In the past, ‘access to justice’ simply meant the right to ‘have your day in court’1. However, the world has evolved and so have the social, economic, and political needs of the people. Today, the phrase covers a much wider aspect than just having access to courts. This article will deal with the most basic form of accessing justice- access to courts and legal aid.
India is a diverse country. The most populous democracy in the world, it abounds with economic and cultural disparities, inter alia. Despite lifting over 271 million out of poverty over the last 10 years2, an astoundingly large number of Indians still live in abject poverty. The Government of India realizes that the amount of disparity in India leads to differing abilities of people to access justice. In accordance with its realizations, the Government has legislated and implemented various schemes and programmes to help improve access to justice for the marginalized communities of India.
The Nyaya Bandhu (Pro Bono) Programme, which started in April 2017, was one of the most popular initiatives. In this, the Department of Justice of India, under the guidance of the Ministry of Law and Justice, released an app on the Android platform where lawyers could volunteer to take up pro-bono cases for those people who could not afford them. It is an ambitious programme and aimed to capitalize on the availability of the internet in rural areas, owing to the popularity and affordability of ‘Reliance Jio’ connections. It aims at providing assistance to pro bono advocates through competent law students3.
The legislature has been highly active in helping ease access to justice to the marginalized communities. The judiciary, however, has taken a very passive role. The recent judgement of Anita Kushwaha v. Pushap Sudan4one step went further than earlier decisions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. However, it remains agonizingly short of leading to anything concrete. The judgment, while identifying four different facets of ‘access to justice’ fails to explain them in detail. It repeats what earlier judgements have said and only sheds relatively more light on the facet relating to speedy adjudication. It fails to recognize that the earlier judgements it refers to and reaffirms have failed to establish substantial methods to ease access to justice for the poor and marginalized. The judgement acknowledges that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. This, however, can never be enough.
The right to a speedy trial, guaranteed to be a Fundamental Right in the case of Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab5, is gaining importance day-by-day. Its goals, however, still fail to be a reality. The court, while delivering its judgement, envisaged that the right would help poor people get access to justice much faster. This has failed to materialize. It is imperative to note that the pre-Emergency Supreme Court did not develop any extensive jurisprudence with relation to the field of basic human rights. The post-Emergence Supreme Court, however, has been highly active with regards to this field. Despite this, it has been ineffective in laying down any solid groundwork for an efficient system to prevent delays in Courts. Unnecessary adjournments, an abnormally high judge-case ratio, vacancies in Courts, an indiscriminate resort to writ jurisdiction inter alia are just a few reasons behind judicial delays today. The Courts, while acknowledging them on various occasions, have come up with nothing concrete. The judiciary needs to understand the critical role it can play in helping increase access to justice in India. Unless it starts making changes to the fundamental way a court handles cases, access to justice in India will remain no more than a distant dream.
While criticism of the judiciary and legislature may be rampant, it is imperative for the public to realize the power they hold. Access to justice for the poor and marginalized depends on the decisions that the public makes. Law students need to understand the critical position they are in to help the judiciary and the legislature in their efforts. Providing assistance to law-makers and lawyers alike is imperative. The youth of India has immense potential to better the condition of the justice system in the country. This potential needs to be realized and tapped into to better the condition of the poor people in India.
The writer proposes that the government provide incentives for lawyers who take up pro bono cases. These incentives may be monetary or otherwise. The government can further mandate that a law student needs to contribute to a certain number of pro bono cases before being accorded the status of a ‘practising lawyer’. The writer feels that due to an inadequate amount of data available, the contribution made by all schemes of the legislature cannot be determined. Therefore, the writer feels that a body should be set up, under the aegis of the Department of Justice of the Ministry of Law and Justice, that would solely deal with advancing access to justice for the poor and marginalised people of India.
In conclusion, it is imperative to understand that access to justice in India is not what one may dream of it to be. The legislature has made efforts to improve this but its schemes have not achieved there desired outcomes. Unless the judiciary pays cognizance to the role it plays in helping ease access to justice for the poor, access to justice in India would fail to transform into reality.
 Vol. 1, Mauro Cappellatti & Bryant Garth, Access to Justice: A World Survey (Book I) 6-7 (Aphenaandenrijn: Sijthoff and Noordhoff, 1978)
 United Nations, General Assembly, The 2019 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), (United Nations, 2019) (April 10, 8:00 pm) http://hdr.undp.org/en/2019-MPI
 Ministry of Law and Justice, Overview, Nyaya Bandhu: Pro Bono Legal Services (April 10, 2018, 7:30 pm), http://probono-doj.in/overview.html#bannerTwo
 AIR 2016 SC 3506
 (1994) 3 SCC 569