22Aug2013

Can Legal Aid help alleviate rural poverty in India?

by Jane Schukoske, CEO

Though many people do not know about it, there is a law in India that provides for marginalized groups to receive free legal aid. That includes legal awareness training as well as legal aid for disputes in court, legal aid for disputes to be negotiated in Lok Adalats (People’s Courts, a forum to promote voluntary settlement of cases out of court). The law is the Legal Services Authority Act 1987. Under it, each district in India has a Legal Services Authority (LSA) required to organize legal aid camps, among other activities. They report to State LSAs, which report to the National LSA.

Many, many people are entitled to free legal aid in India. Women, children, and people with disabilities are entitled to free legal aid. Members of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes (and, in Haryana and Punjab, Backward Classes), and “economically vulnerable persons” (Haryana’s website states the income cut-off is Rs.1,50,000 per year for lower courts) are entitled to free legal aid. People in custody, including jails, prisons, protective homes for trafficking victims, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric facilities, are entitled to free legal aid. Victims of human trafficking or forced labour, of natural or mass disasters and of ethnic and caste violence are all entitled to free legal aid. And there are more categories as well.

How can legal aid help the rural poor with the main problems they face? Legal literacy camps can raise awareness on schemes for Mid-Day Meal, Public Distribution System, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee, Integrated Child Development Services, Right to Education and Social Security Programs. They can explain how citizens can use the Right to Information Act. And of course there are a host of other laws to protect the public interest. Such camps are held by LSAs and NGOs in rural areas to get out the word.

Knowing the huge number of people who need legal awareness in India, the LSA system enlists the help of paralegal volunteers and law students as well as lawyers.  Paralegal volunteers are people trained by legal services institutions to help the poor. They can explain to rural communities the application process for government schemes and appeal process if benefits are delayed or denied.  Every law school and law college is required to have a legal aid clinic to work for the community in the nearby area.  The LSAs are to establish legal aid clinics in villages and clusters of villages and law students can work with those clinics, too.  And Haryana, for example, has a toll-free Helpline, 1800-180-2057, that citizens can call.

Is this LSA system a tool for raising legal awareness of the rural poor of their legal entitlements and how to claim them? Absolutely! NGOs can get out the word of this right to legal awareness so that more people seek legal aid. Law schools can further engage with LSAs to boost the human resources to help roll out this vision. Citizens who are eligible for legal aid can help this system work by visiting legal aid camps and clinics in their localities.