In a criminal justice system rife with torture and fabrication of evidence, the importance of effective legal aid cannot be exaggerated. However, narratives surrounding the ineffectiveness of the legal aid system dominate the discourse on access to justice in India. While the narratives provide an experiential insight of the legal aid system, there is, nonetheless, a need for a detailed quantitative and qualitative audit of the legal aid systems as it currently exists. Only after such a detailed analysis is done can a path be paved for meaningful reform and work can begin towards building public confidence in the system among the poorest sections of our society.
It is a telling sign of the crisis that death row prisoners across the country, despite being overwhelmingly poor, opted for private representation in the trial courts by taking on huge debts in an attempt to avoid the legal aid system. The abandoning of the public legal aid system is, therefore, a severe cause for concern and efforts have to be made to rebuild the system to ensure that its constitutional mandate is well executed.
The Fair Trial Fellowship (“the Fellowship”) is an opportunity for young lawyers and social workers to assist in providing quality legal representation to undertrial prisoners. The Fellowship will train and mentor a group of young professionals to work in collaboration with the State Legal Services Authority towards ensuring fair trial for undertrial prisoners at both pre-trial and trial stages. The Fellowship is being currently rolled out for work in Nagpur and Pune Central prisons.
Nearly 70% of India’s prison population are undertrial prisoners and there is widespread agreement that a large proportion of that population should not be in prison. The Fellowship is designed with the understanding that providing good quality and competent legal representation for undertrial prisoners at the early stages of their trial or at the pre-trial stage can ensure the realisation of rights and protections inbuilt in the law.
The Fellowship is based on the core understanding that the existing legal aid system implemented through the NALSA and its subsidiary bodies has the greatest outreach amongst persons requiring free legal aid in custody. Thus, providing assistance, in terms of qualified personnel and technical resources to the existing system, is a much needed step towards providing the best possible legal representation to the undertrial prisoners.
The Fellowship has been instituted with the following objectives:
To provide quality legal representation to undertrial prisoners and handhold the inmates through the legal proceedings.
To provide support to District Legal Services Authority and strengthen mechanisms for providing free legal aid to persons in custody.
To train, mentor and build capacities of young professionals for improving quality of socio-legal services within the Criminal Justice System in the district.
How the fellowship works
The Fellowship proposes to identify, train, mentor and sustain a group of 10 Legal Fellows and 5 Social Work Fellows in each location (i.e. Pune and Nagpur) who in turn will assist panel lawyers of the DLSA towards providing effective and competent legal representation to undertrial prisoners.
The work of the fellows will be focussed on ensuring that the legal aid machinery under the DLSA reaches every undertrial prisoner and that the quality of the representation provided by the DLSA in all cases is of expected standard.
Before being deployed on the field, fellows will undergo a comprehensive training for four months which will include residential training in classroom teaching mode as well as on-field mentoring by practicing advocates. The work of the fellows in each location will be anchored by a Legal Strategy Co-ordinator, who would mentor and supervise the work of the fellows throughout the duration of the fellowship. The Fellows will also have access to a panel of local lawyers as experts from whom guidance may be sought in specific cases.
Legal interventions under the initiative will be in collaboration with the DLSA. The Legal Fellows will be assigned cases of undertrial prisoners being represented by DLSA panel lawyers and will be in charge of providing assistance in court hearings, legal research, drafting and prison visits (for client interviews) to the legal aid lawyer leading the case. Social Work Fellows on the other hand will focus on crucial socio-legal field work like visiting prisons to identify persons in need of legal aid or with valid grounds for bail/early release, facilitating linkages between undertrials and DLSA, working with families of undertrials for collecting information/documents relevant to the legal proceedings and with other stakeholders in the legal process (if any like witnesses, sureties). Social Work Fellows will also work on cases where the person is out on bail to ensure that bail conditions are not defaulted upon.