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LEGAL AID CLINICS IN LAW SCHOOLS

This article is written by Maya Bharath and Spandana Reddy, 3rd-year law students at PES University, Bangalore.


INTRODUCTION

“The end of all education should surely be service, and if a student gets an opportunity of rendering service even whilst he is studying, he should consider it as a rare opportunity and treat it not really as a suspension of his education but rather its complement.”[1]


Generally, the reference is to a “law school sponsored programme for law student work on legal aid cases.”[2] The meaning of the term ‘legal aid clinic’ is by no means exact.[3] Legal aid cases are those in which legal advice and assistance, at little or no cost to the client, are given to indigent persons and persons with low incomes.[4] Access to justice and rule of law are vital to the members of society, to lead them out of poverty.

Legal Aid Clinics operate on the purpose of providing legal advice for the public good devoid of profit. Legal aid clinics in law schools, thus serve the twofold purposes, (i) provide free legal services to economically weaker people and (ii) direct the energy of the students in contributing the society.[5] Clinical training gives the students greater understanding and sympathy for the underprivileged in the community along with the responsibility to represent them justly.[6]


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In 1980, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, former Supreme Court Judge, undertook the chairmanship of a committee that was established to oversee legal aid programs nationwide. Under a constitutional aspect - “Article 39A provides for holistic approach in imparting justice. It includes providing free legal aid via appointment of counsel for the litigants, ensuring that justice is not denied due to financial difficulties.”[7]

Furthermore, Articles 14 and 22 (1) mandate the State to ensure equality before the law and a legal system that provides justice to all its subjects regardless of economic or communal differences and without any discrimination.


NEED OF LEGAL AID

People are still unaware about their basic rights, due to which legal aid organizations have not achieved their objectives yet. Lack of legal awareness is exploiting and depriving the rights and benefits of the poor. Therefore, legal aid for the poor and vulnerable is mandatory for law enforcement. Even today, many people suffer injustice because they are unaware of their rights. In addition, the prestige of legal aid clinics in a community may be increased if a law school cooperates in the society’s work. Equality of justice must be made certain by the legal profession, which means that there has to be an adequate system for legal aid societies. The quintessence of professional education is imparting the capacity to deal with problems to students. “Legal problems come from human beings, not books. The clinical method exposes the student to actual problems by confronting him with actual people in actual trouble.”[8] The introduction of legal aid clinics in law schools, makes it a method of teaching law students to represent their clients effectively in the system as well as develop its critical view which forms an integral part of education.[9] It gives the students a solid grounding in the field of law , a better understanding of the role of judges and a keener awareness of the functions of social agencies.[10]

There are three related claims for the need of legal aid clinics in law schools: (1) there exists a vital connection between legal education and public interest (2) public interest requires law students to learn their social and professional responsibility to challenge injustice and pursue social justice (3) legal clinics of law schools are the primary areas where students can learn to be competent as well as ethically and socially responsible.[11]


ROLE OF LAW SCHOOLS

Law schools have some obligations to curb the inaccessibility to justice, which is best accomplished by the legal aid clinics through assisting low-income individuals and communities that are unaware or have difficulty in obtaining lawyers due to the nature of their legal problems.[12]

As the legal profession is expected to play a significant role in the administration of justice and law schools being the centres of recruiting legal practitioners, there is a need to instil a new spirit in legal education to equip lawyers and legal professionals to secure the constitutional mandate.


ACCESS TO JUSTICE UNDER INDIAN LAW

The constitutional framework seeks to achieve social, economic and political justice. These goals and objectives are also sought for consolidation, clarification and integration through the DPSP. After judicial notice on this matter, it was taken by the Court in various cases, after which the legislature drafted the Legal Service Authority Act, 1987. The directive extended to include the sphere of fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Consequently, the right to legal aid is now regarded as a part of fair and equitable process. The Entry of the Free Legal Aid under Part III of the Constitution was laid down in M.H. Haskot v. State of Maharashtra. In the appeal of a criminal conviction, the Supreme Court held that a certified copy of the Court’s decision is to be provided to the accused, in his or her own language, if possible, which must be free of charge. In this case, the Court directed the State to provide free legal assistance to the downtrodden and disabled prisoners.

Justice Bhagwati thereafter, while elucidating Article 21, noted that, ‘A procedure which does not make available legal services to an accused person who is too poor to afford a lawyer and who would, therefore have to go through the trial without legal assistance, cannot possibly be regarded as reasonable, fair, and just’.

In Khatri & Ors. v. State of Bihar & Ors several petitioners filed writs alleging that they were blinded by the police in custody. The Supreme Court noted that the provision of legal assistance arises from the second a detainee first appears before a Magistrate. This right is elemental in ensuring access to the Courts. The State cannot relinquish this fundamental, constitutional right irrespective of the prevailing circumstances. The State was barred by the Court from pleading financial and administrative inability to avoid its constitutional responsibility of providing free legal assistance to the poor criminal accused.

Subsequently, in Sukh Das & Anr. v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, conviction of accused was quashed by the Supreme Court as he remained unrepresented by a lawyer. The Supreme Court held that the trial judge was obligated to apprise the defendant if he is unable to seek a lawyer due to his poverty, he is entitled to receive free legal assistance. Therefore, while the right to legal aid is recognized in the Constitution and in the Courts, the implementation of this right is lacking for many people due to various exceptions in the law and lack of the system’s capacity.


RESTRUCTURING LEGAL AID CLINICS

The Clinical Legal Education movement is gaining momentum in India as much as it is globally. As required by law, many law schools have set up legal aid clinics. Some of these clinics are utilitarian, while others are either on paper or non-functional. There is a specific need to reorganize and transform these clinics to meet one of the national or international standards. Community awareness is the primary function of these clinics. There is curiosity for people to know the laws, their rights, obligations and governmental policies. Legal aid clinics create public awareness through legal education programs such as workshops, public-lectures, gatherings, poster demonstrations, etc. Undoubtedly, these events are sine qua non to all legal aid clinics and must be done extensively; but a different outlook from them can ensure worthier benefits.


CONCLUSION

Clinical legal education is a predominant and efficacious way of teaching law and the importance of ethics in providing access to social justice to the students. Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 mandates all law schools to participate in providing free legal aid to all its citizens. Studies reveal that there are excellent models of clinics for law schools to follow and learn. However, improvement has to be brought about, as a whole, in a formal clinical legal education. There are several reforms that can assist in improving the standard of clinical legal education in India and around the globe.

Further study is required to receive inputs from the community, clinic, academic students and the professors. This approach of building a team of researchers to study the functionality of legal aid clinics and community needs to be improved to understand the best practices and the greatest needs in society. It also provides an opportunity for students to learn about services, research methodologies, access to justice and the importance of ethics in providing assistance to low-income community members. The sole aim of legal aid is ensuring that the pledge of the Constitution is fulfilled in letter and spirit by promoting equal justice to all, particularly to the poor, oppressed and vulnerable sections of the society.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Mohandas K. Gandhi, Towards New Education, 94–95 (Bharatan Kumarappa ed., 1931). [2] Quintin Johnstone, Law School Legal Aid Clinics, 3 J. LEGAL EDUC. 535 (1951). [3] Id. [4] Supra note 2. [5] Roopali Mohan, “Importance of Legal Aid Clinics in Law Schools”. [6] Supra note 2. [7] Manoharan v. Sivarajan & Ors. [(2014) 4 SCC 163]. [8] Robert G. Storey, Law School Legal Aid Clinics - Foreword, 3 J. LEGAL EDUC. 533 (1951). [9] Stephen Wizner & Dennis Curtis, Here’s What We Do”: Some Notes About Clinical Legal Education, 29 Clev. St. L. Rev. 673 (1980). [10] L.S. Fairbairn, Legal Aid Clinics for Ontario Law Schools, 3 Osgoode HALL L. J. 316 (1965). [11] Stephen Wizner, The Law School Clinic: Legal Education in the Interests of Justice, 70 FORDHAM L. REV. 1929 (2002). [12] Jane H. Aiken and Stephen Wizner, “Teaching and Doing: The Role of Law School Clinics in Enhancing Access to Justice”.

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