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Live blog from NUJS Kolkata First National Conference on Free Legal Aid and Clinical Legal Education

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Legally India reports live from NUJS Kolkata this weekend where roughly 24 law schools are gathered to discuss how to take law school legal aid forward. Latest updates: How to start a legal aid cell, Prof Madhava Menon slams the Legal Services Authority and the implementation of gram nyayalaya while inspiring.

The conference kicked-off yesterday (18 February), I arrived early this morning after little sleep with a 6am flight so please bear with any typos. I hope to update this blog every hour or two, perhaps more regularly if possible.

10am: In the first morning session most of the attending law schools gave presentations on their activities and also budgetary constraints they faced. Some interesting points: GNLU Gandhinagar’s legal aid committee gets Rs 1 lakh per year from the college (Gujarat state government buy-in clearly helps). Other colleges, both private and public have to do with Rs 10,000 per year, plus Rs 50 paid by each student taking part.

More funds please? And how about corporate/law firm sponsorship? Have any readers had any luck there?

Really nice also to see a snapshot of the range of activities locally undertaken by students and a few colleges with good litigation alumni networks say they get some free legal help at higher levels from advocates too.

11:30 Interesting session with NUJS conference convenor Nishant Gokhale and Nalsar Hyderabad professor K Vidyullatha Reddy.

Reddy makes a forceful plea that students need to rethink legal aid and move away from it as “welfare jurisprudence” towards “rights jurisprudence”. She suggests that “we” (the students) need to see the legal aid work without any involvement of ego or a feeling of social relevancy.

“I think the new generation of law schools and law students should think outside of this charity box,” she says. “Let us take it like an institutional thing.” She explains that legal aid in colleges should be seen as something that is a basic right, similar to lok adalat, or state brief representation, which were introduced by the Legal Services Authority Act.

Another major issue that other panellists and colleges also discussed was that sometimes it is difficult for Legal Aid Societies to encourage students to keep up the momentum and interest.

Following on from this thought, Reddy says, that between 2000 and 2006 legal aid was voluntary at Nalsar. From 2008 she introduced it as a compulsory programme that all students had to take. She recounts how initially there was an outcry from students against it.

This year, due to the security situation in Andhra Pradesh, Nalsar has had to make it voluntary again. Ironically, there was a student outcry again who had now come around and wanted to keep it as a compulsory programme.

Another suggestion is that she thinks perhaps too much of legal aid work is based on legal literacy training for the target audiences in villages and elsewhere, which can be a little boring if done for too long. “Legal literacy should be less than one tenth of legal aid programmes,” says Reddy.

11:45: NUJS professor Anirban Chakraborty announces that NUJS was granted a second, larger legal aid room as they were running out of space earlier. Legal educational legend Madhava Menon, who is just being picked up from the airport, would inaugurate the new room later.

Also, some Mooting Premier League-related news: Chakraborty says NUJS would launch the first national mediation moot next year.

12:05: A good panel, lots of practical tips on NUJS legal aid cell link-ups with NGOs – one Nalsar grad from the International Justice Mission (IJM) and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), who are actively involved and appreciative of legal aid cell efforts.

12:36: VS Salgaocar College of Law prof MRK Prasad speaks: is the purpose of legal aid cell to improve your legal skills – get students ready for the courts - or to improve society? He argues: it actually makes you a better lawyer, develop professional skills, ethics, etc.

12:49 Prasad repeats Reddy’s earlier point: legal aid should not just be a right to go to the courts and be presented, it is also about things such as filling in ration cards, enabling society to make use of its basic rights.

The problems of legal aid at the moment: No involvement of bar and bench, part-time students, part-time LLB courses, no manuals on teaching methods/supervision/evaluation of clinics and no network among law colleges. And finally, there is no research in India on legal aid and its effectivity.

14:44 Programme running late but lots of interesting discussions – now a faculty round-table discussion on legal aid cells and how to work them in practice. Prasad moderates on how do you raise resources, and how do you manage students’ coursework pressures?

14:50 One of the first questions: how to set it up? Should it be voluntary or mandatory? Nalsar’s Reddy says a voluntary model is a lot of additional work from the teacher and less outcome from the students. In a mandatory programme it is the opposite.

Prasad: You could start out by working with a Panchayat, which can be readily set up. Another easy option is to work on consumer cases, which can be done by talking to consumer organisations or giving the students their own initiative.

Or, adds Prasad, you can start things off with just one legal clinic on-campus. Once you decide to build a clinic, you need to then decide how many students should be on it. One difficulty, however, can be continuity with students graduating, although a handover there need not be impossible.

14:54 There is the reality that problems that students can tackle are everywhere, says Prasad. Even Goa, where students thought the concept of untouchability did not exist, has plenty of tasks to do once you start travelling into more. Furthermore, it’s important to start simply.

14:56 The best way to get started is to begin with a simple task such as handing out and applying for ID cards for locals. Students will gradually get known in the neighbourhood and can move onto bigger things.

14:58 Rural law colleges have more potential legal as aid cells because they often have students who may be from the same places and will find it easier to connect, adds Prasad.

15:01 Chakraborty puts his vote on legal aid cell participation with real-life clients should be voluntary. On continuity he recommends that two students should work on every case who are in different stages of their legal education, such as a fifth-year law student pairing up with two-year law student so even if a case proves longer than expected someone can taker it over.

15:08: Chakroborty also suggests that a small stipend, such as 2,500 per month may be a good incentive to keep up continuity and encourage students to stick with it.

“Students have amazing capacity, you push them.” You have to think out of box says Prasad.

To start raising the funds can be tough but it doesn’t have to be – there is a lot of cash in India.

15:33 How should faculty supervise mooting activities? One student says that there is too much work to get time for legal aid work. How can you handle it? Reddy says that that is one advantage of having legal aid be compulsory at college: you don’t need to do it as an extra subject. Cahkroborty asks, rhetorically: “When you’re mooting or preparing for amoot, can you not handle the work-load?”

And while legal aid may not give “immediate fruits” to your CV as does mooting success, for example, foreign universities are keen on seeing legal aid work on the CV.

Another way to reduce the workload: join hands with a professor teaching a subject such as CRPC and make 20 per cent of the credits of the course due to clinical legal work.

16:47 Legal aid society public lecture starts out: NUJS VC Prof MP Singh, Justice Ruma Pal and NUJS and NLSIU founder Prof Madhava Menon.

17:03 Ruma Pal talks about some brilliant NGO work, including for undertrial prisoners and women in hardship – legal aid that continues after college.

17:06 Madhava Menon, the living legend of law teaching, begins the main lecture – he’ll deliver unprepared and ad-hoc, he says, which surely won’t be a problem knowing Menon. Will look at Legal Services Authority (LSA) Act and what it means under the act. It doesn’t just mean legal awareness, says Menon, but also many other things in which the law school is mentioned in the delivery of legal services.

Many law schools, bemoans Menon, have started legal aid clinics but then run out of funds, although they are entitled under the LSA Act to funds. “I am totally dissatisfied and disillusioned” by the way the Legal Services Act is being administered, particularly by the judges, says Menon. He says he’ll argue for the LSA to be divested from management by the judiciary.

The second thing he’ll talk about is the Gram Nayayalaya Act. He believes access to justice for rural citizens lies in the Gram Nayayalaya Act, and not in the courts.

Thirdly, he wants to explore as to how imaginative ways can be developed by law school to engage with law schools, at the same time as providing necessary skills.

17:14 Menon recounts visit of Bihar jail, finding a half-naked man in labyrinthine jail complex who was arrested for “moving around in suspicious circumstances” close to a jewellery shop. He was booked under section 109 of CrPC and forgotten for months in jail. Seeking legal recourse against the policeman who originally arrested him was proving tough.

In years of teaching students about criminal and civil procedure court, says Menon, he never realised that law in action was different from what he was teaching in books. If law is not related to social realities, you can not shape the legal minds of the students who want to become legal professionals.

From that day onwards, he said, criminal procedural law was taught differently by him and other professors in Delhi university. In other words – he turned it into clinical legal education. He started teaching in 1960, he says, but the first nine years of his teaching were wasted and useless (without the clinical element).

Menon as ever the engaging speaker, rapt attention throughout auditorium.

17:23 Just popped outside the auditorium to get some reception on the Wireless - there the NUJS parliamentary debate is in full swing and some debaters are loudly discussing strategy on some debating proposition about whether Facebook should exist or not... I think. Could you imagine?

17:26 Back in the auditorium, Menon meanwhile has moved onto the Legal Services Act. Menon says research should be legitimate legal aid but the judges don’t recognise that. He tells NUJS to do research on the LSA, and show that the West Bengal LSA is not doing its job, then hold a press conference and tell the media. That is what legal aid is for, he says.

Before you start a legal services clinic, read the LSA – see if you can get resources from the gov’t. If a college has a concrete plan of action, take it to the LSA and get the funds. “And if you need help, I will take it to the chairman of the LSA,” he says, “and I guarantee you will get the funds.” Applause from the audience.

If you don’t get funds because you’ve never read the LSA, adds Menon, you have only yourself to blame.

17:40 "Make your existence known" he tells legal services clinic. Legal services start with 3 “As”: awareness, assertiveness and availability.

In his tiny home state of Kerala, 3200 people, majority of whom are women, commit suicide every year. They think that suicide is the best way to get justice because this world has no hope, says Menon: If this is the state of mind of even educated people, then shame on the law schools and legal profession.

Then culture comes in, with women unwilling to go to the police to charge abusive husbands: Even if you are aware of your rights, you may not be asserting them.

Let judges and lawyers do legal aid too, exlaims Menon.

17:49 Some more semi-verbatim typo-riddled notes from Menon’s speech:

We need a good audit of the Legal Services Authority Act by all colleges - 25 states, 25 studies, put it together in the new forum you are creating, that will compel the parliament to act. One fourth of the budget of the LSA Act should be kept for these 2 activities only. "Am I right? Am I not? Given the level of illiteracy and cultural barriers of women in low class, you need awareness and mobilisation.

And since judges and lawyers are not available for spreading mobilisation - it falls to law students.

Gram Nayayalaya Act - one of the best pieces of legislation. But I was astonished that there were no states in India that could take it with the right spirit. 5000 Gram Ns were promised within one year, but even with money, the states are not prepared.

Please remember that the constitution was amended for the purpose of decentralised gov't. By and large in different sectors of governance we have accomplished, that judicial administration is not decentralised? What prevents?

Why is it that Gram Nayayalayas have not been? Menon thinks it is because judges are resisting. MP Singh chimes in that academics have also been resisting.

17:53 Gram N combines civil and criminal suits, explains Menon. This is the appropriate judicial institution that could render justice to men and women in the countryside.

The absence of it is a serious failure.

The Legal Aid clinics in law schools should take it as a mission to help support Gram Ns. Legal aid clinics, please do a PIL to implement the Gram N Act, begs Menon. This would be serving a larger cause for justice.

Why has it not been implemented yet? Because the beneficiaries are voiceless. This is the tragedy in this country and we the students must take it up.

(17:56 Wow, never knew Kolkata has such a mosquito plague. A cloud hovers in the auditorium and almost everywhere else on campus and Salt Lake City, despite heavy insecticide action a week ago. Been assured they don’t have malaria here though, so will let the buggers feast. And luckily they are relatively tame and easily swattable, compared to the aggressive Bombay mozzies anyway.)

Menon concludes the lecture with his ideas of clinical legal education means. Students just by themselves can’t do clinical legal education without the teachers.

Some more uplifting and inspiring words, now the mementos for the guests (18:05). Good timing.

18:10 NUJS Prof Sen, in his vote of thanks, thanked MP Singh for granting NUJS’ legal aid committee Rs 4.33 lakh of funding this year. Is that a record or does another legal aid committee get a similar amount? Would be great to get some more figures on this, if they exist. Colleges getting less can use the figures of others to persuade the administration perhaps? Please leave some comments if possible.

Legal aid skits and plays after tea, should be fun!

19:15 Two skits by colleges so far – unfortunately unintelligible to me being in Hindi and Bengali. The first was about female infanticide involving 5-odd talking heads. The current one is about the government not delivering on promises like housing, electrification and other infrastructure for the aam admi, performed by two clearly talented actors from NLU Orissa.

19:27 Seriously frightening domestic violence hits the stage but the constitution and free legal aid step in to save the day.

19:43 Really interesting act on now: a magician from a West Bengal government department. The entire act is in Bengali, but NUJS’ Nishant explains that he would be using magic to attract a crowd in villages, in between explaining about local empowerment, human rights and other important issues. It’s a very polished presentation (now involving a large handpuppet and quality ventriloquism) and is meant to give the students’ legal aid clinic teams a thing or two to learn and some inspirations for future skits. I don’t understand a word but absolutely brilliant to watch – why aren’t legal aid cells more popular in more colleges?

19:47 For those watching the cricket (e.g., probably everyone except those in this auditorium), the score is India 370/4 (50 ov) and Bangladesh on 121/1 (21.1 ov), with V Sehwag having racked up 175 runs for India.

20:01 NLU Orissa’s Abhishek Kumar and Abhinav Kumar win best skit of the evening! Great performance!

The day’s photos now uploaded on Legally India and Facebook!

Tomorrow, lots more legal aid insight, another competition plus we’ll cover the parliamentary debate final too – word on the street was that the contestants from NLSIU are amazing.

20 February 2011, 11:09 The legal aid paper presentations have begun. One speaker from each of around 13 college gives a presentation on a legal-aid-related topic of their choice. Criteria are quality of presentation, content and argument. A pre-selection round and then a second-round final.

14:17 Sorry been away for a while – was roped into judging the final round of the legal aid paper presentation. Six finalists out of around 13 made it to the final but I am not sure which college most of the teams came from (damn lettercoding!). The quality of some of the presentations was absolutely superb, it was incredibly difficult picking one.

14:31 Professor Pande from JGLS (Jindal) wraps up the discussion he is moderating about how to move forward. Some suggestions have included public radio programme tie-ups – to disseminate and push community legal aid out through radio programmes.

14:35 Other suggestions that have gone up on the white board:

  • A legal aid survey.
  • Door-to-door legal aid programmes – are they realistic and consider locality.
  • persistent approach required.
  • More permanent legal aid cells.
  • Work for under-trials and inmates.
  • Literacy Groups – Making the people aware about their projects and the law in practice.
  • Live client counselling.
  • Law schools should appoint lawyers from the bar to maintain the working of the legal aid clinics in respective colleges.
  • Use of mass media – local TV and radio channels.
  • Legal aid camps / stalls at local fairs.
  • Regional & national language.
  • Simplify the language of the legislations.
  • Collaborate with NGOs to family dispute resolution cells.
  • Skits/Streetplays

14:40 Pande says it's very easy to do radio programmes - they can just make an announcement and then call you. Police could sit in the student with law professors - it's very easy, he keeps repeating. And then phone-ins come in that will be answered. And even if they are not answered, the discussion anyway is helpful.

He also suggests that students can tie up with local newspapers, every week, write columns.

14:45 As is apt, a separate box on the whiteboard is reserved for "Prof Menon's Views":
1. Research
2 Legal Literacy
3. Gram Nyayalaya - Lok Adalat
4. Mahila Lok Adalats

14:48 Pande says, wisely, this should not end here, it should not be the end of the session, programmes and interaction between colleges should continue.

At this point I should mention that Legally India really wants to help on that front - we want your blogs, experiences and more on legal aid programmes at colleges. Will update more soon.

14:50 Prof Anirban Chakraborty: A Google Group will be created and more interaction will continue with participants. Plus, we need to get more colleges on board – ones that do not come should be shamed, he says with a smile.

14:55 Poster making competition: Surendranath law college, second prize Haldia law college, third prize NUJS

Paper presentation: Symbiosis first prize: 2nd KIIT Law School.

18:56 Sorry for the radio silence for those still refreshing. Legal aid conference is over, now sitting in for the NUJS Parliamentary debate. All lawyers are out, it's Xavier's v Ramjas (???) Delhi (Ramjas is apparently a contraction by two schools fielding one team, but please correct me if I'm wrong).

The teams debate the motion to take money from the rich industrialists and name roads after them. Rapid fire argument, barely time for a breath between words. Good fun! Will announce the winner here since no other law colleges involved anymore.

19:40 Debate winners to be announced any second. Was preceded by a riff-charged and rather popular Powerpoint presentation with photos of the last 2 (?) days of debating, the apparent in-jokes not falling flat.

19:46 The debaters manage to put on a very humorous vote of thanks for once! (Thankfully, since it lasted about 10 minutes)

10:53 Prof Sen, who’s also one of co-heads of the NUJS legal aid cell but also heads up the debating society, fills the time while the organising team scrabble around for something or other with a speech.

19:56 Now for the prizes: Nalsar’s A team wins novice finalists. Quarter-finalists: NLU Delhi and RGNUL (plus two other non-law colleges).

Semi-finalists: Nalsar’s B team and a non-law college. Finals winners tba…

20:00 NLU Delhi picks up third best speaker! Nalsar, NLU D and RGNUL not only doing well in mooting it seems… (Check today’s Super Sunday II MPL Live blog for more!)

20:04 Xaviers wins the parliamentary debate vs Sajma (?) from NLU Delhi with a tense 7-4 split in adjudicator votes.

With this we’ll be signing off this live blog from NUJS Kolkata. For those who visited and refreshed, thank you for coming and hope you enjoyed yourself, were inspired and learned something.

We hope to update you on more legal aid activities soon!

Update 02:28 (21 Feb): Photo album with shots from Day 2 uploaded on Legally India and Facebook.

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