Monday, April 22, 2024

Accessibility Factor

As the Supreme Court committee on access to justice for the differently-abled persons is in the process of assessing the ground situation, hopes are high that the CJI-initiated project will create conducive conditions for the target group.

By Sanjay Raman Sinha

Access to justice for the differently-abled persons is an area of concern which the Supreme Court is addressing, upfront. To enable the differently-abled persons to get access to their legal remedies, the Supreme Court at the behest of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud had constituted a committee to assess the shortcomings of the law dispensation process, especially at the apex court. The committee under Supreme Court judge Justice S Ravindra Bhat was asked to conduct an accessibility audit, extending to both physical as well as technology accessibility. The committee has circulated two sets of questionnaires to comprehend the difficulties faced by the differently-abled persons in their interface with the apex court. The aim is to make its physical and digital infrastructure more disabled friendly.

Justice Bhanwar Singh, former judge at the Allahabad High Court, put the initiative in perspective. He said: “It’s a good move to constitute a committee to assess access to justice for the differently-abled persons at the Supreme Court. The apex court had earlier showed concern by issuing directions to the central government that within three months, the latter should make a rule or a special scheme by which the help and protection of the disabled people can be ensured. It had also given a direction to the UPSC, state public service commissions as well as other examination-conducting bodies that they must provide the facility of a writer to every disabled person. The Supreme Court had also said that there is no need for registration of the disabled. If medical certificate is filed for being disabled, then giving full respect to it, the disabled should be given all the protection and help. Access to justice is a very important concern and thus this is considered a very big initiative.”

The government is bound by law to take care of access to justice for the differently-abled persons. In fact, Section 12(1) of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, says: “(1) The appropriate Government shall ensure that persons with disabilities are able to exercise the right to access any court, tribunal, authority, commission or any other body having judicial or quasi-judicial or investigative powers without discrimination on the basis of disability.” By imputing a judicial heft to the statutory guidelines, the Supreme Court has underlined the importance of the cause.

Way back in 2018, a suggestion was mooted by Rahul Bajaj, co-founder, Mission Accessibility, and senior associate fellow, disability rights, at VIDHI, for a facilitation committee which also includes talks on short-term measures. He said: “It has been my efforts for several years that measures should be taken in the Supreme Court, interface or physical or digital, to make it more disabled-people friendly. I wrote to several chief justices of India. When Justice Bobde was the chief justice, I wrote a representation to him and then to Justice UU Lalit when he became the chief justice. Now it’s CJI Chandrachud, so I’ve written to him too. It’s a delightful thing to mention that the CJI has taken the matter up for consideration and has formed an accessibility committee in the Supreme Court. It is a

step in the right direction and I hope that actual changes can be made and the Supreme Court processes are made more disabled-friendly.”

In July 2022, the Supreme Court observed in the Abhimanyu Partap Singh vs Namita Sekhon that practising law as a disabled person is extraordinarily difficult. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the disabled client has also to contend with an incompatible system. However, the conditions for the differently-abled persons at courts continue to remain difficult as it was in the past.

Sanjay Jain, professor, National Law School of India University and a visually disabled, said: “Access to justice for the differently-abled persons in court is very challenging. As we know physical buildings of courts are not easily accessible, technical websites of courts are accessible, but an attempt has been made and I think that improvement should be done in courts. The biggest thing is that in RPWD Act, 21 types of disabilities are mentioned. So, it’s not only about visually disabled and people on wheelchairs, but other differently-abled persons also will benefit from the initiative.”

India has a history of laws to protect the interests of the disabled. In fact, in 2007, India signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or UNCRPD agreement, and after ratifying it, the process of enacting a new law to replace the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, began in 2010. Then the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, was enacted to secure the rights of the differently-abled persons. As for funds, there is a provision for mobilization of national and state financial resources. There is also a Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment which looks after the interests of this category.

Justice Bhanwar Singh added a perspective. He said: “The main question is how justice can reach the disabled people. My suggestion is to constitute a committee at every district level which works as a legal aid committee. All matters related to the disabled people should be handled by the legal aid committee and direction should be given to them to accord priority to the disabled people, when it comes to lending them help. Apart from that, there should be a provision for a special court at every district level so that all matters pertaining to the disabled people are heard on a priority basis and they can easily get access to justice.”

The laws enacted for the empowerment of persons with disabilities emphasize individual autonomy and dignity, including freedom of choice. The Act emphasizes social inclusion and non-discrimination. The emphasis is on making empowerment effective at the ground level.

Bajaj, who is also a former law clerk of Justice Chandrachud and himself a practising lawyer, made his point borne out of experience. He said: “It has to be made sure that when a disabled person is going to the Supreme Court, he should be able to reach the courtroom on his own and be able to participate in his matter. One aspect of it is that the physical infrastructure of the Supreme Court can be made more disabled-friendly and it is necessary anyways, be it by making ramps, braille signs, etc. They should make sure that all the filings are present in an accessible format. It is important to have them in soft copy that is compatible with disabled friendly software.

“Another thing is that Supreme Court should audit its website to make sure that its digital infrastructure is fully disabled-friendly. When I was a junior under Justice Chandrachud in the Court in 2020-21, he supported me by making a few changes to his website. If in any matter there is a disabled litigant or a lawyer, they are provided with the option of live streaming which also includes video-conferencing so that they are not being jostled around in the courtroom .”

Law study for the blind is equally difficult. There is a paucity of law books in Braille. The study material is voluminous and the task of making it reader friendly for the visually-impaired is tough. Fresh graduates face discrimination in placements and then in professional life as well. It’s a tough world out there for the physically challenged.

Jain himself has faced the handicap, firsthand. He said: “Law study material for the visually challenged was not available at my time and it is still not available. The only difference is that at that time, making the material available in Braille was difficult and now many different colleges have braille printers. Maybe, some can find material in braille there. I think, it is the responsibility of the government to make available the Constitution of India or IPC or subjects like this in braille. The government press should publish it as necessary. In a judgment made by the Supreme Court in Ajay Sood case, Justice Chandrachud stated appropriately that the judgments should also be made accessible. The judgment available on the website should be in such a manner that it is accessible to the screen reader. However, there is a need for more development.”

The Court has always tried to protect the rights of the differently-abled persons. The Constitution as well as the Disabilities Act, 1995, prohibits discrimination in work and in accessing public facilities. Similar pronouncements have been made to promote and protect the rights of this special section. Now that the first phase of the Supreme Court-based committee is being implemented and views from a cross section of people, including several stakeholders, are being elicited, the next logical step would be to put in place new structures to promote access to justice for the differently-abled people.


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