The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.
Justice is derived from the Latin word Justitia meaning joining or a fitting bond. It is a relative concept and is mostly related to the social structure of the society. The basic idea of a democracy lies in equality and justice. As John Locke rightly suggested that “not only basic equality of man but his natural right to life, liberty and property” also is the basic principle of democratic value that encompasses justice.
Regarding equality before the law, Locke stated that rulers “are to govern by promulgated established laws, not to be varied in particular cases, but to have one rule for rich and poor, for the favorite at Court, and the countryman at plough. Miller describes justice as, “just state of affairs in which every individual has the same benefits and burdens which are due on him.”
Justice is an indicator of a progressive society. Justice, theoretically, is understood by its various forms like social, legal, economic and political justice. The area of interest to us is what is known as social justice that always aims at revision of the social order and redistribution of rights. It is also related to the eradication of social problems and in modern times it includes the upliftment of socially and economically backward sections of the society.
In the sixth century B.C. the Greek leader Solon attempted to put this idea of equality into practice, stating: “I have given the common people sufficient power to assure them of dignity and I have protected those of great wealth and influence. I took a firm stand, holding my stout shield over both classes, so that neither should win any unfair advantage”, but this lead to the upper and wealthier sections of the society taking undue advantage from the situation and pushed the poorer sections aside.
This makes us look at two concepts widely present in a modern democracy namely – justice and poverty. Justice and poverty have been considered synonyms by some, while for some people who are below poverty line, justice remains a utopia. But well what is poverty? Is it just the people who do not have enough money to fulfil their daily needs or does it include even those people who are denied access to certain areas, who are denied basic rights, who are cursed to live under dismal conditions or those who are denied justice after all?
As textbook definition of poverty is considered, it is the lack of resources to meet one’s basic ends like food, clothing, and shelter. Poverty can be looked at in a different way too. If, In a democracy, people are devoid of basic rights or are not able to speak for themselves, such can also be a modern way of expressing poverty in a democratic country.
The article 14, of the Indian constitution, clearly states “The state shall not deny any person equality before law and equal protection within the territory of India”. Other than this basic safeguard to a person’s fundamental right of justice, Indian constitution also provides for equal and free legal aid with suitable schemes to every citizen through article 39A.
But yet there are significant number of poor and the underprivileged, to whom justice is yet to be delivered.
Justice and Poverty
If we are living in a democratic country, justice without any argument comes along with it. It is the right of every citizen to seek justice and legal aid so that there is no unfair advantage assumed or given to any specific community. Poverty isn’t by choice; it is a phenomenon that arises due to lack of resources and also due to marginalisation of communities.
There are many cases where poor are denied or delayed justice, one of the recent being hit and run case which took several years to grant justice to the family of the victim. Some major reasons as to why justice is a far fetched dream for the poor is their lack of legal (and also political) awareness.
Poor people who do not have access to proper education do not even know their basic fundamental rights. If they are bullied, mistreated or victimised, because of their status or because of marginalisation, they are unaware of this being a crime. They carry the mentality of being okay with the mistreatment given to them by people who have power and money and thus are deprived of the knowledge of their basic fundamental rights.
Even if they are aware of their fundamental rights being violated their basic presumption about courts and justice is that ‘courts take time to deliver justice and need a lot of money to deliver speedy justice.
Legal procedures need lot of resources in terms of money, apart from the time consumed, which leads them to take a step back. At times when the case is dealing with a wealthier party, they are made to take their case back and be submissive. Other times it is the lawyer’s fee, which is hefty and unaffordable for them as portrayed through many movies like Jolly LLB 2.
Other reasons for the miserable state of justice to the poor include constraints of language. Most of the poor people belong to rural areas or a marginalised community, where they aren’t exposed to state official languages or even languages like Hindi. They have a dialect familiar only to them and language which makes it difficult for them to translate the entire case to a good lawyer or to a lawyer out of their community.
Another reason is that they have their own system of justice for small crimes within their community that do not require them (according to them) to seek further professional help. It is also because of lack of education and informative resources, they do not know as to how to exactly approach the courts which distances them further from seeking justice.
Other reasons include the stereotypical attitude towards lawyers, the observed lacunae of the Indian judicial system and also the mindset of people that doesn’t want any personal matter to be heard by the government or the rest of the public. A step towards seeking legal aid and thus justice is therefore, still miles away from fully achieving it.
While these are few reasons as to why justice doesn’t reach the poor or let’s say why the poor do not seek justice; there are others to whom justice is never really granted. These include women and the worst affected of all are the rural women, the marginalised women who are victims of rape, dowry and other heinous crimes.
The pending cases for rape alone went up 12.5 in 2016 (from 118,537 to 133,813) and even now, 15000 plus dowry cases remain pending. The plight of women and marginalised poor is much worse than that of the urban poor in terms of seeking and been given justice.
National Legal Services
To remedy the plight of the economically backward sections of our society and all those can’t reach to justice some judges took the initiative to take justice to the poor. Although at panchayat levels, the khap panchayats are responsible to keep check on the local disputes but the problem with this system is its informality and partial judgements.
Therefore, after realising the need for speedy trials and affordable legal services, guidelines were prepared for the same 1960’s onward in India. In 1973, expert committee on legal aid was set up titled as ‘Processual Justice to the people’ which was chaired by Justice Bhagwati.
This led to the set up of National Legal Services Authority Act (NALSA). Along with Justice Krishna Iyer, it went on it to set up Legal aid schemes for the poor that institutionalised legal aid in India. On 5th December 1995 the National Legal Services Authority act was truly established and was chaired by A.S Anand .But yet the basic assumptions about judiciary that filled the minds of people didn’t grant it the required boost.
What strengthened the foundations of legal aid in India was the set up Public Interest Litigation and the Lokadalats for granting speedy, fair and affordable justice to people. It reached the common people as a source of formal dispute resolving mechanism which was cheap and easily accessible. Lokadalats were sought as an alternative to formal courts to settle disputes, with the consent of both the parties, to settle or resolve any disputes quickly, without any court fees or by giving hefty fees to the lawyer.
The Public Interest Litigation also gained huge importance and popularity amongst the rural areas of India. It has become a popular tool used by the poor and the villagers to seek justice that gave them equal rights and say in the matter. The National Legal Aid services are provided at national, state, district and taluka level each having a different presiding officer like the district judge, civil judge or retired high court judge for their assigned jurisdictions.
NALSA also framed the Legal services authority regulations in 2010 that gave free and competent services to people and also included the payment of fees by older retired judges in cases of life threatening situations. The Supreme Court has also set up the Supreme Court Legal services commission to ensure free legal aid to the poor and underprivileged under the legal services authority headed by the Supreme Court judge of India.
Along with the above measures, government seeks to provide justice to all through Pro Bono services. Pro Bono Publico is a Latin phrase that means “for the good of the people”. Other countries like USA, EU and Australia have successfully implemented it where their main feature is to serve as a legal aid to the economically and socially backward communities of the society who are often denied access because of lack of monetary resources or lack of awareness.
It was implemented in India with the same aim to provide free legal services and bring in top class lawyers for those who can’t afford through an online government portal. The government has provided a separate website for this where lawyers can register themselves for these services and the people can take advantage of it.
In the backdrop of collective backlog of 3,06,82,571 cases (as per 2018) by the supreme court, high court and lower courts, the Indian judiciary system is striving hard to deliver speedy justice at affordable rates, thus not making justice a dream for some sections of the society. They have also setup fast track courts for the same so that time isn’t a constraint for people anymore.
With this, Article 21 (right to life) along with Article 39A of the Indian constitution provides constitutional safeguard and the right to seek counsel. Writs like Habeas corpus, Mandamus etc also empower people to seek justice in case of violation of their fundamental rights.
Yet there remains a lacuna between these two entities of the society. Lack of information about judicial procedures makes people averse towards seeking justice. Power, is yet another issue where poor people are victimised and stopped from seeking justice, especially in cases involving disputes or crime by wealthier people.
Awareness comes from education and from the efforts of the people who can travel to deliver information about the judicial system to the poor. The authorities are striving hard to not let justice be a dream and help it to be viable to all its citizens but still there are physical, at times geographical and at times educational (language) barriers that hinder the process.
There is also the fault of administrative system that lags behind and lacks accountability and responsibility leading to corruption, be it in terms of charges levied or taking advantage of people’s unawareness.
Indian judiciary has built itself over the years and stands as the strongest and most accountable and honest pillars of our democracy. It is a privilege to the citizens who are heard by the courts at all levels. Though there are systemic disruptions in the process it still stands alive and powerful enough to not let the constitution, the base, to be used wrongly. Justice must reach poor, the marginalised as well as the women and the transgender.
Today a nation that still has almost half its population living under poverty must be given access to justice. Thus, poverty isn’t just dearth of basic amenities or meagre resources; it is also a dearth of knowledge to seek benefits of the judicial system, it is the stereotypical mindset that prevents one from seeking justice or lack of power to fight the powerful.
It is not just a one way process where justice must reach the poor but a two way process where people should also be willing to seek justice and benefits of the judicial system to get speedy and affordable justice and not escape from it. It is real poverty when justice is delayed or denied.