Legal Services Clinic Blog, Uncategorized

Linguistic Barriers to Accessing Legal Aid in India

Gaurav Bhawnani:

In India, state governments may choose their own ‘language of court’.[1] As a result, in a country so diverse, language being a barrier to accessing the legal system is not only intuitively conceivable, but is also a growing reality with inter-state migrant workers coming into conflict with the law.[2] As urbanization and consequently, migration of labour, increases, language becomes a greater barrier to accessing the judiciary. While there are provisions for translators to be made available to accused persons under the Code of Criminal Procedure, their services are available only to translate evidence, the Record of the Examination of the Accused and the operative parts of the judgment of the court.[3] Translation services are conspicuously absent at the stage of investigation, charging and bail. The right to be informed of charges in a language understood by the accused has in fact been recognized by various international human rights conventions, as has the right to a translator during the proceedings.[4] Not only are they unavailable for large parts of the process, no qualification requirements have been laid down by statute for translators.[5] There have been a number of cases of ambiguities being caused, even to the extent of confusing the role played by the accused, due to poor translation.[6]

Thus, in a system where no provision has been made for proceedings to be conducted in a language the accused understands, and very little has been done to facilitate translations, the role played by lawyers in circumventing the hurdle of language assumes greater significance. Especially in the case of migrant labourers and trafficked people, who are unlikely to understand English or the local language, their lawyer would be their only hope in navigating court proceedings. However, these are people who are also likely to be dependent on legal aid lawyers. The following paragraphs examine the provisions made for language in legal aid in India.

At the Central level, the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 is completely silent on the issue of language. It constitutes the National Legal Services Authority, the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee and the State Legal Services Authorities. However, at the most primary level are the legal aid clinics set up by the District Legal Services Authorities. These clinics are run by lawyers and para-legal volunteers to provide basic legal services to villagers, including clinics set up by law colleges as well. The regulations for legal aid clinics try to ensure that they are accessible by stipulating guidelines with respect to language. The signboards for legal aid clinics must bear the name, timings etc. in English as well as the regional language.[7]Given that these are the primary places where people can access legal aid, it is essential that it be in a language that the local populace can read and understand. The forms to filled in order to apply for legal aid are also mandatorily required to be in English as well as the local language under various Acts and schemes.[8] However, in the case of documents, various legal aid schemes and Acts place the burden upon the people in need, rather than the authorities. Several guidelines require litigants to get documents and orders of lower courts translated to English while approaching the legal aid authorities.[9]

Not only can language be a barrier at the stage of approaching these clinics, it is also a barrier at the stage of interacting with the legal aid lawyers. Consequently, the guidelines for hiring[10]and training[11] para-legal volunteers both stipulate that they must be able to speak the local language and must be trained in it. Similarly, speaking the local language is a criteria laid down for lawyers by various State Legal Services Authorities.[12] Linguistic criteria are also applied in hiring stenographers and clerks.[13]

Thus, at the stage of accessing legal aid, in terms of sign boards and forms, as well as recruiting legal aid lawyers and volunteers provisions have been made for English and the local language. However, the Acts as well as guidelines are completely silent on the issue of other languages, including Hindi. Similarly, no guidelines have been laid down by courts in this regard. As a result, migrant labourers or trafficked people, who are in fact likely not understand English and to need legal aid, would not only be able to access legal aid clinic or interact with legal aid lawyers effectively. The importance of legal aid in this regard must be kept in mind given the fact that states may choose their own language of court, so these people are unlikely to understand court proceedings as well.

[1] Section 272, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973,

[2] See S. Philip, Migrant Workers Caned in Kerala, Indian Express, (July 18th, 2012), available at http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/migrant-workers-caned-in-kerala/975856/, (last visited on August 26th, 2016); T. Lahiti, Delhi Journal: The Migrant Problem, The Wall Street Journal, (March 30th, 2012), available at http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/03/30/delhi-journal-the-migrant-problem/, (last visited on August 26th, 2016); J. Chowdhury, Bangladesh Migrants: The Citizens of No Man’s Land, Russia Today, (May 23rd, 2014), available at http://rt.com/op-edge/161056-bangladesh-migrants-citizens-india/, (last visited on August 26th, 2016).

[3] Sections 279, 281, 282, 364, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

[4] Article 6, European Convention of Human Rights; Article 14 International Convention of Civil and Political Rights.

[5] For a detailed discussion of linguistic issues with translations and linguistic barriers under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 see A. Sekhri, J. Dadiya, Linguistic Barriers to Justice in Indian Criminal Procedure, Critical Twenties, (August 9th, 2016), available at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/uncategorized/linguistic-barriers-to-justice-in-indian-criminal-procedure#_ftn5, last visited on August 26th, 2016).

[6] Rubabbuddin Sheikh v. State of Gujarat, (2010) 2 SCC 200, [Supreme Court of India]. Similarly see Ramchandra Shenoy v. Hilda Brite, 1964 AIR 1323, [Supreme Court of India].

[7] R. 13, National Legal Services Authority (Legal Aid Clinics) Regulations, 2011.

[8] See R. 3, National Legal Services Authority (Free and Competent Legal Services) Regulations, 2010.

[9] See 15A Supreme Court Middle Income Group Legal Aid Scheme; http://www.sclsc.nic.in/faq.htmhttp://www.kslsa.kar.nic.in/faq.asp.

[10] See R. 1, Scheme for Implementing the Project of Paralegal Volunteers by the State Legal Services Authorities.

[11] See Scheme for Para-Legal Volunteers (Revised) & Module for the Orientation – Induction – Refresher Courses for Plv Training, pg. 5.

[12] See Rule 10(k), The Karnataka State Legal Services Authorities Rules, 1996.

[13] Schedule-I, The Karnataka State Legal Services Authorities Rules, 1996.

 

Image credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_language_word_cloud_depicting_language_neutrality.svg

Gaurav Bhawnani (IV Year) is a law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore and can be contacted at gauravhareshbhawnani@nls.ac.in.

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