India Justice Report 2019: Only 15 million out of 1 billion eligible Indians provided legal aid services in last 14 years

Rintu Mariam Biju November 11 2019

The India Justice Report 2019 measures the capacity of four aspects of the justice system - the police, the prison system, the judiciary and legal aid - in each state, against its own declared benchmarks.

The report contains various important observations with respect to legal aid in terms of the functioning of district legal services authorities, paralegal volunteers in the system, diversity in the legal aid space, workload, budget, and infrastructure, amongst others.

The report observes that since 1995, only 15 million people have benefited from legal aid services in a country where over 80% per cent of 1.25 billion people are actually eligible for legal aid.

For the purpose of the study, legal aid services are not only restricted to representation in court cases, but also include spreading legal literacy, facilitating actualization of the entitlements of people under welfare laws and schemes, and the provision of advice and counselling. 

It is also observed that lawyers are not trained well enough to provide satisfactory solutions to the people. It also states that resources such as finance and human resources are not optimally or effectively utilized. In this regard, the report states,

"The lack of optimal financial management and well trained human resources, poor training of legal aid lawyers on their duties and responsibilities, inadequate performance monitoring and absence of mechanisms to gauge customer satisfaction hamper the functioning of LSIs to a great extent. A bigger concern has been ensuring the quality of services provided which is directly linked to the training, documenting, reporting and monitoring of legal aid providers. Monitoring and mentoring committees either don’t exist and if they do, their functioning is sub-par."

The prime observations made by the report with reference to the current legal aid system in India include the following:

Uneven organizational practices 

As of 2018, there were 664 district legal services authorities (DLSAs) and 2,254 sub-divisional/taluka legal services committees established across districts. However, states such as Tripura, West Bengal, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are yet to establish DLSAs in all their judicial districts.

It is also pertinent to note that with respect to full term secretaries, against 664 DLSAs, the number of sanctioned posts of full-time secretaries to DLSAs stood at 603, with a clear deficit of 61. The number of full-time secretaries actually in place was 525—a deficit of 139 to the number of DLSAs.

Another observation made in the study was that smaller jurisdictions such as Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram are yet to implement full-term secretaries, which plainly showcases organizational and structural disparities as far as DLSAs are concerned.

Another issue is the uneven distribution of paralegals. The report mentions that paralegals are an important link between legal services institutions (LSIs) and the community. However,

"To be effective they need to be trained, monitored and fairly compensated for their services." 

The report also states that as per 2019 data, there were 63,759 panel lawyers and 69,290 paralegal volunteers (PLVs) working with LSIs across the country.

Para-legal volunteers (PLVs) serve as the bridge between people and the legal aid system. 22 of 36 states and Union Territories average less than 10 PLVs per lakh population.”

Not enough women representatives

The study highlights the importance of gender diversity to reach out to more people. In this regard it states,

"The presence of a large number of women panel lawyers and PLVs is essential for reaching out to a constituency that is often under-served and faces socio-cultural barriers when they try to come forward for legal assistance."

On comparing the gender breakdown of panel lawyers, the report states the following,

Amongst panel lawyers, the gender breakdown is much less encouraging, only 18 per cent of them being women. Amongst the eighteen large and mid-sized states, Kerala ranks highest (40 per cent) followed by Karnataka (30 per cent) and Maharashtra at (27 per cent). Rajasthan, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh all have less than 10 per cent. Amongst the seven small states Meghalaya ranks the highest (54 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh lowest at (15 per cent.)”

Budget utilization problematic

Funds for LSIs are sourced through both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and state budgets. However, the report pertinently observed that according to the data collected in 2017–2018, many states had absolutely little to no fund allocation for LSIs. In this regard, the report reads,

In 2017–2018, six states and UTs including Jharkhand and Assam had no funds allocated from the state, whereas Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura saw less than 20 per cent being provided by the state governments.”

On a positive note, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh saw more than 80 per cent of their funds coming from the state governments.

Another important aspect is the utilization of funds. The report observed that in the same year, only five states actually managed to utilize more than 90 per cent of NALSA allocated funds, with Rajasthan (98 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (97 per cent), topping the list. On the other hand, UTs such as Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli spent the least, i.e. a mere 4 per cent of the funds allocated, followed closely by Lakshadweep (7 per cent).

The report also points out that only 16 states and Union Territories had spent over 50% of their total legal aid budget.

 Lok Adalats - Sharing the workload of courts

On the topic of effectiveness of Lok Adalats, the study reveals,

"In 2017–2018, countrywide Lok Adalats disposed 7.85 million cases. Of these, 5.92 million cases were disposed by National Lok Adalats (conducted by NALSA), 2.82 million of which (or, 48 per cent) were in the pre-litigation stage. Another 1.93 million cases were disposed by Lok Adalats held by SLSAs,of which 0.98 million (or, 51 per cent) were in the pre-litigation stage."

Among the 18 large and mid-sized states, the highest number of cases disposed at the pre-litigation stage was in West Bengal.

The chart below presents a graphic picture of how the different categories of states have performed during the period of 2017 - 2018

 

As depicted above, only the state of West Bengal witnessed praiseworthy results as compared to the other states in the effective disposal of cases by utilizing methods of alternate dispute resolution.  93.8% of the pre-litigation cases that were taken up were disposed of and 2.8% were not disposed of. The states of Mizoram and Sikkim also bore improving results in this aspect amongst the small states.

Infrastructure, a limited area

Infrastructure is a fundamental pre-requisite in the fulfilment of effective legal aid services, the report notes. The NALSA (Legal Services Clinics) Regulations, 2011 requires legal aid clinics be established in areas where people face ‘geographical, social and other barriers’.

Statistics in the report point out that a total of 14,161 clinics existed across around 597,000 villages. As of 2017, on average, one legal services clinic serves 42 villages. There are only eleven states and UTs where a legal service clinic covers, on average, less than 10 villages. One state (Arunachal Pradesh) and three UTs (Delhi, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands) don’t have a single legal service clinic.

Furthermore, various regulations mandate the setting up of legal services clinics in jails subject to financial availability, the study reveals. On this topic, the report observed,

Amongst the large states, Gujarat has the most jail legal services clinics—48 clinics in 27 jails: Punjab has 32 clinics in 26 jails; Chhattisgarh has 34 in 30 prisons. Kerala, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have less than half the number of clinics required. Jharkhand, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal do much better with clinics nearly matching the number of jails."

The study further states that the coverage of clinics to villages is quite poor making it unable to provide easily accessible legal assistance to every deserving person.

The report also highlights the importance of awareness of the law.

"The use of the legal aid machinery to spread legal awareness about the Constitution, rights and legal relationships between individual and the State, and individuals inter se is particularly desirable and valuable."

The chapter on Legal Aid concludes,

"Improved monitoring of quality legal assistance, evaluations of the needs of individuals and local communities, and their satisfaction with the services provided, would go a long way in realizing the true potential of the huge complex of legal services offered."

[Read the report]

India Justice Report 2019