NEW DELHI — In June, the Union government launched its new Tele-Law initiative to improve access to justice in India to rural communities. The program includes free legal advice via video conferences and training of local women as paralegal volunteers.
Several challenges limit equal access to justice in India. Costly litigations are unaffordable to many in the marginalized parts of society, and the legal system is burdened by a case backlog; in December 2011, over 30 million cases were pending countrywide, leading to extended waiting periods. Besides, many people lack awareness of their rights and are not sufficiently educated about how to navigate the legal system. Many have not known about Legal Services Authorities or could not access them due to a lack of infrastructure.
The 2008 Gram Nyayalaya Act aimed to address these issues by establishing mobile village courts, but the implementation dragged; of 5,000 planned facilities, only 151 were operational in 2012.
The Department of Law and Justice also worked together with the UNDP to implement the Access to Justice for Marginalized People Project in 2008 with a budget of $3.5 million. The project addresses barriers to justice of marginalized groups, takes measures to sensitize young lawyers, educates judges about the issues of marginalized groups and provides programs aiming to improve legal literacy within different target groups.
The Tele-Law initiative is a continuation of these efforts. It utilizes digital technology in order to improve rural access to justice.
The pilot program launched in 500 villages in the states Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India’s north. With the necessary corrections, it is then sought to expand throughout the country. In the villages with limited internet connectivity, Common Service Centers (CSCs) are established. The National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) provides lawyers and situates them in the state capitals. The CSCs also allow citizens to connect to other actors including NGOs and legal school clinics.
Ten days a month, paralegal volunteers will assist their communities in the CSCs. The volunteers are educated about a range of legal issues; social justice laws and fundamental rights to women and children’s rights and labor-related legislation. They will function as the first point of contact in CSCs, helping villagers to understand legal issues and the advice given by lawyers, and assist them in taking action.
A thousand women are planned to be trained as paralegal volunteers, an effort to promote woman participation and empowerment. A monitoring and evaluation system ensures the quality of the legal services and the benefits for citizens.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that access to justice is a fundamental right for everyone. According to the ruling, the state must provide an effective adjudicatory mechanism, accessible to citizens at a reasonable distance and affordable cost and allows for a speedy process.
Nachiketa Mittal, Assistant Professor of Law at the National Law University Oddisha, assesses this court decision as the setting of a new tone in the debate about access to justice and hopes that the decision will help to enhance pressure on the state to enforce the implementation of the Gram Nyayalaya Act.
Since its independence, India has come a long way, but according to Mittal, “[s]triving for access to justice is always a work in progress.” With the Tele-Law initiative, the government aims to contribute to this progress and increase access to justice in India.
– Lena Riebl