05, May 2023 | CJP Team
The plea filed by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) in March 2021 seeking directions for effective modalities for legal aid in terms of having trained panels of lawyers and adequate front offices in light of the impending appeals to be filed before Foreigners Tribunals by those excluded from National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam. The NRC final list had come out on August 31, 2019 and since then those excluded from the list have been living a life in limbo and trying desperately to prove their citizenship and they are in dire need of legal aid.
At the hearing held on Thursday, May 4, a bench of Chief Justice Sandeep Mehta and Justice Mitali Thakuria posted this for hearing post summer vacation since the matter was long pending and the details of persons excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) had still to receive the “reasons for their exclusion, four years after the publication of the NRC final list!
Every day of each week, a formidable team of community volunteers, district volunteer motivators and lawyers—CJP’s Team Assam – is providing ready at hand paralegal guidance, counselling and actual legal aid to hundreds of individuals and families paralysed by the citizenship-driven humanitarian crisis in the state. Our boots on the ground approach has ensured that 12,00,000 persons filled their forms to enlist in the NRC (2017-2019) and over the past one year alone we have helped release 52 persons from Assam’s dreaded detention camps. Our intrepid team provides paralegal assistance to, on an average of 72-96 families each month. Our district-level, legal team works on 25 Foreigner Tribunal cases month on month. This ground level data ensures informed interventions by CJP in our Constitutional Courts, the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court. Such work is possible because of you, individuals all over India, who believe in this work. Our maxim, Equal Rights for All. #HelpCJPHelpAssam. Donate NOW!
CJP’s counsel senior advocate Mihir Desai and advocate Mrinmoy Dutta also appeared for CJP.
The order may be read here:
Meanwhile in an additional affidavit filed by the petitioners on March 23, 2023, CJP has laid down and re-iterated the context within which such legal aid is necessary:
“That this Hon’ble Court by order dated 23.11.2021 in the present PIL had directed the Government of India as well as the State to indicate as to how funds would be made available for the purpose of providing legal aid after considering the issues raised in the PIL considering the magnitude and the enormity of the exercise that was unfolding.
“That, though it is true that the number of persons who were likely to seek legal aid was not known or no specific list of persons seeking legal aid was/is placed before this Hon’ble Court but the same does not make the petition premature or speculative as there is no denying the fact that out of 19 lakhs people who were left out large number of them are women and children and there are people whose entire families were left out of the NRC and a large percentage of these people belong to the underprivileged sections of the society who cannot afford the burden of multiple litigations and as such the creation of proper infrastructure of legal aid and service was a requirement, with creation of the necessary awareness so that the affected people could be assured that they are entitled to legal aid and services.
“The fact that after the Hon’ble Apex Court had directed release of those interned who had spent three years in the detention center, on bail there was no attempt by the state to even help these people to get their bails ensured is indicative of the fact that legal services to these people is far from reality. It was in these circumstances the petitioner within its resources provided legal aid to at least 52 such détentes in getting their bail papers processed.
“The state machinery has shown total apathy to the plight of these people. It is important to mention that merely filing of appeals within 120 days of the reasons being furnished was not sufficient to make proper and effective legal aid a reality, but the process required prior guidance to people left out to prepare their papers and even obtaining copies of valuable documents to make them admissible in evidence.
“That, providing legal aid cannot be a hollow formality and the same has to be proper and effective and therefore there was not only a requirement of preparation of panel of advocates but there is also a requirement of a huge force of para legal volunteers, training paralegal volunteers to make them understand the intricacies of the legal process so that they are in a position to guide legal aid seekers in matters pertaining to foreigners tribunal to prepare themselves to meet the requirements and place a proper and effective appeal in time.
“That the enormity of the exercise can be understood from the fact that 19 lakhs people would have been required to knock the doors of the tribunals within 120 days of the reasons of exclusion being furnished and the situation was therefore unprecedented. More than 200 Tribunals members were appointed to deal with these deluge of appeals and the infrastructure available simply could not have handled the situation and in fact the admission by the state legal services authority made it apparent that the infrastructure available was not robust to handle the situation.
“It also cannot be lost sight that the remedy after these appeals would only be before this Hon’ble Court and these matters would require not just months and years but decades to be decided before this Hon’ble Court given the fact that cases from hundreds of tribunals would have to be tackled. The appeals before the Learned Tribunals is thus practically the last resort for these people left out of standing on the periphery of being deprived of their rights of citizenship or the rights to have rights in a highly technical process and therefore not just legal aid but proper and effective legal aid being the requirement, the PIL was filed to highlight the deficiencies in the system which is a way stands admitted by the affidavit of the respondent No 6 (Assam State Legal Services Authority)
“The PIL filed by the petitioner is highlighting a public cause and the petitioner has no personal interest in the cause raised in the PIL. The petitioner organization, on its own over the years has tried to do their bit within the limitations of the resources available, by providing legal aid and assistance to the poor and marginalised section of the society in the state, grappling with the questions of their citizenship status and unless the state puts up a robust infrastructure to provide legal aid to these people grappling with the questions of citizenship, legal aid and service would be a mere hollow formality, which certainly is not the mandate of law. “
About the plea
On August 20, 2019, a press communication issued by MHA stated that legal assistance would be provided to those excluded from NRC, specifically those who are in need of such legal aid. CJP has been actively involved in ground-work of para legal and legal aid but its team has not come across any any concerted efforts in furtherance of the 2019 communication issued by MHA. CJP thus submitted a representation before Secretary of Home Department in Assam for framing scheme and modalities for providing effective legal aid to the NRC left outs. CJP also asked the Home Department about what steps had been taken by the government so it can, through its widespread ground-work, create awareness among the people in need. Besides, CJP corresponded with the National Legal Aid Authority (NALSA) and annexed these communications with its PIL. From April 2020 to November 2020, the organisation was involved in detailed correspondence and representations to both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA).
Finally, in November 2020, the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) responded stating that it “has enough machinery to deal with any action” taken by the government with regards to NRC. The ASLSA letter also revealed that only two Taluk Level Legal Services Authorities are functioning, while there are 78 taluks in the state. The letter also states that once rejection slips are handed out, legal camps can then be organised.
It was in response to this, then that the CJP then conducted a survey n 10 districts of Assam to assess the preparedness of District Legal Services Authorities (DSLA) which revealed that the front offices were either not present or the ones that had front offices were inadequate in terms of space or in terms of staff.
It was also revealed that in none of the ten legal services authorities, were the personnel trained on Citizenship, NRC, Immigration or the Foreigners Act, all of which are germane to the impending situation of people having to appeal before Foreigners Tribunal to prove their citizenship.
It was the findings of this survey that prompted CJP to file this plea before the Gauhati High Court.
In February last year, 2022, the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) had indicated in its affidavit that it is in need of financial resources to provide legal aid to those excluded from NRC. Despite the inadequacy of the state response to the crucial issue of legal aid, no stringent measures are being undertaken.