New initiative helps prisoners get out of Chhattisgarh’s legal maze fast

Lok Adalats in prisons have brought relief to inmates, especially sub-trials languishing without access to legal advice

Lok Adalats in prisons have brought relief to inmates, especially sub-trials languishing without access to legal advice

More than 450 prisoners walked free in Chhattisgarh after Lok Adalats – a first of its kind nationwide initiative according to authorities – was installed in prisons across the state on October 15.

These courts are held every working Saturday and offer relief to defendants, and in some cases convicted prisoners, by explaining their rights and legal options such as plea bargaining and settlement.

Chhattisgarh High Court Judge Goutam Bhaduri who is also the Executive Chairman of the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) visited Raipur Central Jail and launched these Lok Adalats in all prison complexes simultaneously through virtual mode.

According to Praveen Mishra, secretary of Raipur District Legal Services Authority or DLSA, the aim of the exercise is to settle cases quickly and also reduce congestion in various prisons.

There are more than 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in various prisons in Chhattisgarh, against an authorized capacity of 14,000, Director General (Prisons) Sanjay Pillay said. Of these, nearly 12,500 are on trial, he adds.

Mr. Mishra says that on hearing a suo motu brief motion in Sonadhar v. State of Chhattisgarh, the Supreme Court asked for suggestions to reduce overcrowding in Indian prisons. “Earlier this year, the Honorable SLSA of Chhattisgarh came up with the suggestion of Lok Adalats. The suggestion was accepted by the Honorable Supreme Court and they issued guidelines in this regard,” he says.

All sub-trials, which have been named in Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.PC) offenses which are heard by a judicial magistrate – such as petty theft, trespassing and cheating, are eligible to be heard in these Adalats. Additionally, those who have been arrested under preventive provisions for offenses such as fighting or violation of special laws such as the Excise Act or the Railways Act are also eligible.

“They have to wait a long time before their release because they are unaware of provisions such as plea bargaining where admitting the crime after spending a considerable amount of time in prison can lead to a reduction in the remaining sentence. Even if they know it, they cannot always go to court. On the other hand, judges cannot leave the court during working hours. Thus, the Lok Adalats will act as a bridge for sub-trials to achieve faster justice,” Mr. Mishra said.

Explaining how they work, he adds that cases were first identified in each neighborhood through discussions with prison authorities. Then para-judicial authorities and lawyers were appointed to explain the initiative and its possible consequences to the detainees.

“It gave them the opportunity to ask their questions at a nascent stage so that at a later stage they couldn’t claim they weren’t fully briefed on the process,” he says.

The cases are then presented to two judges appointed by the SLSA who visit each prison and constitute a special bench, of which they become the presidents.

“These presidents inform prisoners of the maximum sentence to which they are liable and the possibility of a settlement if the complainant has agreed to the release of the accused. Although they don’t use their magisterial powers, they can in some cases. For example, if a defendant admits to the crime and there is a chance that he will be released, but the plaintiff objects, the president has the discretion to release the first,” explains Mr. Mishra.

Of the 85 prisoners released in Raipur, there were also a few convicts who had completed their time in prison but were unable to pay the fines associated with it. In some cases, the DLSA has identified families it has lost contact with or contact with NGOs who have come forward to pay the fines.

However, the number of released (85) represents barely a fifth of the 489 cases recorded in the district. Explaining the main reason for the voluntary rejection of what would have been a good chance of getting released, Mr Mishra says it happens because they feel that while plea bargaining can get them out of jail, it will will leave the taboo of being “sentenced” for life.

“We present them with possible scenarios, but the legal services authorities cannot force anyone. Whether it is the accused or the victim, the conviction or the acquittal, what is paramount is justice for all and that should prevail,” Mr. Mishra said.

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