December 2019 witnessed the outbreak of one of the deadliest viruses ever when China reported some cases of unusual pneumonia to the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus remained unknown for a brief period of time, but it spread rampantly across Europe and Asia in the months of January and February. Slowly it moved towards the United States, putting the whole world under lockdown. The epicenter of this virus was identified to be in Wuhan, China. WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern and named the virus COVID-19.
As of April 24, there have been around 2,800,000 (changing rapidly every subsequent hour) reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide. India witnessed its first case of COVID-19 on January 30. As of April 24, the figure for active cases in India is around 18,000 and death toll is around 723. In order to curb the spread of this virus, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days on March 24. The lockdown was later extended until May 3 by the prime minister on April 14.
This piece is an attempt to analyze various challenges that are arising during this unprecedented lockdown and how the legal service authorities are ensuring provision of legal aid and basic amenities across India.
Legal Aid and NALSA
The European Court of Human Rights, under Sections 6(1) and 6(3), discusses the concept of legal aid without mentioning the term itself. They aim to protect the interest of every litigant and create an equal platform for each person who is in dire need of justice by assisting them. The United Nation’s International Convention on Civil and Political Rights provides for legal assistance in criminal matters.
The Constitution of India promotes and upholds the importance of equality in society. Various articles of the Constitution promote welfare of the poor and of those who are in need of justice and care. Article 39A of the Constitution provides for free legal aid to the poor and weaker sections of the society, and it ensures justice for all. The article mandates that economic, or any other, disability should not hinder the opportunity of anyone to access justice and legal remedies.
The National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) was created under Section 3 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act). The objective of NALSA is to supervise and monitor the provision of legal aid as described under Section 2(1)(c) of the Act. Section 12 of the Act specifies the category of people who are eligible for availing these legal services. NALSA also disburses funds and grants to NGOs for implementing legal aid schemes and programs.
Impact of Lockdown and Necessary Legal Assistance
This pandemic and the resultant lockdown have caused the greatest deal of misery to the poor and underprivileged sections of society. From food to basic survival necessities, they took the worst hit out of all. NALSA, in this situation of grave urgency, responded to address the concerns of poor and weaker sections of society.
NALSA issued an order directing the State Legal Service Authorities (SLSA) to assist and provide legal aid to those in need of it. The importance of legal aid during events like these is paramount. In many countries, like South Africa and Kenya, legal aid and services are categorized as “essential services,” so that they can be provided to the people of the country seamlessly.
The United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, suggested that the outbreak of this virus in jails and prison can affect the situation very drastically. Experts have suggested that people in prison are kept in close contact with each other and usually with the jail staff as well. The outbreak of this virus in these places might impact the vulnerable population there negatively. It was suggested that states should consider releasing prisoners to decongest the prison and reduce the possibilities of coronavirus outbreak. Various countries across the globe have resorted to decongesting their prisons to counter further spread of virus. Morocco, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Afghanistan issued orders to do so, and they allowed old or sick prisoners to leave. Prisoners who were convicted for low-risk crimes were also allowed to leave.
In India, the Supreme Court (SC), the apex court of the country, ordered state governments to consider releasing some prisoners on parole to reduce overcrowding in prisons. The order of the SC by Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde read: “Each State/Union Territory shall constitute a High Powered Committee…to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate.” The High Powered Committee of each state issued guidelines, with the help of respective State Legal Service Authorities, on who can be allowed to leave prison on bail and on what categories of prisoners will stay in jail. The latter mostly consisted of prisoners on trial for offenses under the Protection of Children From Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, and similar laws. The Government of Delhi and many other states decided to amend their prison rules and release prisoners under trial in order to decongest the prisons.
As of April 15, according to the statistics provided by NALSA,11,077 prisoners under trial across 232 districts have been released from jail during the COVID-19 lockdown. Additionally, in some states, prisoners convicted for non-heinous offences are released on parole and furloughed to decongest the prisons. The count of such prisoners who have been released, as of April 15, is 5,981. NALSA is offering assistance to these prisoners through panel lawyers.
With the help of its workforce of panel lawyers and paralegal volunteers, as well as with the constant efforts of DLSA, NALSA is also trying to channel efforts to provide people with food and to help poor migrant workers who are stranded without any place to go. Various helpline numbers have been issued that these people can contact to seek help.
Additionally, paralegal volunteers, with the help of local administrations, are undertaking the work of food and mask distribution to the remotest of the areas. Delhi State Legal Service Authority organized camps for distribution of food packets, pulses, rice, and similar items to the poor people across its region.
One of the recurring issues throughout the initial phase of lockdown was the increase in domestic violence incidents. To address the issue, NALSA requested all SLSAs to coordinate with the One Stop Centers that were set up by the Ministry of Women and Child. The paralegals and volunteers will assist the victims with legal aid by filing cases, filing affidavits, and informing them about their rights.
Additionally, helpline number 181 was issued to provide women with assistance and legal aid. The DLSA of Chandigarh appointed two lawyers, Manjit Kaur and Anchal Thakur, to provide legal aid and to support the One Stop Centre. Furthermore, they will provide assistance on the 181 helpline in Chandigarh. The SLSA of Chandigarh is also providing food and rations to the needy. The SLSA of Kashmir has requested the SLSA Chandigarh to provide food to its 15 migrant workers who are stuck in Chandigarh. Similarly, the SLSA of Mizoram requested SLSA Chandigarh to provide relief to 120 students from Mizoram who are stranded in Nayagaon.
These are just some of the initiatives taken by the government and the legal service authorities to ensure justice and assist people in sustaining human life. The actions illustrate the importance of legal aid and services to ensure equality and basis subsistence in poor and weaker sections of society.
The spread of coronavirus and this unprecedented lockdown have posed serious challenges to governments and organizations across the world. The supply of basic amenities includes food, water, clothing, and justice in this modern world. The active role of legal service authorities has ensured a flow of assistance from the state to the people. During this time of public health emergency, legal service authorities took active charge and have responded to address all concerns. In addition to facilitating legal aid to the poor and the weaker sections of the society, NALSA has, through its competent workforce, ensured that essentials like food, masks, and sanitizer reach all people. Various helpline numbers and distress numbers are helping people access aid, both essential and legal. Incidents of domestic violence are on rise, and it is ensured that victims have access to legal system with the help of Ministry of Women and Children. In a nutshell, NALSA, as the apex legal service authority in India, stood up to its task and has helped the government to ensure the safety and security of everyone across the geographical boundaries.
Aviral Agrawal is pursuing his B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) at NALSAR University of Law, in Hyderabad, India. He possesses a keen interest in the field of public policy and research. Priyansh Mishra is pursuing his B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) at Amity University, in Noida, India. His area of interest lies in the field of constitutional law.
Suggested citation: Aviral Agrawal and Priyansh Mishra, Legal Aid in India Amid the COVID-19 Lockdown, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 2, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/agrawal-mishra-india-legalaid/.
This article was prepared for publication by Cassandra Maas, Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com