By: Ashwin Misra
The Indian Constitution backed by jurisprudence that is unmatched guarantees equal protection of rights to every citizen. But the real situation is a different story. George Orwell was not wrong in saying that some men are more equal than others – the poor keep toiling to be heard when justice (fabricated or real) comes effortlessly to those who have their coffers full.
An equal dispensation of justice is one of the basics tenets of the Indian legal system. In the words of Justice Krishna Iyer, “An equal and even-handed justice has been a cherished ideal of administration of justice since the dawn of civilization”. In Magna Carta, the womb of common law, it is stated, “To no man will we deny, to no man will we sell, or delay justice right”. Sadly, the current situation is a poor testament to the stated ideal. It is only the idealists and the naïve who think that the Indian judiciary and legal system is incorruptible. The stark reality of the day is that the base nature of human psyche has infested the system. The lofty ideals of justice, fairness and equity have been lost somewhere in the ignominy of time, and human greed has corrupted the guardians of justice.
Availing justice in India is a highly exhausting and costly endeavour. The legal system behaves almost as if it does not want to execute the task it was made for in the first place. It has been reduced to being an extremely slow and inefficient machinery because of which the poor suffer unimaginably. Courts take an indefinitely long amount of time to dispose off cases due to lengthy procedures and more so due to their sheer amount. William Penn, an English philosopher, gave the expression “to delay justice is injustice”. This statement holds true for victims in cases where the courts take decades to arrive at a decision. A recent example is the much publicized and infamous hit-and-run case of the Bollywood superstar Salman Khan. The case had a painfully slow pace and the family of the victim strongly felt that the conviction of the superstar could not make any difference for them as too much time had elapsed.
The meaning of the word ‘justice’, as it was originally meant to be, had nothing to do with money. Justice Blackmun clearly says, “The concept of seeking justice cannot be equated with the value of dollars. Money plays no role in seeking justice.” But unfortunately, avarice has turned even this sacrosanct value into a commodity that could be bought and sold. Corruption is a problem that plagues the nation severely and if not treated in time, will effectively destroy it. The system as it exists today is such that it can be easily influenced if the person who demands justice has deep enough pockets. This slows down an already leaden-footed and time-consuming system. According to Former Chief Justice of India, V.N. Khare, corruption and bribery are rampant in the lower judiciary. A question that rises here is that who shall watch the watchmen?
Lawyers and advocates, who have been entrusted with the task of helping the court in expediting the process of justice delivery, rather resort to delaying tactics such as bribing the prosecutor to work in their favour in criminal cases. This breed of greedy men can be easily classified under two categories – one who actually work but charge very high rates from their clients and the second who just dupe their clients to make quick bucks. The poor or even the middle class cannot afford the former category and thus a large majority sticks with the latter. The top 20 to 30 lawyers in Delhi, for example, charge no less than Rs. 5 lakh for a five-minute hearing besides other things like business class airfare and the cost of staying in the best hotels from their clients. It is true that there is nothing in the Advocates Act of 1961 or any other statute or rule book for that matter that puts a limit on how much a lawyer can charge as their fee, and it is quiet fantastical when one gets to know the real figures.
Such extortionate rates charged by lawyers have put access to justice and the legal system out of the reach of the majority of Indian populace. This situation becomes staggeringly more horrifying when we look at the people who need the legal system the most – the impoverished, the downtrodden, the helpless, the unknowing and unwitting are the ones who need the most guidance and support, but even they are cheated by small-time lawyers who live off these poor souls. The people I am talking about here are the poor bystanders, the impoverished ones without a shirt on their back or a roof over their heads. Yes, I am talking about the ones who are forced to sleep on pavements. They are the ones who have to painfully suffer the denial of justice. The upper class and the super-rich, on the other hand, are beyond the law in several respects. They always seem to have the requisite influence to minimize the probability of ever seeing the insides of a prison cell.
After a considerable period of time, the struggle for justice seems futile. People die feeling that they have lost most part of their lives in court corridors, in public offices with their doors shut, in front of the shamelessly smirking lawyers. It is heart-breaking to see how the system is failing us. Justice R.S. Lodhi, former judge of the Delhi High Court rightly remarked, “A man with means can secure his liberty and a man without means cannot”.
(Ashwin is currently Associate Editor at RMLNLU Law Review.)