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Challenge of uneven organizational practices in delivery of legal services across India

Legal aid ranking
Excerpts from the chapter “Legal aid: Justice for all?” by Nupur and Madhurima Dhanuka* in the study “India Justice Report: Ranking States on Police, Judiciary, Prisons & Legal Aid” published by Tata Trusts
***
The expanse of the legal-aid system’s mandate is such that almost 80 per cent of India’s over 1.25 billion population is eligible for free legal aid including women, children, disabled people, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, those with mental illnesses, victims of mass disaster or ethnic violence, persons in custody, etc. Yet, since 1995, barely 15 million people have been provided legal services and advice by legal services institutions (LSI) established all across the country under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (the Act).
These LSIs are functional at the national (1), state (36), district (664) and sub-divisional (2,254) levels. LSIs have also been setup at the Supreme Court (1) and High Courts (36). LSIs are regulated by the Act and a number of rules, regulations, guidelines and standard operating procedures. Every LSI should have a ‘front office’, where legal services are provided. Quality is intended to be kept under review through monitoring and mentoring committees mandated to review performance and ensure documentation is accurate and regular.
LSIs appoint individuals to provide legal services. These individuals, collectively known as ‘legal aid providers’, include panel lawyers, retainer lawyers, jail visiting lawyers, remand lawyers and community and convicts trained as paralegal volunteers. ‘Legal 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.
Thus, not all lawyers represent at court, some provide advice and counselling at the front office, in legal services clinics and at legal awareness camps. Others are attached to remand courts or are tasked with visiting jails to provide legal services. Even with the Act providing for a realistic framework within which the legal aid system must function, its effective implementation remains a concern in most 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.
There is also no system at the district, state or national level to assess the demand for legal aid in these divisions. This would be a valuable metric for planning. State-wise data compares state performance against certain clearly defined parameters and is indicative of specific implementation capabilities, however, like all data based analysis it has its limitations. With just thirteen indicators—the least among the four pillars of police, prisons, judiciary and legal aid—uniformly available information about legal aid delivery proved the hardest to access.
The biggest challenge in the implementation of legal aid services is the uneven organizational practices in the delivery of legal services across districts and sub-divisions. As of 2018, there were 664 district legal services authorities (DLSAs) and 2,254 sub-divisional/taluka legal services committees established across districts. At the district level, these are chaired by the district and sessions judge. A judicial offi cer is assigned as member-secretary.
Tripura, West Bengal, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are states that are yet to establish DLSAs in all their judicial districts. Since 2012 there has been an emphasis on appointments for full-time secretaries to DLSAs. Against 664 DLSAs, the number of sanctioned posts of full-time secretaries to DLSAs stood at 603—a deficit of 61. The number of full-time secretaries in place was 525—a deficit of 139 to the number of DLSAs. As of 2019, smaller jurisdictions such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Sikkim, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Nagaland, Daman and Diu, Puducherry, Lakshadweep are yet to sanction full-time posts.
A possible reason for this may be a shortage of judicial officers. Some others, including Manipur (5/9) and Assam (22/33), have sanctioned fewer posts than there are districts. Every other state has sanctioned all posts, barring Madhya Pradesh (51/50) and Gujarat (32/31) that have sanctioned more posts than DLSAs. Sanctioned does not necessarily imply the posts have been filled.
While seventeen states and UTs have none, nine states show varying levels of vacancies: 9 per cent (Tamil Nadu), 13 per cent (Gujarat), 18 per cent (Telangana), 28 per cent (Uttar Pradesh), 31 per cent (Madhya Pradesh), 35 per cent (Chhattisgarh), 41 per cent (Jammu and Kashmir), 60 per cent (Tripura), 73 per cent (Meghalaya). Naturally, it can be said that 9 of 10 jurisdictions that have not sanctioned any posts for DLSA secretary have 100 per cent vacancy.
The number of legal aid providers varies a great deal across states, and no uniform or standardized policies exist for regulating the number of appointments. As of January 2019, there were 63,759 panel lawyers and 69,290 paralegal volunteers (PLVs) working with LSIs across the country. In a country as vast as India, PLVs provide an extended workforce, that is able to take legal services to remote locations and to the marginalized.
In 2010, the Chief Justice of India set up a National Committee for Para-Legal Training and Legal Aid Activities. Pursuant to its vision, NALSA framed its Para- Legal Volunteers Scheme (2009), placing emphasis on the need for trained intermediaries between the common man and LSIs. As per NALSA’s Para-Legal Volunteers Scheme every DLSA should ideally have 50 active PLVs. This amounts to at least 33,200 PLVs across 664 DLSAs.
However, nine states/UTs have appointed less than the required numbers—Jammu and Kashmir (559/1,100), Uttar Pradesh (3,099/3,550), Nagaland (165/550), Assam (826/1,650), Meghalaya (425/550), Mizoram (315/400), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (3/50), Daman and Diu (59/100) and Chandigarh (31/50). These nine states and UTs account for about 5,500 PLVs. The remaining twenty-seven states and UTs account for about 63,000 PLVs, though by the prescribed ideal of 50 PLVs per DLSA, they should have 25,200.
In other words, these twenty-seven states and UTs, as a set, have more than twice the number of PLVs than they should ideally have; and PLVs seem to be clustered in the rest of the country in numbers much higher than suggested. As of January 2019, twenty-two states/UTs have less than 10 PLVs per 100,000 population, with Dadra and Nagar Haveli having the least (0.9), followed closely by Uttar Pradesh (1.6). At the other end of the spectrum, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh have 84.3 and 77 PLVs per 100,000 population, respectively.
Paralegals are a vital link between the LSI and the community, as well as an important resource embedded within it. To be effective they need to be trained, monitored and fairly compensated for their services. The present uneven distribution of paralegals suggests the need to survey local populations and look at the demand for legal services to determine optimum numbers and a rational expenditure on this valuable community asset.
However, despite the crucial role that they can potentially play, there are several criticisms of the PLV scheme: beyond the qualification of a minimum education, it is uncertain how they are chosen and on what criteria they continue to be in service. They are not utilized in a planned and structured manner which has a bearing on the sustainability of legal services programmes; rarely used to assess the legal needs of the community to which they belong, their training is occasional, poor and patchy; sometimes more appointments are made than assignments given to PLVs and at other times there are fewer PLVs than the basic minimum requirement.
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. Thirty-six per cent of PLVs (24,999 of total 69,290 PLVs) appointed are women. Six states/UTs— Daman and Diu (68 per cent), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (67 per cent), Lakshadweep (67 per cent), Goa (66 per cent), Kerala (66 per cent), Sikkim (52 per cent) had more than 50 per cent women PLVs, followed closely by Delhi (47 per cent). Bihar (22.3 per cent) and Uttar Pradesh (24.2 per cent) have the lowest percentage share of women PLVs.
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).
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*With Centre for Social Justice Ahmedabad, and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi, respectively

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