The right to free legal aid is a fundamental right under Article 39A of our Constitution.Article 14 assures Article 14 assur equality for all in the eyes o the law, irrespective of caste, creed and economic status.But data provided in August by the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Au thority to the Madras high court has once again given conclusive evidence to prove that free legal aid remains almost elusive to those who need it desperately -juveniles in conflict with the law.
The data is still quite incomplete and reflects poorly on the agency’s outdated data collection and documentation process. For example, the numbers relating to juveniles in homes, taking legal aid or employing private counsel employing private counsel shown for many districts such as Chennai, Chengalpet, Madurai, Tirunelveli and Dharmapuri are very negligible compared to the large number of cases before the Child Welfare Committees (CCW) and Juvenile Justice Boards (JJB) in those districts. The period of data collection is not clear either.
Nevertheless, the data holds a mirror to the stark reality of our country’s legal-judicial system at the most basic level. As per the data, while only 107 juveniles have accessed free legal aid, a whopping 2,425 juveniles had to engage private counsels to defend themselves.The number of those who received free legal aid versus those who were forced to avail private counsel was 0:121 in Coimbatore, 0:153 in Krishnagiri, 1:244 in Ramanathapuram, 6:757 in Thoothukudi and so on.
Yet, nearly all juveniles come from deprived families or broken homes where there is little parental care. Juveniles are among those who need free legal aid most. It can be inferred from the data that free legal aid is being denied to this most vulnerable section.
Even in those cases in which free legal aid has been provided, a few among the panel advocates collect money from the ignorant families of the juveniles. This despite the fact that the government pays for their services.
Presently , there is no provision for display of availability of free legal aid service in the premises of police stations, observation homes, and JJBs. Details such as names, contact addresses and cell phone numbers of legal aid lawyers are not made available. Invariably , juveniles are not briefed, at the time of their apprehension, about their right to receive free legal aid and availability of panel lawyers.
Tamil Nadu’s Juvenile Justice Rules, 2001 enunciate several fundamental principles to be followed.One rule states: “All procedural safeguards that are guaranteed by the Constitution and other statutes that go in to strengthen the juvenile’s right to presumption of innocence shall be guaranteed to the juveniles in conflict with law“. An other says: “Every juvenile in conflict with law shall have a right to be informed in the language known to him about the accusations against him and a right to be legally represented, provisions for guardian ad litem [person appointed to act on behalf of a child], legal aid and other assistance through legal services at State expense and also shall have right to present his case before the competent authority on his own“.
But, if we hold a magnifying lens to the administration of justice to the juveniles in our state, we would find that these fundamental principles remain on paper, imprisoned for ever, like the juveniles allegedly in conflict with the law who are trapped into a world of exploitation and crime. This denial of the right to free legal aid to juveniles in the state is nothing but denial of their right to life.
If this is the story even in a supposedly pro-poor, progressive state like Tamil Nadu, it is not hard to imagine the situation with regard to free legal aid in other states. The depressing situation as revealed by the data of Tamil Nadu Legal Services Authority is a wake-up call for our country’s higher judiciary and Law Commission to act swiftly and adequately to completely overhaul and reform the juvenile justice apparatus.
(The writer is development activist & director , CHANGEindia, a centre for advocacy and research) Email us your feedback with full name and address to southpole.toi @timesgroup.com