There is need for quality lawyers for the poor: Justice Muralidhar

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New Delhi : One major concern which users of the justice system have expressed is that the lawyers representing them are inexperienced and unable to provide effective legal aid, said Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court on Sunday.

Muralidhar, who authored "Law, Poverty and Legal Aid: Access to Criminal Justice" in 2004, said that since many people who approach the court are from economically weaker sections of the society, experienced lawyers are crucial to protect their interests.

He was speaking on the launch of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative's (CHRI) report "Hope Behind Bars?: Status Report On Legal Aid For Persons in Custody".

The report draws on hundreds of RTI applications and material available on the public domain on the legal aid framework in the country and looks at the implementation of schemes to ensure timely and effective legal representation.

Muralidhar was accompanied by former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court A.P. Shah, CHRI International Director Sanjoy Hazarika, National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Director S.S Rathi, NLU Odisha Vice Chancellor Srikrishna Deva Rao, and author of the report Raja Bagga.

In order to ensure the quality of legal representation, Justice Muralidhar said, "legal aid committee lawyers should be paid the same as public prosecutors" and a system should be set up where a combination of a senior and junior lawyer take up a case in the court so that the client is not at a disadvantage.

"Our judicial system is such that when a case is called out in the court, 60 per cent of the time the lawyer won't be present and if he is an experienced lawyer, then the frequency will turn into 80 per cent," Muralidhar said.

"With the system that we have, legal aid for poor translates to poor legal aid. So, by making a combination of a senior (with 10 years plus experience) and junior lawyer, we ensure that the most critical cases will have legal assistance," he added.

Muralidhar highlighted the need for a "directory of legal service authorities" so that anyone, including the police, could access the lawyer.

Justice Shah said that "many prisoners are unaware of their status of cases as well as their basic human rights".

He stated that "access to justice is the most basic human right" and emphasized on the need for competent legal aid lawyers providing effective legal representation.

"The legal aid committees are not charged with the responsibility of initiating legal reforms and questioning arbitrary laws and procedures that discriminate against the poor and hence, result in the violation of the fundamental rights or the right to access to justice," Justice Shah, who retired from the Delhi High Court in 2010 said.

"The consumers of justice are disabled from demanding quality of service and accountability of the legal service from bureaucracy. Though the legal aid committees are available in every state, in some states they are poorly utilized. People are not very keen to go to a legal aid lawyer, instead, they will mortgage their belongings and hire a private lawyer," he added.

Rao said that para-legal volunteers should be used extensively in the legal system as a "link between the community and courts".

In order to spread awareness, he recommended that "schools and colleges need to have systems in place to familiarize them with the role of police".

He also highlighted the importance of legal representation immediately after arrest, and the necessity of legal aid at different stages including, at the point of arrest, during the first production, and during remand orders passed by magistrates.