Written by Akash Datta, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies.
The concept of legal literacy and knowledge is founded on the premise that everyone should be informed of their rights and responsibilities. The legal maxim ignorantia juris non-excusat, or ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ means that the Court assumes that all parties are aware of the law and that ignorance of the law cannot be used as a defence to avoid culpability. The common law system encompasses this Latin maxim and its several legal ramifications. It was created by imperialist western countries and has persisted in India’s legal system as a result of the country’s past as a British colony. However, if one were to take stock of the state of India’s literacy, the aforementioned maxim would be an obnoxious assumption grounded in idealistic tenets. Thus, it is extremely urgent to acknowledge the problem of legal illiteracy in India.
What Is The Situation?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the dreadful consequences of legal illiteracy in India. If India had been more legally informed during the pandemic, grave human rights abuses could have been avoided.
For instance, domestic violence complaints filed during the lockdown were at a 10 year high during 2020.[i]This number is particularly disturbing because 86 percent of women in India who are victims of domestic abuse do not seek help. Another concerning tendency is the abuse of police authority and an increase in police violence during the lockdown. The impoverished and illiterates were frequently arbitrarily detained for minor offences. Furthermore, the rise of virtual courts has impeded access to justice for those who are technologically challenged. In addition, there has been an increase in labour law violations and the emergence of ethical concerns. It is a valid argument that the lack of legal knowledge in India is to blame for the majority of these concerns of rights deprivation.
Why Is It So?
Due to ignorance of law being so common, offenders frequently learn about a law forbidding something after they have committed a crime. Hence, they are unaware of the legal ramifications of their actions. People living in a society are to a certain extent part of a social contract wherein they have surrendered some rights and agreed to certain obligations. People in India just do not understand their rights and duties under the social compact.
Around 35% of India’s population does not have a formal education. People, particularly women and children, are ignorant of the enforceability of human rights, therefore they do not report crimes, and the offenders go unpunished. Despite the fact that there is no gauge or scale that measures legal knowledge, India still has a long way to go before it meets the preconditions necessary to properly apply the rule of ignorentia juris non excusat.
A fundamental obstacle to legal literacy is the preconceived assumption that the law is inherently complicated and can only be comprehended by those in the legal profession. This is further reinforced by overly long and verbose court statements. The wording may be so complicated that even judges and lawyers struggle to understand it, let alone common people. The complexity of legalese has limited legal understanding to a select few. It is high that court emphasizes the importance of writing decisions that are complete yet brief, lucid, and succinct, so that they can be read and understood without trouble.
Another cause is the legislature’s failure to make an attempt to make legislation language more understandable. The majority of the effort in the direction of legal literacy has come from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations that operate in the field of legal assistance. Legal awareness camps for disadvantaged social groups are organised by NGOs such as CLAP India [ii]and MARG[iii], who educate them on their rights and safeguards under the Constitution and other laws.
How To Solve This Problem?
As part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, Article 39A of the Constitution requires the government to provide free legal assistance to the needy. The ‘rule of law’ is mainly promoted by Articles 14 and 22(1). Other judicial statements from various courts have emphasised the same point. As a result, the state is required to provide citizens with a basic level of legal understanding in order to successfully defend the fundamental and other rights.
The Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes [iv]was established in 1980 under the leadership of Justice PN Bhagwati. As a result, the National Legal Services Authority was created in 1995. At the national, state, and district levels, the authority has a hierarchical structure. One of the main responsibilities of these legal services agencies is to organise legal literacy and awareness initiatives in conjunction with non-governmental organisations.
The National Legal Literacy Mission, with the tagline “from ignorance to legal empowerment,” was established in 2005 to educate minority populations, particularly women and children. All eligible individuals listed in Section 12 of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987, were included in the mission’s target group, which included the most indigent, distraught, vulnerable, and victimised individuals, such as women and children from SC, ST, OBC, minority communities, or tribal areas, among others. The project also attempts to make the legal language more understandable. However, because it was not given its own budget, the mission was not very successful.
NALSA offers a number of initiatives aimed at promoting legal literacy and awareness, such as establishing Legal Literacy Clubs in schools and universities. The groups strive to raise student understanding of legal rights, responsibilities, and obligations. Ragging, female foeticide, child marriage, right to education, domestic violence, legislation against human trafficking, sexual harassment, rape, and other concerns are addressed by the clubs’ campaigns.
Various initiatives have been launched by State Legal Services Authorities across India to address this issue. The Himanchal Pradesh LSA has successfully included chapters on rights and responsibilities in school textbooks, the Chandigarh LSA organises street plays and workshops on a regular basis, and the Delhi LSA has taken a variety of initiatives, including radio programmes, film documentaries, and publishing advertisements in books and magazines, among others. There isn’t a model for a straight jacket,depending on the population in a specific location, the authorities use a variety of ways.
Government-led initiatives such as the National Legal Literacy Month and non-governmental organisation (NGO) seminars have attempted to orient individuals toward improved legal literacy, although the research on their efficacy is mixed. To guarantee that legal literacy initiatives are tailored to the requirements of each community, a policy initiative based on the cooperative federalism concept should be taken. Legal literacy should begin at the Zila panchayat level, with adult literacy programmes instilling basic legal understanding. Furthermore, law as a subject should be taught in elementary school education to teach young children on basic laws, rights, and responsibilities using a vernacular language as the medium of instruction.
It’s also critical to make changes at the legislative level, such as eliminating needless legalese and redundancy in statutes and ordinances. The individuals who are controlled by laws should not find it difficult to comprehend them.
Finally, the court must accept responsibility for making justice more accessible to all people, regardless of their economic or social circumstances. For the purpose of clarity for laypeople, courts should avoid employing complex terminology in judicial declarations.
In our nation, mass legal education will make policy execution much easier. Until then, the phrase ignorentia juris non excusat will continue to be associated with social injustice.
Curated by Kavana Rao.
[i]Data | Domestic violence complaints at a 10-year high during COVID-19 lockdown, The HINDU, https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-domestic-violence-complaints-at-a-10-year-high-during-covid-19-lockdown/article31885001.ece
[ii] CLAP LEGAL SERVICE INSTITUTE, https://clapindia.org
[iii] Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) | Legal Literacy NGO, https://www.ngo-marg.org
[iv] National Legal Services Authority, https://nalsa.gov.in/about-us