Sunday, January 3, 2016

Curbing the Right to Legal Aid - Snippet

The Constitution of India guarantees free legal aid under Article 39-A. It expresses a clear idea - legal assistance is valuable and necessary to all. People in prison - both undertrials and convicts - are also allowed legal assistance by means of what is called a "legal interview". These interviews are secured through Rules commonly found in the Jail Manual for the respective state. In Delhi, the Delhi Prisons (Prisoners' Welfare Fund, Appeals, Petitions, Interviews and Communication) Rules, 1988 detail how legal interviews are secured for different classes of prisoners. Rules 42-43 are specifically relevant:

42. Every interview between an unconvicted person and his legal adviser shall take place within sight, but out of hearing, of a jail official. A similar concession may be allowed by the Superintendent in the case of an interview with any near relative of the unconvicted person. 

43. When any person desires an interview with an unconvicted criminal prisoner in the capacity of the prisoner's advocate he shall apply in writing, giving his name and address and stating to what branch of the legal profession he belongs and he must satisfy the Superintendent he is the bona-fide legal adviser of the prisoner with whom he seeks an interview and that he has legitimate business with him.

As you can discern, there is no limit to how many interviews one could have in a week, or the time for conducting these interviews. So naturally, I was a bit surprised when I came across Standing Order No. 53 passed by Delhi Prisons on 27.02.2013. The order restricts the right of prisoners to a legal interview to once a week, ordinarily. An additional interview can only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, with prior permission from Law Officer, PHQ. Given the absence of any requirement for reasons on what are exceptional circumstances, this discretion is rarely exercised without arbitrariness. Thus, undertrials have been denied rights to meet their lawyers for more than once a week. 

This was challenged before the Delhi High Court in 2014, and the Delhi Government also filed a response. If newspaper reports are to be believed, one reason behind this curtailment was that prisoners had not requested more than one interview per week ordinarily, reflecting they were satisfied. This is hardly commendable logic, and I am unaware whether the High Court has decided the petition yet. What I do know is that Standing Order No. 53 is still in force. It amounts to a clear contradiction of India's unequivocal commitment to free legal aid, and recognition that a prisoner desperately requires legal assistance. I am unaware of the practices followed in other states across the country. It would be interesting, and disturbing, to see whether there is a larger trend existing. Comments would thus be highly desirable!

No comments:

Post a Comment