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Ignorance Of Law In India: An Urgent Need To Fight Legal Illiteracy

Akrama Javed & Subodh Singh
17 Jun 2021 5:04 AM GMT
Ignorance Of Law In India: An Urgent Need To Fight Legal Illiteracy

The notion of Legal literacy is based on the principle that every individual must be aware of their rights and obligations. The maxim 'ignorantia juris non-excusat,' or 'ignorance of the law is no excuse,' implies that the Court presumes that every party is aware of the law and hence cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defence to escape liability. This Latin maxim and its wide...

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The notion of Legal literacy is based on the principle that every individual must be aware of their rights and obligations. The maxim 'ignorantia juris non-excusat,' or 'ignorance of the law is no excuse,' implies that the Court presumes that every party is aware of the law and hence cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defence to escape liability. This Latin maxim and its wide legal spillovers belong to the common law system. It was developed by imperialist western nations, and has continued in India's legal system as a byproduct of its history 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled the ugly repercussions of legal illiteracy in India. Grave human rights violations that transpired during the pandemic could have been averted had India been more legally aware.

For instance, domestic violence complaints filed during the lockdown were at a 10 year high during 2020. This figure is especially alarming since 86% of women who suffer from such violence in India don't seek any help. The misuse of police power and the increase in police brutality during the lockdown is another worrying trend. The vulnerable poor and illiterates were often arbitrarily arrested for petty issues. In addition, the emergence of virtual courts has hampered access to justice for the technologically handicapped. Further, there is a surge in violation of labor laws and occurrence of bioethics issues. The authors believe that the majority of these issues of rights deprivation can be attributed to the lack of legal literacy in India.

Legal Literacy in India

Ignorance of law is so widespread that often the offender comes to know of the law prohibiting something after having committed the crime, without knowledge of the legal implications of such action. 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. In India, people simply don't know their rights and obligations ensuing from the social contract.

Around 35% of India's population has no formal education. Being unaware of the enforceability of human rights, people, especially women and children, do not report such crimes and the perpetrators go unpunished. Though we do not have any index or scale that determines the status of legal awareness, we can still say that India has a long way to go before it reaches the preconditions necessary to meaningfully impose the rule of "ignorentia juris non excusat."

Reasons behind legal illiteracy

The preconceived notion that the law is innately complex and can only be understood by people belonging to the legal fraternity only, is a major impediment to legal literacy. It is only reinforced by judicial pronouncements that are unnecessarily lengthy and verbose. The language is at times so complex that even judges and advocates find it difficult to comprehend. The prolixity of legalese has confined the knowledge of law to a few. It's high time that the judiciary stresses the need to write judgments that are thorough yet brief, lucid, concise, so one can read and comprehend them without difficulty.

Another reason is the legislature's lack of effort to make the language of laws more accessible to people. A majority of the effort in the direction of legal literacy has come from NGOs and civil society working in the field of legal aid. NGOs like CLAP India and MARG organise legal awareness camps for vulnerable social groups and impart awareness on their rights and protections under the Constitution and other laws.

Work done by the Government and NGOs

Article 39A of the Constitution imposes upon the government the duty to ensure free legal aid to the poor as a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Articles 14 and 22(1) essentially promote social justice through the 'rule of law'. The same idea has been stressed through various legal pronouncements of different courts. The State is thus obliged to equip the citizenry with a minimum degree of legal awareness to effectively protect Fundamental and other rights.

In 1980 under the guidance of Justice PN Bhagwati, the Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes was constituted. Consequently, in 1995 the National Legal Services Authority was established. The authority has a hierarchical structure constituted at the national, state, and district levels. One of the major functions of these legal services authorities is organizing legal literacy and legal awareness programs in collaboration with NGOs.

In 2005, National Legal Literacy Mission was launched with the motto 'from ignorance to legal empowerment,' to educate minority communities, especially women and children. The target group under the mission included all eligible individuals mentioned in Section 12 of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 which includes the most indigent, distraught, vulnerable, and victimised persons such as women and children belonging to SC, ST, OBC, minority communities or belonging to tribal areas, etc. The mission also aims at simplifying the language of the law. But the mission has not been very successful as it was not allocated separate funds. The funding has been made through the funds allocated to the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).

NALSA has numerous programs that aim to achieve legal literacy and promote legal awareness, such as setting up Legal Literacy Clubs at schools and colleges. The clubs work on promoting awareness about legal rights, duties, and obligations among the student community. Campaigns organized by the clubs cover general issues such as ragging, female foeticide, child marriage, right to education, domestic violence, laws against human trafficking, sexual harassment, rape, etc.

State Legal Services Authority across India have come up with various initiatives for the cause. The Himanchal Pradesh LSA has successfully included chapters in school books on rights and duties, the Chandigarh LSA regularly organises street plays and workshops, the Delhi LSA has taken various initiatives such as radio programs, movie documentary and publishing advertisements in books and magazines, etc. There is no straight jacket model. The authority adopts various methods depending upon the people in a particular region.

Initiatives like NLLM by the government and workshops by NGOs have tried to orient citizens towards increased legal literacy but the data on their effectiveness is not optimistic. A policy initiative based on the principle of cooperative federalism should be taken to ensure that legal literacy campaigns are customised according the needs of each community. Legal literacy should start at the Zila panchayat level by inculcating simplified legal knowledge in adult literacy classes. Further, law as a subject should be introduced in elementary school education to educate young children on basic laws, rights, and duties with the the medium of instruction being a vernacular language.

It is also imperative to change things at a legislative level by doing away with unnecessary legalese and redundancy in acts and ordinances. Understanding laws must not be a difficult task to the very people who are governed by them.

Lastly, the judiciary must also recognise its responsibility to make justice more accessible to everyone irrespective of their economic and social situation. Courts must avoid using complicated language in judicial pronouncements for the sake of clarity to the layperson.

Mass Legal Education will make policy implementation a far easier process in our country. Until then "ignorentia juris non excusat" will remain synonymous with social injustice.

Views are personal.

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