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Above: Jharkhand Governor Droupadi Murmu lights the ceremonial lamp at the ILRF’s maiden conclave at Ranchi in 2016 in the presence of Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court Justice Virender Singh

By Inderjit Badhwar

Supreme Court judge Justice Madan B Lokur today occupies a singularly noteworthy position in addition to his exalted status in the highest court of the land. As the second seniormost judge, he now replaces his esteemed predecessor, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, as the executive chairman of NALSA. This development, as it should, merits the goodwill and blessings of all Indians who hold dear the concept of equal and speedy justice for all.

Earlier, CJI Gogoi, while addressing a youthful audience on the issue of access to justice, had already set the tone for a future course of action: “I am trying to make justice accessible while acting as executive chairman of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) for the last one year. I do not know how far I have succeeded. A different approach and a different thinking are needed for it and it will be forthcoming in the near future.”

In pursuance of this laudatory goal and continuity of approach, the India Legal Research Foundation (ILRF) volunteers its participatory support to Justice Lokur and NALSA. It may be of help to take a cue from a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report titled “Hope Behind Bars”.

Some of the key findings of the CHRI report are that per capita spending on legal aid in India is only Rs 0.75 (one of the lowest in the world), 14 percent of the total funds allocated to state legal services authorities remain unutilised and the legal aid scheme administered by NALSA is plagued by lack of accountability and quality. The report further said that almost 80 percent of India’s population is eligible for legal aid and while the NALSA framework is quite detailed, ac­tual delivery falls short.

The statistics maintained by NALSA convey a similar message—since its inception in 1987, only 1,67,11,477 people have benefited through various legal services authorities and from April 2017 to March 2018, just 8,22,856 people.

The aims of NALSA and ILRF converge. Set up under the National Legal Aid Services Authorities Act, 1987 (NALSA Act), NALSA is a central authority which works to provide legal aid to eligible litigants, establish legal aid clinics and organise Lok Adalats. The ILRF is a legal aid foundation which provides free and high-quality legal aid to those unable to afford it. It is part of the ENC media network, which produces India Legal magazine, India’s first politico-legal publication. It is a one-of-its-kind journalistic endeavour focusing on current issues of governance, law and policy, and constitutional contours. ENC’s broadcast arm is the path-breaking APN News, the 24×7 national TV channel.

These media outlets cover day-to-day court proceedings from all across India, with in-depth analyses by legal experts. We partner with NLU, Delhi, and NALSAR, Hyderabad, for undertaking socially beneficial projects and analysing our legal system along with recommending remedies. The ILRF has been active in helping the downtrodden sections of society from the day it started working towards attaining the constitutional objective of providing free legal aid in the spirit of Article 14 and Article 39A of the 42nd Amendment.

During the last two and a half years, we have successfully worked on thousands of applications. We have a team of volunteers in different states handling a variety of grievances from ordinary people who have nowhere else to turn. They also provide free legal assistance through their network of lawyers to the needy.

In addition, the ILRF campaigns actively to promote the rights, working environment and aspirational potential of women. It operates a popular pro bono monitoring programme in which successful women from across professions share their experiences and wisdom to eliminate gender bias.

The ILRF’s maiden conclave, focusing on the theme of “Access to Justice” was held in Ranchi in July 2016. It was inaugurated by Droupadi Murmu, the governor of Jharkhand. The Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court, Virender Singh, was the guest of honour. It was attended by justices of the state High Court, retired judges, eminent lawyers, former presidents of the Supreme Court Bar Association, law students and leading opinion-makers. The event received nationwide attention and media coverage.

With this editorial, we are taking the liberty of extending our services to NALSA through any joint initiatives such as seminars, dissemination of articles, special media events and coverage, teaching opportunities and outreach programmes they may wish to suggest.

Here’s the bitter truth about India’s ongoing battle for justice. It is out of reach for the country’s teeming millions. We will become the voice of voiceless litigants. One of the greatest gifts of freedom and liberty endowed to us by our Founding Fathers is the Access to Justice. These may be simple sounding words. But their beauty and spirit lie in their very simplicity. Access is another word for the “right to entry”, or the “right to use”. Justice means fairness, impartiality, righteousness, even-handedness, fair dealing, honesty, integrity.

As a wise jurist once said, it is “from this juridical principle of natural justice that human beings can derive the moral ammunition to strive for what each individual craves day by day: A Life of Dignity.”

Ours should be a collective effort of taking the law to the people. If, in accessing justice, the common man has to encounter barriers and impediments, the equality clause in our Constitution becomes no more than a promissory note! A paper tiger!

So, in a judiciary where access is gagged and the institutions which are responsible do nothing to remove the obstacles, such a system ceases to be an independent judicial system. As early as 1956, the apex court while interpreting Article 14 decided that our Constitution is not meant only for the elite, it is also for “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker”.

However, there is much more to be done in this regard and the ILRF has taken a small but necessary step in embarking upon this arduous journey—an onerous task with the clear vision of realising the first mission of Mahatma Gandhi: “To wipe every tear from every eye.”

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