The Constitution of India mandates equality before law, yet informal practices of exclusion and inequality continue to plague our legal systems. Lack of legal awareness, affordable legal aid, delays and inefficiencies in court, and corruption within law enforcement are all impediments on the road to justice. International human rights standards and modern legal systems unanimously affirm that equitable treatment under law is a fundamental component of democracy. Yet in practice, injustice is rampant across the world, with its largest democracy, India, proving to be no exception. Across the world, socially and economically vulnerable groups bear the brunt of these abuses. “The United Nations has learned that the rule of law is not a luxury and that justice is not a side issue. We have seen people lose faith in a peace process when they do not feel safe from crime. We have seen that without a credible machinery to enforce the law and resolve disputes, people resorted to violence and illegal means.”
– Kofi Annan, Secretary General, UN (1997 – 2006)
Standing in the way of India’s growth story
• India ranks 76 / 176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index
• India ranks 77 / 113 for ‘Regulatory Enforcement’ on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, 2016
• Wages and business lost annually due to time spent in court hearings amounts to 0.48% of India’s GDP
Access to justice: Building blocks and gaps
Historically, the State’s obligation to ensure access to justice was restricted to:
1.Creation of laws that protected all citizens equally, and
2.Entitlement of every person to defend claims in courts.
For decades after Independence, the Indian government made no efforts to facilitate a population-wide understanding of the law or to encourage use of judicial systems. In 1976, however, India introduced Article 39A to the Constitution, which recognized the right of economically disadvantaged individuals to free legal aid. While this amendment was a step towards bridging the gap between having a justice system and enabling its use, it has had limited success in truly reducing this gap on the ground. In order to address inherent power imbalances in India today and ensure universal access to justice, it is essential to widen the discourse from merely strengthening legal institutions to also increasing citizens’ legal empowerment (i.e. the ability to understand, use and shape the law to secure justice). Access to justice needs to be extended to include all the elements needed to help citizens and individuals seek redressal for grievances (against individuals or the State) and to demand that their rights be upheld.
4 Step Framework To Improve Access To Justice
“Sometimes even highly educated people have a problem understanding, and therefore interpreting, the correct meaning of some of our laws… an attempt should be made to simplify the language of the law so that anyone who reads judgments and laws can easily understand their true meaning.”
– Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister of India Make laws accessible and comprehensible for legal empowerment
Make laws accessible and comprehensible for legal empowerment
This will enable each citizen to know of and take legal recourse when his/her rights are violated.
Streamline case management processes in courts
This will reduce the period of time for which litigants are embroiled in the system, as well as build greater trust in the system.
Drive accountability and support police and prison systems
This will help these agencies operate more sensitively and effectively to uphold the rights of all citizens including victims, accused, undertrials and the most marginalized
Ensure high quality, affordable legal aid
If one should choose to access courts, guarantees every individual a chance at a fair trial, regardless of economic and social background