|The Lawyers Initiative Forum helps victims from marginalised communities in their quest for justice|
Crime usually involves loss – a loss to the victim and a loss to the community. When justice is delayed or not served, it not only encourages the perpetrators to continue to commit criminal acts, it leaves the victims with little hope that matters will change. The latter part usually results in many crimes going unreported.
While Article 15 of the Indian constitution prohibits the discrimination of any individual by the State on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth, and guarantees every citizen of the country a right to justice, the right to be informed, present and heard, this legal right remains mostly on the books. The victims of crime are largely ignored by the courts.
This is because the criminal justice system in India is still focused on the punishment of the crime; it has not evolved to protecting the rights of the victims of crime or offering them any restitution. The shortfalls of this system are many:
A victim-focused approach
Through its work around social justice and inclusion, the Tata Trusts have tried to bring in synergies among its partners that work on the issues faced by victims of crime for a larger impact. In this context, the Trusts have partnered with like-minded organisations to share a broader perspective on the issue of judicial diversity to bring forth the challenges faced by Dalit communities. The Trusts have also helped raise awareness of ground realities among judges and senior advocates through a discussion forum on judicial diversity.
In this context, the Trusts work with the Jan Sahas Social Development Society, a not-for-profit organisation, to offer restitution to victims of crimes who are ignored by the present criminal justice system. Through its support to Jan Sahas, the Trusts have reached out to 12 districts in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to ensure that people from the most excluded communities have access to justice, fair treatment, restitution, compensation and assistance. Recognising the complexity of issues that the victims face, multi-pronged strategies have been developed to tackle these critical problems.
Legal aid authorities have been activated to provide legal aid support to victims to ensure legal representation, access to the court system and a fair trial by direct intervention in cases through lawyers. The promotion of lawyers’ forums and helping youth from excluded communities to develop into ‘barefoot lawyers’ or paralegals on a volunteer basis to support cases in their own communities, are some of the other important aspects of this initiative.
Reforming the criminal justice system
Reforming the current criminal justice system by creating dialogue, conducting action research and documentation, meeting with authorities and policy makers to raise policy issues related to the victim rights are only some of the issues addressed by this programme This initiative also works to strengthen networking and coordination between various stakeholders such as lawyers, legal aid authorities, prison administrations, police, law colleges and civil society.
Vocational training and support for improved livelihood opportunities for victims and their family members are provided in selective cases for sustainable rehabilitation under this programme.
The creation of knowledge hotspots, conducting action research and regular data analysis, the documentation and dissemination of learnings and findings with the different stakeholders – law ministry, judiciary, different commissions, bar associations, law colleges, legal aid authorities, etc., at district, state, and national levels, are some of the crucial ways in which Jan Sahas helps to build awareness, promote good practices, strengthen institutions and reform the criminal justice system. The society also publishes material on issues related to criminal justice for the benefit of victims and communities.
The Trusts have also worked extensively to intervene in the One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCs) in Madhya Pradesh. OSCs provide integrated support and assistance to women affected by women in public and private spaces within the family, community and at their place of work.
The key elements of the Trusts’ approach involves:
The Trusts’ intervention has succeeded in changing many of the root issues. Victim rights are now receiving more attention. As Shaman Bi, one of the beneficiaries puts it, “Our children will not face the same problem we have faced.”
Due to the Trusts’ capacity building interventions, and the resultant increase in social advocacy in the communities, there is a rising surge in reporting crimes. Victims now have access to legal support to register their complaints at the police station.
The Jan Sahas-supported Dignity March which started in Mumbai in December 2018 and culminated in Delhi in February 2019, included 10,000 survivors and their family members. They met with Mr Kamal Nath, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. The CM announced the formation of a special police unity and fast-track courts for speedy justice to women and child survivors of sexual violence.
Jan Sahas’s interventions also succeeded in getting the Madhya Pradesh police headquarters to instruct police departments in 19 districts in the state to support survivors of rape. Today, Jan Sahas works intensively with 32 police stations in Madhya Pradesh to sensitise the police force to the issues of victims.
The Tata Trusts have supported different models of restitution to establish best practices in the area of victim rehabilitation, bring it to larger platforms and to share with various organisations that work with the communities. The Trusts are working closely with the partner in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to develop a scheme to provide a monthly allowance to child victims towards their education and overall development on the lines of Bal Sangopan Yojana, a scheme which has been successfully implemented in Maharashtra.
Raising awareness and the social mobilisation of target communities through campaigns and information dissemination is an integral part of the Trusts’ approach. The sustainable way forward for any initiative is to allow the communities to take ownership of their own issues. Once the community is actively involved in strengthening the criminal justice system, their efforts can bring about a change in the services and mindsets of service providers.
The barefoot lawyers, or paralegals trained by Jan Sahas, are now able to support victims in their fight for justice. Strengthening the Lawyers Initiative Forum (LIF) has enabled its members to take up the causes of victims from marginalised communities to help them achieve justice.
The ultimate goal is to develop a justice system that is equally passionate about victim rights and that focuses on restoring the confidence of the victim in the criminal justice system by giving them the right to be heard in the critical proceedings and the ability to access legal aid to seek restitution for losses suffered.