Former judges flay country's legal aid system

Former judges flay country's legal aid system

Former judges flay country's legal aid system

Several judges have criticised the country's legal aid system, with one of them saying it helped "briefless lawyers" and not the accused, and another terming it a "farce".

The remarks of the judges, who once held important positions in the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee as well as national- and state-level legal services authorities, were part of a report released by the National Law University (NLU).

Despite the existence of a legal aid mechanism and sizeable fund being allotted to it, not a single judge found the present day legal aid system to be satisfactory, the report published by NLU's Centre on the Death Penalty has said while flagging various "systemic deficiencies".

The report, 'Matters of Judgment', is a judges' opinion study on the criminal justice system and death penalty in India.

The study records an acknowledgement and concern among former judges of the apex court about the crisis in India's criminal justice system on account of widespread prevalence of torture, fabrication of evidence, abysmal quality of legal aid and wrongful convictions.

"Amongst its (legal aid system) strongest critics, was a former judge who was the chairperson of the State Legal Services Authority for over two years who called the legal aid system a farce," the report said.

The right to fair trial becomes almost illusory when quality legal representation depends on the litigant's economic means, the report has said.

"In practice, the aid was for the lawyer and not for the accused, as it ensured an income for briefless lawyers," a judge, who was formerly the Advocate General of a state, says in the report.

A former Supreme Court judge, who had served as Executive Chairman of the National Legal Services Authority, opined that legal aid counsels are inexperienced youngsters who don't study facts earnestly before bringing them to court.

However, one of the apex court judges tried to defend the system saying even though the quality was "certainly declining", the legal aid system was quite satisfactory while yet another judge wondered, "What else can be done?"

The report states that 14 of the former judges have acknowledged that poor legal representation disproportionately impacts the poor.

They also said that even though it is the fundamental right of the accused to have their counsel of choice to defend themselves, they cannot afford the same.

"This is because a good lawyer would charge exorbitantly high fees. This would lead to the court assigning a lawyer who does not have much practice," one of the judges said in the report.

"We have provided the names of the judges but have not mentioned who said what. This is to ensure that the focus stays on the issue and does not get shifted to the person," Anup Surendranath, the director of the Centre, said while releasing the report.

The judges consulted in the study have adjudicated 208 death penalty cases between them during the period from 1975 to 2016.  

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