Mumbai: To ensure that the Indian legal system promotes justice and ensures no citizen is denied a chance to justice over financial or other disabilities, the Indian parliament, through the 42nd amendment, had introduced Article 39A as a directive principle in 1976.
Subsequently, with the establishment of the National Legal Services Authority in 1995, it became the state’s constitutional obligation to ensure free legal aid to its citizens.
But close to three decades later, the condition of legal aid in the country leaves much to be desired. A detailed study on the conditions and availability of legal aid in the state of Maharashtra shows that less than 8% of total undertrials lodged in Maharashtra jails were able to access legal aid services between 2016 and 2019. The joint report by Prayas, a field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the Fair Trial Fellowship Program of National Law University, has made several concerning revelations.
Prayas, a 30-year-old organization has been working in many central and district jails of Maharashtra. The Fair Trial project has also made a significant intervention in the state in a short period. The report, named ‘Legal Representation for Undertrials in Maharashtra 2018-2021’, has identified a lack of confidence and poor quality of legal aid services as some of the primary reasons for poor utilization of the legal aid service by pretrial detainees.
The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) shows that the large majority of those incarcerated are unlettered, and belong to marginalized castes and religious identities. Their social status has a direct impact on their capacity to negotiate with the criminal justice system.
“They”, the report finds, “end up spending more time than they should be in prison”.
For this study, spanning over four years, Prayas and the FTF fellows analyzed data based