% of funds allocated to State legal services stay unused’

States a CHRI report on legal aid for persons in custody; report launched by former Law Commission chief Justice A.P. Shah

Published - September 10, 2018 01:43 am IST - New Delhi

 (From left) Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) international director Sanjoy Hazarika, NALSA director S.S. Rathi, Justice A.P. Shah, Justice S. Muralidhar and report author Raj Bagga during the launch of the report on Sunday.

(From left) Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) international director Sanjoy Hazarika, NALSA director S.S. Rathi, Justice A.P. Shah, Justice S. Muralidhar and report author Raj Bagga during the launch of the report on Sunday.

It is a myth that the legal service authorities, entrusted with the task of providing free legal aid to anyone in need, do not have money, said Delhi High Court judge Justice S. Muralidhar on Sunday.

‘Quality lawyers’

“The reality is that they are not spending all the money they have,” Justice Muralidhar said, emphasising the need to hire quality lawyers to improve the legal representation given to the poor and the marginalised.

Speaking at the launch of a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report, titled Hope Behind Bars? , on legal aid for persons in custody, Justice Muralidhar emphasised the need for “incentivising” lawyers who are on the panel of legal service authorities.

The report, launched by former Law Commission Chairman Justice A.P. Shah, revealed that about 15% of the total funds allocated to state legal service authorities remain unutilised.

‘Access to justice’

Justice Shah also stated that “access to justice is the most basic human right” and emphasised the need for competent legal aid lawyers providing effective legal representation.

‘Major concerns’

Justice Muralidhar pointed, “One of the major concerns is the feedback by users of this system — that the lawyer who is representing them is inexperienced...”

“Terror-related offences, murder and rape are the most sensitive cases. And acknowledging that the majority of the accused are from economically weak section of society who cannot afford legal representation, it becomes very critical for us to have lawyers with sufficient experience,” he added.

Justice Muralidhar said if legal aid panel lawyers are paid reasonably good fees, “excellent lawyers” will be interested in taking up the job.

“Pay the same fees to legal service lawyers as you pay to the government lawyers,” he said.

He remarked, “My earlier study showed that the majority of the budget is utilised to pay salaries of people who have been working for the legal service authorities, whereas it should be paid for legal services itself.”

Justice Shah also highlighted that “many prisoners are unaware of the status of their cases as well as their basic human rights”. Justice Muralidhar added that the more the case material is in the local language, the better it is for the litigants.

Expenditure on legal aid

Report author Raja Bagga pointed out that the per capita expenditure on legal aid in India is just ₹0.75. He said presently there is no national scheme which establishes a mechanism to provide legal aid at police stations.

At the outset, CHRI international director Sanjoy Hazarika said the central focus of legal aid should be on “rights and constitutional justice delivered on time”.

There are 1,401 jails in India and each jail should have a legal aid clinic. The CHRI received information through RTIs on existence and functioning of jail legal aid clinics (JLACs) from 659 jails. Of these, 606 had constituted JLACs.

Appointment of panel lawyers is the primary prerequisite of legal service institutes. CHRI’s RTI data revealed that there are 61,593 panel lawyers in the country, with five panel lawyers per 1 lakh population. One-sixth or 10,216 of the panel lawyers are appointed in Tamil Nadu.

The report stated that six States — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal — combined, have appointed more than half the panel lawyers.

CHRI’s report stated that most districts either did not maintain data on representation and outcome, or did not provide the same. Of 252 districts that appointed panel lawyers, only 199 provided information about cases taken up by panel lawyers.

Of these districts, 32 replied that none of the panel lawyers there took up single case throughout the year. Seven of these districts belonged to Madhya Pradesh and six to Bihar.

In districts which maintained and provided this information, there were 1,911 bail releases and 1,097 acquittals.

“With panel and retainer lawyers taking up almost more than 30,000 cases, these numbers appear inadequate and are indicative of lack of documentation,” the report said.

There is no effective tracking of the work undertaken by a legal aid lawyer, after he/she is appointed, it added.

The total fund allocated to State legal service authorities is ₹257 crore, of which National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) allocated 31% (₹79 crore), State governments allocated 61% (₹156 crore), and miscellaneous funds accounted for 8%. Thus, as per the report, ₹37 crore (15%) of the entire amount remain unutilised.

Kerala, Maharashtra and Sikkim, in total, were allocated a third of the entire amount, while Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab received most funds from NALSA.

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