When the fence eats the crop…

An article from SAKUNTALA NARASIMHAN in New Indian Express:

Lawyers are supposed to uphold the law and help their clients get justice, right? Ask Sumati. If she hadn’t approached a lawyer to file a claim for the compensation that she was entitled to under the law after her husband was killed in a road accident, she would have saved Rs 70,000 that she ended up spending on the lawyer, money that could have ensured some financial security for her 10-year-old daughter who now spends her time on the streets. That child has had to discontinue schooling because there is no money to meet the expenses.

The lawyer has not only cheated Sumati (not her real name) with repeated demands for money on dubious grounds but also lied to the court, obtained her signature unauthorisedly on documents that she could not read because she is a poor roadside vendor, and ensured that her case will never get resolved.

Sumati was married off at age 18 to an autorickshaw driver who died 15 months later in a traffic accident. She returned to her mother’s place, with a 3-month-old infant, and on the suggestion of some neighbours, engaged this lawyer to file for compensation at the Accidents Claims Tribunal.

The lawyer demanded Rs 200 first, then another Rs 400 ‘for stationery’, then a further Rs 400 ‘for expenses incurred in filing papers’, then another Rs 300 ‘towards typing charges’, and so on, and she kept paying, believing that he was going to help her get the compensation that was due to her. He gave no receipts. He also took her signature on various documents prepared by him (including an undertaking to give him 20 per cent of whatever compensation the court awards her – he did not explain this to her; such a clause is illegal) and she signed, unable to read, and not suspecting that he would do anything fraudulent. He was, she now says, ‘‘going to get her justice’’ and there was, as she saw it, no question of not trusting him.

She too is a roadside vendor like her mother, selling flowers. A year passed, then another, and another. Nothing happened. Whenever she asked him about the delay, he was brusque, and told her irritably that this was how courts worked. It would take time, he said, and she took his word for it.

Her child is now ten years old, and has become a street kid because there is no money to pay the fees that the school demands to let her take her exams. When she sought my advice after becoming suspicious about the lawyer, she hadn’t eaten for two days. An NGO I contacted made investigations and discovered that the lawyer had failed to attend hearings and the case had got dismissed long ago. He never told her.

He abused Sumati when she demanded an explanation, and threatened to have her and her mother ‘‘put in jail’’ if they bothered him. He has her trapped in his clutches. Even to get details of the case number from him was a time-consuming task for the NGO because he refused to part with the case papers and kept dodging them if they phoned. Without a ‘no objection’ from him, the NGO could not proceed with the investigations.

Complain to the Bar Council? Forget it, it won’t work, she has been advised. The family is also vulnerable because three generations of females – the elderly mother, her pretty 29-yearold daughter, and the 10-year-old girl child – are living in a slum without male escort.

The lawyer has made money out of her distress, her widowhood, her ignorance and helplessness. And her implicit trust in someone who speaks English and wears a coat and tie and argues in court. This, then, is the reality. Even in the booming, metropolitan ‘‘IT capital of the country.’’ Even with NGOs willing to help, justice seems elusive, impossible. She has signed papers because she is unlettered and trusted her lawyer. Whose fault is that – hers, or that of the state which guaranteed universal education half a century ago but defaulted on that promise? Who punishes the lawyer for his criminal act of taking a gullible client to the cleaners? He struts around and threatens her – because he is an ‘‘educated’’ man, with access to courts, and she is a poor female with no clout, no money, no VIPs to help. Court procedures intimidate her. No one told her about free legal aid for the indigent. Whose fault is that again?

What happens to Sumati’s daughter who has become a street child because she has had the misfortune to be born to an indigent woman whose husband died in an accident? What is her future? Will she be any better off than her mother and grandmother? So what ‘‘shining progress’’ and golden anniversaries are we boasting about if this is the reality for the 280 million who are poor and unlettered?

What use are all the laws we add to the statute books, if one destitute woman who is entitled to compensation under the law, is not only unable to get it but has, in trying to get it, become heavily indebted, because her lawyer, who was supposed to help her get justice, has not hesitated to do everything that is wrong under the law – the same law that he has got a degree in and claims to uphold, as an advocate? Answers, anyone?