Personal Website of R. Kannan
Given the above scenario, one of the most difficult tasks for a social activist is to find a lawyer with a vision who is able to see the bigger picture and be prepared to fight for it. This calls for activists to sensitize lawyers on an ongoing basis and not restrict this activity to the peculiarities of a specific case. Also there is a need to sensitize law students in order to build a body of public interest lawyers in this country.
Part of the reason why there are few public interest lawyers in India is due to how poorly it pays. Public interest lawyers in the US (sometimes derisively called ‘ambulance chasers’) are easier to find. They largely operate on a ‘no-win, no-fee’ basis, given the huge damages that are awarded by US courts and which are then split between the client and the lawyer. In India even where free legal aid is provided – as it is to SCs & STs, industrial workers, women, bonded laborers, etc. – public- spirited lawyers end up paying out of their pocket as the amounts that are fixed for even photocopying of documents do not cover the cost of the service, says Ravi Rebba Pragada of the NGO Samata – which works among tribals in the Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh – who has accessed free legal aid services.
In the U.K., where courts like those in India don’t award massive damages, there has been an innovation in legal aid with wealthy benefactors pitching in to underwrite legal costs. One property developer underwrote the legal costs of a large number of arthritis patients who sued- for compensation for side effects they suffered from the drug Opren. Similarly Sir James Goldsmith, billionaire financier and father-in-law of Imran Khan, set up the Goldsmith Libel Fund which provided support to a motley assortment of libel defendants. But it is debatable if such private initiative would be forthcoming, or indeed welcome, to support PIL cases involving the poor and the marginalised. Activists, however, need to seriously consider the issue of getting more public-spirited lawyers to enter the fray.
Knowledge of the structure and functions of law enforcement agencies are also important to legal advocacy. The police and security forces have five important functions – law and order, crime prevention and detection, traffic management, intelligence and providing security. The police structure proceeds from a constable to the Director-General of Police in a State and there are special wings including Special Branch Crime Branch, Anti- Naxalite Branch, etc. According to Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch, Tamilnadu, it is important to be polite and respectful yet firm when dealing with the police. Revealing your knowledge and understanding of the law would be useful as also avoiding doing work through superior officers if it can be done at a lower level. The eventual success in a court of law, says Tiphagne, may lie on the initial legal stand taken with the police. For this reason, it is important that crucial information is not left out in the initial complaint when it is made.
To conclude, legal advocacy is much more than merely going to court. There is a whole range of work from researching and documenting to sensitizing lawyers, working with law enforcement agencies, building up public opinion support for the issue, expanding old rights and creating new ones through PIL, etc. all with the eventual goal of positively impacting on public policy.