Written by: Girija Rani Mullupadi, Shabnam Kodalil, Gayathri Menon and Sudeepthi Veeravilli
Legal awareness can be described as the legal consciousness that empowers individuals regarding issues involving the law. It helps to be conscious about the legal culture, participation in the formation of laws, and the rule of law. Besides being an eye-opener, legal awareness is the key fighter against exploitation and it aids a person to liberate himself from the executive or any other established authority.
Legal consciousness is defined by Ewick and Silbey as “the process by which people make sense of their experiences by relying on legal categories and concepts.” People do this even when they are not familiar with the details and minutia of law or the legal system. They explain that there are cultural schemas provided by law that people use to make sense of their experiences. This is referred to as legality. The concept of legality includes "the meanings, sources, authority and cultural practices that are commonly recognized as legal, regardless of who employs them or for what ends." These meanings and sources are different ways of knowing by enabling people to make sense of what happens to them and what that might mean in terms of their rights and options. This process of understanding legal experiences occurs within a larger ecosystem in which there are disputes over meaning and values. Seron and Munger explain that "in addition, the class may affect legal consciousness: Law may mean different things depending on an individual's location in the various hierarchies of status, prestige, and knowledge associated with membership in a social class”. Also, according to P. Sathasivam, the Ex-Chief Justice of India, “legal literacy is the core basis of the survival of our constitutional democracy. Our entire judicial setup functions on the presumptions that all people are aware of their rights and can approach the concerned institution.”[i]
The majority of our citizens are unaware of the country's legal structures, as well as their human rights. People are conscious of it, but because of their economic and social disadvantages, they are unable to afford it. They are unable to retain the expertise of legal counsel, which has been an expensive matter. By the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976, the Parliament of India incorporated a particular Directive Principle, namely Article 39-A, intending to provide free legal assistance to deserving parts of society.[ii]
Socio-Cultural Condition of Legal Awareness
India, with its entirety of 137 crore people, is brimming with a variety of socio-cultural disparities. The ultimate question for the existence of a democratic judicial system is hence undeniably whether justice is reaching every nook and corner of such a society. From marginalized communities ranging from women, other genders, elders, oppressed classes to the poor, a brief look into the accessibility of legal awareness can solve half the answer.
The preliminary aspect of this outlook would be literacy. As per the Census of India 2011, about 69% of India's population is rural, out of which only 64% is literate. Unlike its urban counterparts, tackling literacy inequality has become their ultimate path to legal awareness. Evidently enough, the disparities also further widen within different communities and notoriously among men and women. This is in no manner a pat on the back for our present educational system- our infamous rote learning isn't commendable either. The general perception is that practical applications and life skills are made alien to the syllabus and subsequently there is an absence of a school curriculum fostering street-smart citizens.
On a serious note, the apathy towards knowing the laws of this country is concerning. It shouldn't be law students spending their savings for a degree who are the gatekeepers of law, but the common people who are subjected to it. Ironically, the law of the land is pristine and ‘too complicated’ and at the same time, you are by default considered to know it in all its glory in a courtroom. When law will metamorphose from its bourgeois persona is unknown, but it's going to be at the cost of heaps of human rights violations. Our constitution reflects on the values and struggles of our country, more than anything, a population fully aware of their rights and duties is the need of the hour.
Legal Awareness is Needed
Legal aid for the oppressed is essential for the rule of law and is necessary for the life of a stable society. It entails providing free legal aid to the poor and vulnerable who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent them in court, jury, or before an authority. Before and until a vulnerable illiterate man receives legal assistance, he is without a reasonable right to seek justice. The Indian Constitution guarantees an autonomous and unbiased judiciary, so the court must be independent and impartial.
Enlightening of legal education consists of a variety of events aimed at raising public consciousness about the law and the justice system. It also involves the areas of expertise and research that are related to those practices. According to Anna-Marie Marshall, “in order to realize their rights, people need to take the initiative to articulate them. This initiative, in term, depends on the availability and the prevalence of legal schemes to people confronting problems.”
“Legal awareness facilitates people to demand justice, reliability, and remedies at every level of their existence. It enables to understand or anticipate legal troubles and take the required and necessary steps in order to prevent their occurrence.” When a citizen is conscious of his rights and has a basic understanding of the law, he or she can easily ask a lawyer for counsel and consultation at any moment, thereby confronting or preventing a problem as it arises.[iii]
We all can ascertain the fact that the lack of legal expertise magnifies the importance of legal issues and challenges when they occur. Moreover, due to a lack of legal awareness, legal matters tend to be more serious than they are by making the client feel overly threatened.
Owing to a lack of legal literacy, a substantial amount of instances of infringement occur. This is a significant impediment to every law's effective execution. Article 39(A) of the Indian Constitution directs the states to ensure that the judicial system operates in a way that promotes justice on an equal footing. It also directs that no citizen's right to justice be denied because of economic or other disabilities. As citizens are mindful of their rights and responsibilities, delivering justice and balancing the different interests of a community becomes simpler. Increased legal literacy leads to a more open and responsible government that is truly driven by the “Rule of Law”.
They should be made aware of the legal aid system and its schemes. To raise awareness, many NGOs have an efficient role to play. They encourage people to recognise their interests and include them in the provision of free legal assistance at the court. The government has put in place many commissions and programmes for the welfare of the economically and socially backwards. There is already a backlog in gaining this right and opportunity because of the lack of public knowledge. Though people are illiterate and weak, they must nevertheless improve their rights and enter the Court and pursue justice, even if they are not considered their position.[iv]
We can also see the attempts of bringing legal awareness in Corporate and Institutional Literacies.
Legal literacy is a platform that bridges the divide between law and industry by translating legal terms into business terms and encouraging people to see the law as a valuable business tool. Corporate legal awareness is used to mitigate legal risk for both workers and the company. When working with lawyers, executives must cultivate a common language to bridge corporate contact barriers and gain legal expertise.
Professionals in a variety of areas, many of whom are well educated, are frequently unaware of the law and the consequences of its infringement. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) come in and play a critical role in educating people about general regulations by conducting workshops and training sessions.
Public legal education is also called legal literacy. Legal literacy will inspire individuals or need the least standards of fairness, transparency, and efficacy. We all know that India could be known to a wider variety of people with analphabetic, suffering, and harmlessness, and is in a position to raise the consciousness of all this. Irrespective of analphabetism, one should remember the country's essential rule. This helps people understand and engage with their rights to provide free legal assistance in court.
In Shri Bajrang Vidhyalaya Samati vs. State of Rajasthan[v], it was said that the state has a responsibility to ensure that a certain level of education is achieved in the state. One of the obligations levied on the Bar Council of India by the Bar Council of India Act is to ensure that legal education is imparted while maintaining those standards.
Fundamental rights are enshrined in Part III of our Constitution, but they become imaginary rights for those who do not recognize or are unaware of them. For this noble concept to be realized, equality under the law necessitates equal access to the law. Our government has adopted the National Common Minimum Programme, which highlights the importance of legal empowerment in society, especially for those on the margins.[vi]
In the year 1972, a committee chaired by the Hon’ble Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer was constituted to consider rendering legal advice to people belonging to the weaker sections of the community to make them aware about their constitutional and legal rights. The committee was also asked to consider providing legal aid to them to make justice more accessible to all sections of the society. Subsequently, a committee chaired by Hon’ble Justice P.N Bhagwati was constituted by the government for ‘Implementing Legal Aid Schemes (CILAS)’. The main objective of constituting this committee was to recommend how best to fulfill the constitutional obligations of the State under Article 39-A. The committee formulated various schemes to not only ensure that legal aid is provided to the needy but also to ensure that legal awareness is created among people. The committee also proposed measures to promote community mobilization to the ability to enforce rights through PILs. It also formulated a model scheme for establishing State Legal Aid and Advice Board. It was based on these recommendations that the parliament passed the Legal Services Authority Act in the year 1987.
The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) was constituted under the Legal Services Authority Act to establish a nationwide network for providing free and competent legal services to the needy. NALSA monitors and evaluates the implementation of various legal aid programmes and lays down various policies and principles. As a part of this, in every state, a State Legal Services Authority and in every High Court, a High Court Legal Services Committee was set up. Additionally, a District Legal Services Authority as well as Taluk Legal Services Committees were set up in most of the districts and taluks to ensure the smooth implementation of the legal aid programmes and to conduct Lok Adalats which is one of the Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanisms. NALSA also conducts legal literary programmes every year in various schools and colleges all across the country to educate people about their rights. They also conduct special programmes for the welfare of women, children and senior citizens.
There are four major reasons for the failure of National Legal Services Authorities to provide genuine legal aid:
the legal assistance laws are lacking in awareness;
there is a perceived incompatibility of free services with quality service;
the legal services authorities appear to have not had with lawyers and
Lawyers are usually bored by budgetary pressures to have professional legal aid.[vii]
In the State Of Maharashtra v Manubhai Pragaji Vashi[viii]case, the Supreme Court held that “to provide free legal aid we need to have well-trained lawyers for which we need a sufficient number of law schools with good teachers. This particular supreme court verdict shows that there should be separate budgetary provisions for improving legal education”.
Effective provision of legal aid in India calls for the government to undertake a public information and education drive to remind people of their right to free legal aid. The government must use more streamlined procedures to boost the delivery of legal assistance, including, though not limited to, increasing legal aid lawyers' pay. Free legal assistance rings false without the fundamental right.
Speaking in the valedictory position of the 17th All India Meeting of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), the CJI said that a "root source" of "failures, exploitation and degradation" of the rights and advantages of the masses was an absence of legal sensitivity. Justice Gogoi said that the "legal aid revolution" could not fulfil its purpose until citizens became mindful of their lawful rights and fundamental rights. According to him, "wider availability" means stronger and more widespread access[ix].
It is critical to recognize that basic education, which includes mandated legal awareness and understanding, is the first step in transforming India into a true superpower nation, one that will not only transform the lives of the poor but also drastically alter the way society works in other areas. It will not only aid in the resolution of social, economic, and political issues, but it will also aid in the prevention of powerful individuals exploiting others and in the greater integration of the substance of the many laws and legal procedures set by our framers and the lawmakers.
Mahatma Gandhi had said, "The first step in achieving justice is to make injustice visible". Our former CJI Justice Gogoi said "The pursuit of justice must include the abolition of inequality because it is unfair to deny someone the ability to pursue their right due to poverty." There is a significant difference between the goals set and the goals achieved. The most significant impediment to the legal aid movement in India is a lack of legal literacy. Since people are also unaware of their human rights, the legal aid movement is yet to accomplish its target. It is a lack of legal knowledge that leads to abuse and denial of working people's rights and benefits.
[i] NirmalyaChaudari, 'Towards complete legal literacy' (The Hindu, 5 January 2020) available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/towards-complete-legal-literacy/article30479979.ece (last visited on 25 May 2021).
[ii] The Constitution of India.
[iii] Bhavana Bharbude, 'Importance of Legal Literacy In Growth and Development of India' (Academia, 9 August 2019) p. 1.
[iv] Module Legal Awareness Programme, National Commission For Women, New Delhi, December 2019, available at: http://ncw.nic.in/sites/default/files/LAPModule20191205.pdf (last visited on May 6, 2021)
[v]ShriBajrangVidhyalayaSamitivs State Of Raj &Anr on 17 August 2009 Writ Petition No.7267/2005.
[vi]Shalini Sharma, 'Legal Literacy Growing Need of the Society' (SJIF, Oct 2016) Vol. 4(26) p. 2758.
[vii]Programme Management Unit CSC e-Governance Services India Limited, “Legal Literacy Project”, Prepared by CSC e-Governance India Ltd under the Access to Justice (NEJK) project of Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, GoI, available at: https://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/English_final_1.pdf ( last visited on May 6, 2021).
[viii]State Of Maharashtra v ManubhaiPragajiVashi(1995) 5 SCC 730.
[ix] Editorial, “Absence of legal awareness root cause of rights' deprivation”, Business Standard, (August 18, 2019), available at: https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/absence-of-legal-awareness-root-cause-of-rights-deprivation-119081800664_1.html ( last visited on May 6, 2021).