Critically acclaimed movie Jai Bhim highlighted in great detail the plight of socially and economically disadvantaged communities as they navigate a complex legal system. Chandru, a lawyer working pro bono, steps up to aid the central character Sengeni.
What happens to many such individuals in real life? How can those who do not have the means get adequate representation and access to justice in Chennai?
Every individual has the constitutional right to get help from the government-sanctioned Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority or the District Legal Services Authority.
“Free legal aid is not a charity by the government. It is a constitutional right, and all individuals are entitled to it,” said Jothilakshmi S, a lawyer with the Madras High Court, who was empanelled as a free legal aid lawyer in 2019-20.
Unfortunately, many people are unaware of free legal services by the state, said the advocates we spoke to for this article.
The system too suffers from roadblocks along the way, preventing it from fully realising its purpose.
The free legal aid framework
Under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) was set up to help vulnerable sections of society with free legal services. After a decade, Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority Rules, 1997 came up, where the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority (TNSLSA), and District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) were established, along with Taluk Legal Services Committee. The state authority has set up a High Court Legal Services Committee as well.
According to NALSA, the legal services rendered by the various bodies at each level include payment of court fees, free representation for legal issues, access to copies of orders and documents related to the legal proceedings with no charge, option to appeal at higher courts, and printing and translation of court documents. Apart from this, the state and district bodies have also been tasked with bringing about legal awareness through camps, setting up counselling and empowering individuals by educating them about their legal rights.
According to NALSA, those eligible for free legal aid include
- Trans persons
- Senior citizens
- Members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
- Industrial labourers
- Victims of mass disasters (including industrial disasters)
- Persons with disabilities
- Victims of human trafficking
- Those with low annual income, a metric which differs state by state.
“Currently, Tamil Nadu provides free legal aid to people whose annual income is Rs 3 lakhs or less, in addition to those from the above-mentioned categories. A woman or a member of SC/ST or other communities as mentioned under NALSA is eligible for free legal aid, regardless of their annual income,” said the Deputy Secretary of TNSLSA.
How can interested lawyers join the legal aid authority?
Advocates interested to join the legal aid body must send in their applications and undergo a multi-step recruitment process which also includes interviews, prior to being selected by the DLSA. After approval from the TNSLSA, the lawyers are empanelled under the district or taluk legal aid services, said the Secretary of DLSA of Chennai. The lawyers are paid nominal fees as honoraria for the services they provide.
The lawyers recruited under the legal aid fold are categorised as A panel and B panel. “A panel usually consists of lawyers with more than 10 years of experience, while the B panel has lawyers with less than 10 years of experience,” said Jothilakshmi.
Based on their experience and expertise, legal aid cases are assigned to them. Also, the secretary of the DLSA shared that a monitoring and mentoring committee would take place regularly for the panel lawyers to share updates or clear doubts.
“I got around 5-6 cases during my one-year tenure,” said Jothilakshmi.
Both TNSLSA and DLSA confirmed that the current tenure of lawyers under legal aid is three years.
How can a citizen avail legal aid?
Those seeking free legal aid can approach the legal aid offices in Chennai in TNSLSA or DLSA with their queries. “They can call us or even send their queries via post. We see which district or taluk they belong to, and move the query to the respective legal aid jurisdiction,” said the Deputy Secretary of TNSLSA.
“For those without literacy, there are volunteers who will help with forms and paperwork,” said Jothilakshmi.
TNSLSA is headquartered in the Madras High Court Complex. The Chennai District DLSA is also situated in an adjoining building within the premises of the High Court.
For legal assistance, one may contact
Help Line Phone Number: 044–25342441 (From 10 am to 6 pm-on all working days)
Toll-Free No. : 1800 4252 441 (From 10 am to 6 pm – on all working days)
Mobile No. : 94450 33363
Free legal aid is available at any stage of a case, confirmed Jothilakshmi.
“We solve disputes in counselling and mediation centres as well, and do not always go to court unless necessary,” said the Secretary of DLSA, pointing out the work of the Lok Adalats, which is also a function of the district and state legal services authorities.
TNSLSA and DLSA have set up around 20 free legal aid clinics in Chennai, which includes sub-jails as well, where the vulnerable populations can seek help. These clinics have been set up in places like orphanages, old age homes, disability care centres and hospitals where there is a high footfall of vulnerable individuals. The secretary of the Chennai DLSA said that panel advocates visit these legal aid clinics twice a week for counselling and grievances.
A person can also apply for legal aid from the NALSA portal online.
Operations in Chennai
There are 4196 empanelled lawyers under the district and high court legal services authorities in Tamil Nadu, as per the 2021-22 NALSA report.
The advocates we spoke to said that mostly people with civil disputes seek legal aid. “Property disputes, family and matrimonial matters are brought in for legal aid. Women in unhappy marriages with no support system often seek legal aid for a divorce from their partners,” said Senior Advocate Dheenadhayalan.
According to a TNSLSA report as of February 2022, there are 21,678 pending cases with the legal aid cells in the state.
Chennai DLSA shared success stories of cases that were taken up by their lawyers, including a legal victory that helped secure compensation of Rs 6 lakh for a victim of rape. Recently, the legal services authority also helped an elderly man who was abandoned by his family to reunite with them.
There has also been the recent exoneration of a woman accused of the murder of a child. The accused sought the services of the legal services authority, which assigned an empanelled lawyer to represent her. The woman was declared not guilty and the verdict has proven to be a shot in the arm for the work done by the legal services authorities.
Gaps in accessing legal aid in Chennai
“There are many reasons for the legal aid services to be underutilised. The main one being a lack of awareness among people,” said Aparna Raju, a recent graduate from Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University.
Many of the legal aid clinics of the legal services authorities at the state and district level seem to have been defunct due to a variety of reasons.
When we asked about one of the legal aid clinics set up by the TNSLSA for the elderly at Vishranthi Trust Home in Palavakkam, the residents were not aware of its existence. They said that they had not been aware of any lawyer visiting the old-age home.
At The Banyan, an organisation that supports those with mental health issues, the TNSLSA legal aid clinic has not been functional since the pandemic started. Before the pandemic, lawyers used to visit the centre twice a week to create awareness among people, said the employees at Banyan.
In Kalaiselvi Karunalaya Social Welfare Society (KKSS), an organisation helping orphaned children and other community members, a TNSLSA legal clinic was functional until three years ago, when lawyers used to visit the organisation.
“The legal aid cell was then shifted to a police station in Vadapalani”, said K Rajini, who runs KKSS in Ambattur. “If someone in Ambattur wants legal aid, they now have to go to Vadapalani. Moreover, individuals could be hesitant to walk into a police station to access legal aid.”
Jothilakshmi shared an anecdote highlighting the poor awareness about the existence of the legal services authority. “I met a beautician who earns around Rs 15,000/month. After getting subjected to marital violence, she started saving up money to secure legal help. She did not know that she was entitled to free legal aid until I informed her about it”, she said.
“It need not be about only lack of awareness, we also need to look into the lack of trust people have when it comes to accessing legal aid,” said Anup Surendranath, a law professor from the National Law University, Delhi.
“A differently-abled person sought legal aid for a dispute. However, the lawyer assigned to him did not follow up adequately. So, he reached out to me, and I have taken up his case as pro bono,” says Kalpana*, an advocate in Chennai. “I did not want to join the legal aid committees and wanted to take up pro bono cases privately”, she said.
The motivations for an advocate to be part of the legal aid initiative by DLSA or TNSLSA are myriad. “Some believe in the cause of justice for everyone and are socially motivated. Some others take up legal aid cases to get experience and credibility,” said Kalpana.
“Being part of the legal aid cells can also boost your application when an advocate applies for senior positions,” said Aparna.
The low honorarium and delay in its disbursal have been an issue preventing more lawyers from looking to take up cases that come to the legal services authorities.
There is no monitoring of these legal aid cases as well, said Kalpana and Jothilakshmi.
Despite a monitoring and mentoring committee being set up by the DLSA where the advocates have to give updates about the cases, Jothilakshmi confirmed she was never asked for any update during her tenure. However, she submitted her work reports and filed for an honorarium after disposing of legal aid cases.
Improving access to legal aid
Anup suggested that if there is more transparency in data about the functioning of the legal aid cells, then, a solution can be fashioned to address the problems troubling the system. Without detailed information, plugging any gaps or making any suggestions for improvement would prove very difficult.
“We need to encourage law students to be part of legal aid to give back to society. Not many law schools encourage their students to do that,” said Aparna. Her alma mater has recently revived its legal aid cell and has begun conducting camps for the public.
To bolster the free legal aid system in Chennai, Jothilakshmi recommended holding more legal awareness camps for people. This will spread the message among those in need and also empower them with the information necessary to find solutions to their predicaments.
“Only when a system is utilised efficiently, can a system better itself,” said Jothilakshmi.