Providing free legal aid to the prisoners and their affected families is one of the primary areas in which VARHAD works effectively. We believe that every individual irrespective of any differences based on class, age or sex must get ‘a free and fair trial’ which is also a constitutional right and a 5 privilege for any citizen living in a democracy. It is also imperative for the smooth functioning of our Criminal Justice System (CJS).
VARHAD works towards this end by offering legal aid, speedy trials and guidance to the most deserving under-trial prisoners. We do this in consultation, and with the involvement of the prisoner’s relatives to avoid the psychological break down of the prisoners.
There are 67% of the prison population all over India on waiting for trial in the court of law. The statistics depict the pathetic condition of the accused in Indian legal system having one of the reasons behind the unavailability of proper legal aid to the deserving candidate(s). Interestingly, though according to Indian law, it renders them innocent until proven guilty but there is so much torture/agony in between especially for a person belonging to a poor and marginalized background. In absence of effective justice system, they are kept behind bars for months and years in waiting for the justice.
Our experience since more than a decade in the field tells that the majority of the prisoners languishing in prisons are either first-time offenders, petty offenders or altogether innocent. They suffer in jail not because of the crime they have committed but because of ignorance of the legal procedures, illiteracy and poverty. For example, as per the rules of the CJS, under trial prisoners can be released on bail or on a personal bond. But the poor can not able to avail this facility. Late Krishna Iyer, a retired justice has appropriately endorsed this point. He said, “The bail system is highly loaded against poor.” Sadly, the poor are automatically disqualified from using the bail system since the court considers only money or assets, as surety. Therefore, a large number of prisoners are not even represented legally, as they cannot pay the expensive fee for the advocates. Most of the times, the family of the prisoner sells their livelihood to engage private lawyers, and they are still unable to see the cases to completion. This results in the prisoner’s entire family being doomed to exploitation and hurled towards the world of crime.
Though the state has a system for free legal aid to poor prisoners, it does not function properly. Lawyers are not keen to represent those who cannot pay and do it half-heartedly. With the fear of losing their cases, even poor people are reluctant to avail legal aid through the State Legal Services Authority.
In such a complex situation, VARHAD works towards strengthening the state legal aid services so that needy get competent advocates for their cases, wherein the state picks up the expenses. We also coordinate with the advocates for improved functioning of this system. In one of its milestone achievements, the VARHAD has formed a network of quality advocates across the eastern Maharashtra (consisting 11 districts), who are very sensitive and interested in representing the poor 6 prisoners. The advocates associated with us provide their services to poor prisoners (referred by us) and charge minimum compensation (only to cover expenses) from us. The client, who in this case is the prisoner, doesn’t pay anything to the advocates within the VARHAD network. This network extends through the lowest courts to High courts. In a very regular way, this organisation provides legal aid to hundreds of under-trial cases as well as convicted prisoners yearly, who are not in a position to pay for the appeal in the High Court.
VARHAD supports legal aid from imprisonment to acquittal in the following stages:
a) Bail:This is immediate relief against cash/surety, and therefore cannot be availed by the poor. This process is also riddled with delays and lot of formalities.
c) Appeal to Higher courts.
d) Personal Bonds: As per the law there is a provision which came in being owing to the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, where the court can release prisoners (who have committed petty offences) on Personal Bonds. Again it is unfavourable to the poor people.
VARHAD hugely promotes and supports these exercises, which are hugely beneficial in helping the prisoners to interact with their families and friends. Our social workers visit to these families of the prisoners and their neighbourhood time to time to understand the ground situation and to counsel accordingly. Based on the facts derived from the field, VARHAD appeals for the release of these prisoners. This support prompts the courts to release the ‘deserving prisoners’ without surety and without the presence of an advocate. It is a big achievement for us to be instrumental in the release of about 100+ prisoners every year by this method. Thus, VARHAD is the first NGO to have the honour of enabling release of prisoners without surety.
VARHAD counsels and helps the prisoners and his/her family to understand the parole and the furlough, which are legal rights of prisoners as per Prison Manual. We encourage the release of the prisoners on these laws and coordinate the same with the prisoner’s family, prison, police, judiciary, the revenue department and other concerned agencies of the state administration.
The organization works on policy level decisions in sync with the above departments to ensure that maximum convicts take benefit from the above legally offered facilities. A huge promoter of Parole and Furlough, VARHAD truly believes that these well-thought-out legal tools help prisoners retain their optimism and faith in the CJS.
At a smaller but a significant level, where the above tools are not availed, VARHAD also offers a support system to prisoners by assisting them in sending letters to family members and making visits to their homes on the prisoner’s behalf. In this way, we connect prisoners with their families 7 maintaining the emotional bond in such distressed situations. These innovative methods adopted by us also somewhere help in maintaining the belief in the justice system and discourage the prisoners from adopting violent/illegal means again such as escaping from prisons etc.