New Delhi: 

Legal aid lawyers are defenders of human rights and there is a need for them to be paid at the same level as public prosecutors, Delhi High Court judge Justice S Muralidhar said Sunday, during the launch of a national report on legal aid for persons in custody.


The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative's (CHRI) report — Hope Behind Bars? — highlighted that per capita spending on legal aid in India is just Rs 0.75.


The report also stated that there is 14 per cent under-utilisation of funds allocated to state legal services authorities.


While states like Bihar, Sikkim and Uttarakhand have utilised less than 50 per cent of allocated funds, only 339 of the 520 district legal service authorities (DLSAs) have full-time secretaries to manage delivery of legal aid services.


"Delhi High Court Justice S Muralidhar today defined legal aid lawyers as human rights defenders, and spoke on the need for legal aid lawyers to be paid at the same level as public prosecutors," a statement quoting Muralidhar said.


Speaking at a panel discussion on 'improving quality of legal representation,' Justice S Muralidhar explained the need for having a "human-rights based approach to legal aid instead of an approach based on criminal law and procedures", the statement said.


He also emphasised the need to "incentivise lawyers". The report draws on hundreds of RTI applications and material available on the public domain on the legal aid framework in the country. The report was launched by Justice (retd) A P Shah, former chief justice of Delhi High Court.


Justice Shah pointed out that many prisoners are unaware of the status of their cases as well as their basic human rights, the statement quoted him.


"Access to justice is the most basic human right," the statement quoting him said. He stressed on the need for competent legal aid lawyers, providing effective legal representation.


Dr Srikrishna Deva Rao, vice-chancellor, NLU Odisha, urged for extensive use of para-legal volunteers in the legal system as a link between the community and courts.


To spread awareness, schools and colleges need to have systems in place to familiarise them (the youths) on the role of the police, he said.


He also highlighted the importance of legal representation immediately after arrest and also pointed out the necessity of legal aid at different stages including, at the point of arrest, when first produced in front of a competent officer, and during remand orders passed by magistrates.


Raja Bagga, author of the report, while sharing key findings said at present there is no national scheme which establishes a mechanism to provide legal aid at the police station.


He further said that 60 per cent of the districts which responded to the RTI had constituted a monitoring committee.


Monitoring committees are mandated to review each case to ensure the quality of legal aid provided by lawyers.


Maintaining records and registers and keeping a separate staff to manage monitoring committees are crucial for its working. "Only 16 per cent of the committees had staff and 23 per cent maintained registers," Bagga said.


The report said India's per capita lawyer ratio is better than most countries in the world. There are about 1.8 million lawyers in India which means one lawyer for every 736 persons but still, many people remain unrepresented for long periods, the report said.


There are 61,593 panel lawyers and 9,56,323 remand lawyers in the country and therefore 3.95 per cent of these 1.8 million lawyers are legal aid lawyers.


This translates to one legal aid lawyer per 18,609 people or five legal aid lawyers per 1,00,000 population. Another important category of legal aid providers are para legals. NALSA trained 67,844 para legals last year, the report said.