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Towards complete legal literacy

It is a great irony that law students pay a lot of money to learn what everyone should have the right to know free. For, the law of the land does not apply only to lawyers just because they know it. The most Orwellian part of the story is that the state expects us to obey the law, whether we know it or not.

Legal awareness in India has largely been remedial, rather than preventive. Free legal aid, as it exists today, mainly focuses on the right to be represented by a lawyer in court. It has not been effectively extended to legal awareness programmes to enable people to be “aware” of the law. What we are left with is a peculiar situation in which the alleged “offender” comes to know about the law only after he has committed the “offence”. It is often forgotten that the purpose of law is to regulate the conduct of the members of society. If the people are absolutely unaware of what they can or cannot do, whose conduct are we trying to regulate? The situation is strikingly similar to a boxing match between a professional and an amateur, with the rider that the amateur has not been told the rules of the game.

The people themselves are also at fault. There is a widespread apathy among even educated people towards “knowing” the law. The general perception is that the law is too complex even to attempt understanding it. Unless one receives a summons from the court or a notice from the Income Tax Department, the common refrain is that one does not need to “know” the law. As a result, legal literacy in India ranges from absolute ignorance to utter confusion.

Finally, the role of the state has been far from satisfactory. Since Independence, there have been efforts to combat poverty, malnutrition and even illiteracy. However, there has been very little effort in trying to make people aware of the laws to which they are subject. The web of laws, ordinances, regulations and notifications being issued daily, apparently seek to compel us to act in a certain way. The laughable aspect is the assumption in every court or department of the government, that all of us “know” the law the moment it is published in the official gazette. I do not think I need to waste any words on how many lawyers, let alone the ordinary people of this country, care to read the contents of the gazette.

All these factors go into the creation of the sad reality of a legally illiterate India. Yet, the legal fraternity cannot escape from this unending blame game. Though there have been efforts to refine the law from within the ivory tower, precious little has been done to disseminate legal awareness among the masses. It may not sound nice, but till the time the awareness of law is restricted only to the black-robed fraternity to the exclusion of others, the road ahead for India is pitch dark. Most of the “non-law” people I meet feel relieved that they are spared the torture of reading thousands of pages of legislation and case laws. While indeed it is a nightmare for law students like me, the comfort of not knowing the law is a Kafkaesque dream. They may not know the law, but they are subject to it. In case they violate it, they are not allowed to plead that they did not know it. It is elitism of the highest degree to suggest that a few thousand law graduates every year are entitled to “know” the law, while all others are bound by it without being told what the law says.

Until we attain substantial legal literacy, one can expect violations of fundamental rights, torture by the police, bribery in the name of “fees”, and myriad incidents where justice seems like a pipe dream for many. Interpreting and twisting the law may well be the job reserved for jurists, but it is certainly a basic right of each one of us to know what the law is.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 11:00:21 AM |

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