‘Legal Literacy: A Key to Socio-Economic Justice’
Featuring Aadil Raza’s creative piece that developed as an original project over his term at the Young India Fellowship
Aadil Raza makes a passionate case for recognising the importance and redefining the parameters of legal literacy in India. Instead of a narrow focus on legal information, he advocates for legal mobilisation and “the development of a critical mindset” that enables “citizens to question, evaluate, assess, accept or reject any law or rule made for them.”
On Monday evening, around 5:00 pm, Zayana* was walking down the lane towards her home. Suddenly, two guys on a bike snatched her mobile phone by threatening her with a sharp knife. She managed to save herself but lost her mobile phone. When she returned home, she was afraid to tell anyone about the incident. Later that same evening, Zayana’s young sister asked for her mobile phone to make a call. She acted as if she had misplaced it and started searching for it. When no one in the family could find it, Zayana said that she must have dropped it somewhere while coming home from the market. Can you guess why she lied to everyone?
Let me explain! The next morning, she called her friend and narrated the real story. Her friend asked Zayana to file a police complaint. But she refused, saying she hadn’t told anyone the real story because she knew they’d tell her to file a complaint. She told her friend that she was afraid of the police, FIRs, and other legal procedures. She didn’t want to get the police involved.
Zayana felt that if she reported the incident, the police would unnecessarily harass her. In the past, one of her friends, Shazia*, had experienced something similar. Shazia once complained to the police about being eve-teased, but instead of taking her complaint seriously, the police harassed her by saying that she must have had prior relationships with those boys. Experiences like this shaped Zayana’s opinion about the police and the legal system.
Zayana is 24 and is a postgraduate from one of India’s top universities. *Not the real names.
It is clear from the above incident that Zayana is afraid of police procedures and legal systems, but she is not alone. In India, a large number of people act like Zayana in similar situations. People are afraid to file even an FIR (First Information Report), even though they can now do this online and don’t need to visit a police station. Although this behaviour is understandable with regard to poor and marginalised people who are unaware of legal help and remedies, it becomes more disheartening when well-educated people tend to behave like Zayana. The larger question here is: Why are people reluctant to use the law? Aren’t laws made for citizens to use? Do people know their basic legal rights? If they do, what prevents them from exercising these rights?
In this essay, we will explore some of these issues. We will explore what legal literacy means and why it is important. We will assess if there is a need for legal literacy in India, especially among youngsters who are, just like poor and marginalised people, equally reluctant to raise any concerns even if their rights are being violated. We will also try to see what measures have been taken by the Indian government to empower citizens legally. In the end, we will conclude with some remedies to deal with the issues and challenges pertaining to the promotion of legal literacy.
Legal Literacy in India and Constitutional Provisions
The absence of legal literacy contributes significantly to deception, exploitation, and deprivation. Marginalised citizens such as women, Dalits, and tribals are highly prone to fall victim to exploitation and injustice, say legal experts. However, well-educated university students also occupy a marginalised position, if they are not legally literate. As a matter of fact, more than one-third of the Indian population is considered to be living with low levels of basic literacy. Adding to that, more than 70 per cent of the population lives in rural India with little or no access to better education, equal opportunity, and socio-economic justice. Consequently, the lack of awareness, little or no access to legal information or legal help, and the lack of ability to assert one’s fundamental rights compel a significant portion of the population to remain distanced from the legal system. Despite a huge transformation in the whole legal system after Independence, the system is still foreign to many people. The judges of the Supreme Court, India’s apex judicial authority, have reiterated the need for legal literacy, which they see as a much-needed tool to bring socio-economic equality, envisaged by the Indian Constitution.
Article 39A of the Indian Constitution clearly provides that the state will make arrangements for free legal aid to all citizens. Consequently, arrangements have been made by promulgating the Legal Service Authorities Act 1987 which established a national institution called NALSA (National Legal Service Authority). Based on the same Act, SLSA (State Legal Service Authorities) and DLSA (District Legal Service Authorities) were also established in each state and district. These institutions are mandated to provide free legal aid to poor and other marginalised citizens, and also to spread general legal awareness among the masses.1 Despite such efforts having been made by the government, ordinary citizens of the country are still reluctant to seek legal help.
In the context of the growing crime rate, especially crimes against women, minorities, and Dalit communities in India, a sense of legal awareness becomes essential. Former Chief Justice of India, Justice Altamas Kabir, has rightly remarked, “Lack of legal awareness and education are the main causes of injustices being meted out to the marginalised populations, especially women.”2 Justice Kabir also stressed the importance of expanding legal services to all people with the help of paralegal volunteers. Adding to that, NGOs and CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) can also play a huge role in spreading the cause of legal literacy. Therefore, legal literacy for the whole country becomes crucial as it can empower any ordinary citizen to seek justice for not only oneself but others too. A legally conscious citizen can save himself, along with others, from exploitation, inequality, and many injustices. Critical knowledge of legal provisions coupled with the skills to use this knowledge to realise rights and entitlements will empower people to demand justice.3 Legal empowerment of the whole society along with legal reforms and judicial restructuring can prove to be the most crucial steps to bring about socio-economic equality and justice.
Legal Literacy: A Broader Perspective
Before proceeding, it is important for us to understand what the term ‘legal literacy’ connotes. According to the American Bar Association, “legal literacy is the ability to make critical judgements about the substance of any law, the legal processes, the available legal resources, and to effectively utilize the legal system by participating in it.”4 In other words, it simply means the ability to gain certain knowledge about basic laws and their procedures. People should know their rights and duties as citizens. Furthermore, they should also know what is expected of them and what is legally permissible or non-permissible. This basic knowledge, later on, can be used as a tool to evaluate other laws, or to become familiar with the laws pertaining to fundamental rights, and to get those rights enforced by taking action. When citizens take legal action, it brings the whole legal machinery into force. Without legal action, mere awareness of laws and rules would avail nothing.5 For example, social inequality based on caste still exists in some rural villages of India despite the fact that everyone knows “all are equal before the law”. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution made ‘equality’ a fundamental right of Indian citizens, but it is seldom exercised by poor citizens to break the shackles of inequality.
James Boyd White, an American professor of Law at the University of Michigan, argues that the phrase ‘legal literacy’ can have a wider range of possible meanings.6 In his acclaimed work, The Invisible Discourse of the Law: Reflections on Legal Literacy and General Education, he talks about two basic perspectives to understand legal literacy.
First, one can easily use the phrase ‘legal literacy’ to refer to a complete professional legal education. It means ‘being literate in law’. According to this understanding, legal literacy would mean the ability to read and write legal arguments, cases, judgments, deeds, wills, drafting laws, and knowing how to conduct a trial. It only deals with a professional legal education to become a lawyer or judge (James B White, p.144). Consequently, for our purposes, this is an extremely narrow definition.
Second, the term ‘legal literacy’ also refers to “the ability to have a certain degree of competence in legal discourse to lead an active civic life in our increasingly legalistic and litigious culture”, says White (p. 144). According to this understanding, a citizen who is legally literate in legal discourse would certainly not know how to draft legal documents and cases or how to try someone in court, but he would be competent enough to understand when to seek legal help against any injustice.
Thus, legal literacy, in simple terms, means having certain basic knowledge of laws and rules to be able to fight exploitation and seek justice for oneself or others. However, if a citizen doesn’t know anything or deliberately ignores legal action despite having knowledge, he or she might end up in deeper trouble.
Remember Zayana? If she had known to file a basic online police complaint, or an FIR, about her mobile phone, she could have saved herself from further exploitation and trouble. The two guys who snatched her mobile phone rammed their bike into someone’s car and ended up killing a person who was sitting inside the car. Both of them escaped from the spot sustaining only minor injuries, but Zayana’s phone fell out of one of their pockets. While inspecting, the police found the phone and traced the owner, who in this case, is innocent Zayana. Even though she didn’t do anything, she was still held as a primary suspect having possible connections with those boys. The next day, the police team reached Zayana’s home for further enquiry. It took a decent amount of time for Zayana and her family to convince the police that they have no connections with those thieves. Things could have been very different if Zayana had confidently filed a complaint as a responsible citizen or at least alerted the police.
Accordingly, in a broader sense, we must remember that legal literacy is not just having ‘awareness of law’ (like Zayana), but rather making use of that knowledge or awareness. Modern societies are governed by the ‘Rule of Law’. Most countries in the world have written and published laws. In India also, laws are written, published, and notified with clear objectives. However, the anomaly is, when one-third of the citizenry is denied education, it cannot be expected to have any legal knowledge. Living in extreme poverty and with a lack of access to authentic information, citizens cannot be expected to learn and participate in legal discourse. Besides, a larger issue is that those who are literate are also not asserting their legal rights for various reasons. Thus, on the one hand, poor, marginalised citizens don’t know and are fearful of the system, while on the other, educated people are simply apathetic towards it.
It is no surprise that there are several reasons for such reluctance and nonparticipation on the part of citizens. Let us analyse some of those issues and obstacles that people face while dealing with the law and legal systems.
Obstacles in the Course of Legal Literacy
In the Indian context, the reluctance of citizens in claiming and exercising their basic legal and fundamental rights is primarily because of ignorance, fear, monetary expenses, time and effort. The fundamental roots of ignorance are two: one, some people hardly know any law; and two, those who know the law, hardly make any use of it. They tend to ignore their problems because they don’t want to engage with the system and hardly expect any positive outcome from it.
Let us analyse the first issue. Remember, a large number of people in our country are living with little or no access to literacy (the basic ability to read and write), and their only source of a little legal knowledge is word of mouth. They are not only dependent for information, but also on comprehension and interpretation. As a result, if the carriers of legal information to these marginalised sections are misinterpreting any law, missing crucial information, conveying the wrong message, and using difficult language and jargon while explaining anything, then it is bound to create a negative perception. People may get intimidated and, consequently, lose interest.
Regarding the second issue, there are two kinds of people: those who are either illiterate in general or legally illiterate and so, are ignorant of their legal rights and remedies; additionally, there are people who are literate and legally aware but are apathetic about using the law. Moreover, legal experts opine that educated people escape from the legal system because of the complexities involved. These complexities are multilayered and operate at different levels of language and procedure. No doubt, even the most basic laws are complex enough to surpass the comprehension ability of graduates and postgraduates.
The judiciary works independently of legislation and, as a result, the official language rules of the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution do not apply to the higher judiciary. The legal language in India is English. Particularly in the higher judiciary, the Supreme Court of India and other high courts adhere to English language usage. Only four north Indian state high courts have allowed the use of Hindi so far: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar. On paper, trial courts at the lower level are allowed to use vernacular and regional languages, but that is limited to conducting trials only. The paperwork is mostly done exclusively in English, be it judgment or any type of order. In fact, laws are written only in English, and this creates a great dependency on the quality of translation and interpretation.
When he launched the National Legal Literacy Mission in 2006, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged that laws are written with complex structuring of sentences and extra-long paragraphs. This is indeed true: if you read any law, you will find excessive use of conjunctions to connect legal principles. This is partly because most lawyers are not adequately trained by law colleges to write in a clear and more precise manner.
Ordinary citizens of the country who are educated but not legal practitioners feel that legal language is foreign to them because it is complex to decipher without expert help. Non-English speakers suffer the most. A large population of our country speaks vernacular and regional languages and neither English nor Hindi and, thus, people find themselves disadvantaged and left out. They feel strongly alienated from the legal system and ignore it.
Therefore, legal literacy needs to be promoted in vernacular languages.7 NonEnglish speakers will not understand concepts like “Burden of Proof”, “Mens Rea”, “Innocent until Proven Guilty”, etc., unless someone explains these in a language they understand.
A large part of Indian laws and legal procedures is inherited from the British legacy. Little effort has been made by successive governments to change them on priority.
The complexity of laws not only operates at the level of language barriers but there are procedural hurdles as well. Both groups of citizens, those who are generally illiterate and those who are generally literate but legally illiterate, find it difficult to seek justice because of procedures and technicalities like FIR, Jurisdiction, Zero-FIR, Public Interest Litigation, Writ-Petition, Review Petition, Appeal, Stay Order, Prohibition, and so on. People find it challenging to navigate the difficult procedures of filing complaints. Often, it involves giving too many details. Sometimes the format of the complaint, applications to the SHOs (Station House Officers), and necessary documents to be attached with complaints are too much to deal with and this discourages people from getting involved. For example, in a recent incident in 2019, the body of a murder victim was shuttled back and forth by policemen because the crime took place on the border of two states. The family of the victim found it difficult to seek justice because of jurisdictional conflicts during the registration of the FIR.
Secondly, many people seek out-of-court solutions due to the lack of time, knowledge, patience, financial constraints, technical procedures, linguistic know-how, and so on. As a matter of fact, while quasi-judicial bodies provide out-of-court moderation facilities, these might not necessarily play a positive role. In rural areas, this could lead to worse outcomes when people approach local bodies like Khap Panchayats to seek justice. Khap Panchayats are arguably infamous for their regressive judgments, and their decisions have at times been highly controversial as per the established law of the land.
Third, there is a general lack of trust in police, lawyers, and courts among the public. Poor, marginalised citizens of the country perceive them as exploitative and corrupt. This raises a lot of questions about the standard operating procedure of police personnel. Sometimes, people are forced to bribe the police and officials for registering an FIR or complaint. Their innocence and lack of knowledge help foster such a culture. Police personnel must be trained adequately to provide all sorts of help to anyone in need. If the police win the trust of the people, it will improve a lot of things on the ground.
It is not just a matter of corruption, but political influences also play a larger role: the recent Unnao rape case in Uttar Pradesh and the Asifa rape case in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir are two notable examples. These negative influences act as a barrier for the victim to seek any justice.
In addition to financial and political pressures, social, personal, and family influences also hinder the delivery of justice in the absence of legal literacy. In India, a significant number of rape cases are under-reported because victims usually seek out-of-court justice to save their families from societal embarrassment. Many times the perpetrator is a family member or someone known to the victim. In many such cases, the victims are minors who are influenced by fear, exploitation or death threats.
Citizens who are innocent and have never dealt with such things before are intimidated by the police and the legal system. They are often advised by the police themselves to seek out-of-court settlements to save their time, money, and effort. Although this unnecessary counselling is acceptable on the part of policemen when they act as moderators in trivial issues, it is highly questionable when moderation expands to cover up rare incidents like sexual violence. For instance, rape victims are often counselled by police not to file a complaint on the grounds that any judgment will take years, and it will harm their family’s reputation as well as their own. This is another reason for the growing alienation of people from the legal system.
Fourthly, coming to the procedural aspect, we also need to question the judicial and legal procedures which intimidate the common citizen and thereby demotivate popular participation. Finally, even after facing all initial hurdles, when cases do finally reach the courts, further complications and delays ensue.
Do you remember Mr Sunny Deol? “Tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh milti gyi my lord, lekin insaaf nahi mila” (Dates, and new dates, and then new dates are the only things I got my Lord, I didn’t get any justice from your court)
Once a case is filed in an Indian court, it usually takes years or even decades to get any solid representation. Unfortunately, these delays are the standard operating procedure for the Indian judicial system. Here, one must clearly observe the inadequacies of the system we are part of lack of judges, lawyers, and arbitrators; redundant judicial appointments; outdated technology used by the police in investigations; lack of infrastructure in courts; and lack of solid evidence, to name a few.
While the number of pending cases is increasing day by day in all law courts, there are hardly any judicial 190 Legal Literacy Aadil Raza appointments. Unlike many other countries, there is no unified system of judicial appointments in India, despite having a unified judiciary. Even the Supreme Court has recently been operating with only 30 judges, including the Chief Justice of India, against the sanctioned strength of 34. All high courts across the country are overburdened with the administrative load of managing and supervising lower courts, along with their own business. Consequently, pending cases are piling up and citizens are not getting justice on time. Lack of timely appointments, low judicial strength, and a centralised administrative set-up act as a significant blow to any positive perception of the legal system throughout the country. It creates a vicious cycle which leads to non-participation and ignorance. Citizens belonging to vulnerable and marginalised groups are highly sceptical of seeking justice via the courts, even if free legal aid is available to them through NALSA and SLSA because they lack time and money.
We are all living under an increasingly bureaucratic structure. State surveillance has increased significantly, undermining all privacy laws. Mass legal literacy is, therefore, the need of the hour. It can definitely act as a cornerstone for the smooth functioning of a true democracy. If citizens were aware of laws made for them, they could remain vigilant about the arbitrary powers of the state. Legally conscious citizens could put reasonable checks and balances on the authoritarian tendencies of the State.
To meet these ends, the government and NGOs have made efforts to create mass legal awareness via various legal literacy programmes. In the recent past, all sorts of resources have been used to increase legal awareness among the public, including organising camps, workshops, lectures, seminars, street plays, and radio shows; publishing and distributing pamphlets, books, and comics; putting billboards at strategic places like railway stations, government offices, courts, and bus stands; and much more. No doubt, these efforts have helped create mass awareness. Gradually, more and more people are becoming aware of their rights.
However, most of these efforts focus only on providing people with information about laws and their rights. As a result, nothing much has changed despite mass campaigns for raising awareness, and a lot is yet to be done. People are still reluctant to take charge and engage with the law. Even if a road accident happens in India, onlookers are afraid to take the injured person to the hospital because they fear the police will torture them, harass them or may even register a case against them. Despite several guidelines of the Supreme Court and assurance of all security, people do not help victims and leave them to die. Thus, legal literacy also envisages a behavioural change. Of course, ordinary citizens must be made aware of their rights, the procedures to be followed to exercise those rights, access to authentic information, free legal aid, and more. This information should be made simple enough for any layperson to comprehend and be provided in regional languages. However, legal literacy is a broader concept that goes beyond just information. Legal literacy aims to increase the participation of ordinary citizens in legal systems to assert their rights, without any fear or intimidation. Legal literacy aims to achieve the development of a critical mindset. Legal literacy doesn’t simply mean knowing a law or a rule and being completely obedient to it. The objective of a true Legal Literacy Mission should be to enhance the ability of citizens to question, evaluate, assess, accept or reject any law or rule made for them. The objective of legal literacy is to create a more robust system in order to develop a community of informed citizens—citizens who are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. Citizens who can seek legal remedies by taking action, not just for oneself, but for others too. Citizens who can educate others, especially the marginalised sections: women, minorities, Dalits, and tribals. It creates a community of citizens who can participate in the formulation of rules and laws, who can assert their rights, who can evaluate and question the rules, and who can develop a critique of it.
Thus, it is clear that legal literacy aims to achieve legal mobilisation. This mobilisation cannot be achieved by providing mere information. The government should look at training school and college students with practical hands-on learning of the legal system. Compulsory short courses to teach legal applications like filing FIRs, RTIs, petitions, complaints, and the like would enhance participation. Compulsory CASH workshops, and gender sensitisation, could be done with the help of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in each institution. The best way to enhance citizens’ participation and trust in the legal system is to invest in students’ learning today. College students could be encouraged to write blogs and make audio-visual content for illiterate masses in rural areas. In a university setup, diverse peer groups could sit and translate complex laws in vernacular languages to spread awareness via social media.
Legal literacy would automatically improve the justice delivery system in the long run, by making it transparent. If informed citizens would enhance their participation and evaluate the current functioning, it would compel other stakeholders to bring about necessary changes.
In India, what an irony it is that illiterate people are competent enough to choose and elect a political representative for them, who in turn goes to the Parliament and makes laws for the whole country along with other legislators. And then, the same illiterate people are not enabled to be competent enough to comprehend those laws to seek any remedy or secure any justice from the system
If environmental literacy can be important for sustainable development, and financial literacy can be crucial for economic integration, then why not legal literacy for socio-political and economic justice? Legally empowered citizens can knock on the doors of those who are entrusted to deliver them justice.
About the Author:
Aadil belongs to YIF 2020 Batch and currently working as a Talent Advisor at Google. He holds a credible track record with many successful accomplishments throughout his personal and professional journeys. Before graduating Magna-cum-laude from Ashoka University, he received the prestigious Gold Medal for outstanding academic performance in his master’s at Jamia Millia Islamia University. In his professional life, he provides recruitment and staffing advisory to Google as a consultant, and in the personal sphere, he is also an online educator and mentor who is guiding a community of more than 2k+ students from across the country via Unacademy.
During his college life, Aadil has written several academic papers, essays, white papers, policy documents, and book reviews. His love for writing grew when he worked as a freelance content writer with learning startups like unacademy, opdemy and Harappa. At Ashoka, Aadil recollects how he was introduced to multi-layered nuances of writing essays, papers and journals during this critical writing course. After learning the systematic approach to writing at Ashoka, he feels more confident and writes more often. He is passionate about Urdu poetry and languages like Urdu and Persian.
About YIF CW Programme:
The YIF Critical Writing programme is a unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity for Fellows to hone their critical thinking and writing skills under the able supervision of trained experts in the field. The CW programme employs a constantly evolving pedagogy, making learning and knowledge production more collaborative and dialogic. Preceptors at the YIF CW programme teach writing through a range of topics including but not limited to ‘History, Philosophy, and Anthropology of Science’, ‘Politics of Language and Multilingualism’, and ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’.
About Final Draft:
The Final Draft is the annual journal of the YIF Critical Writing programme. It showcases the range in topic and genre, as well as the strength of writing in the highly diverse YIF student body. These pieces of writing, submitted by Fellows from various classes of the YIF represent only a small fraction of the variety and range of writing done over the years.
About our campaign:
Through our ‘Final Draft 3’ campaign, we hope to give you a glimpse into some of the styles and voices that have evolved, the concerns and ideas that fellows have explored and the seriousness of their engagement with writing as drafts in motion; searching for meaning and connection, which makes this more of a pedagogic exercise book.
(The piece was first published in the Final Draft, A Journal of the YIF Critical Writing Programme.)