Analysis of Anokhilal v. State of MP
Ensuring that legal aid amounts to real and meaningful aid
A fundamental requirement of all criminal justice systems is fair and swift access to justice. However, there needs to be a balance between such fairness and timely delivery of justice so that the rights of the accused, victims and the public’s faith in the judiciary is not prejudiced. Ensuring fairness means that the parties have to be given every opportunity to present their case without any prejudice. When the trial is expedited, such fast-tracking should never result in basic postulates of criminal law being side-lined. One such basic postulate is the guarantee of free legal aid to all persons under custody. The right to free legal aid is an absolute requirement for a fair trial and is guaranteed by the constitution. Quick disposal of cases, especially offences of heinous nature, is necessary to ensure justice to the victim and retain the public’s faith in the justice system. The courts must strive to ensure both aspects are fulfilled without prejudicing the position of the accused.
The conflict between such right to free legal aid and speedy disposal of justice was discussed at length and addressed in the case of Anokhilal v. State of Madhya Pradesh.
The accused in the present case had been convicted with a death sentence by the Trial Court in a case of rape and murder. The High Court affirmed such order and confirmed the death sentence awarded. The present case was held to fall under the category of “rarest of rare” cases and therefore death sentence was awarded.
The Supreme Court on appeal did not delve into issues regarding the particulars of the offence or procedural inadequacies as per CrPC in the trial. It solely focussed on the nature of appointment of Amicus Curiae and heavily expedited nature of the trial. The Amicus Curiae had been appointed on the same day of framing of charges and hence did not have time to sufficiently prepare. Notably, the trial was concluded in thirteen days and thirteen witnesses were examined in seven days. As death sentence had been awarded in the present case, the standard for caution and vigilance to be exercised by the Court was much higher. Therefore, the Court set aside the judgement of the High Court and ordered for a fresh trial.
Summary of Guidelines
The bench comprising of J. Uday Umesh Lalit, J. Indu Malhotra and J. Krishna Murari extensively discussed the issue of precautions to be taken while appointing an Amicus Curiae for the accused. The Court held that free legal aid should amount to real and meaningful assistance being extended to the accused. After ordering for a fresh trial, the court issued certain guidelines to ensure that meaningful and timely legal aid is extended to accused, especially in cases where there is a possibility of life imprisonment and death sentence. The court issued the following guidelines:
- Only advocates with more than 10 years of practise be appointed as Amicus Curiae if there is possibility of death sentence or life imprisonment.
- If the death sentence has to confirmed in the High Court, it should be endeavoured to appoint a senior advocate.
- Reasonable time has to be provided for preparing for the case to the Amicus Curiae with a minimum of seven days to be provided.
- The Amicus Curiae appointed must be allowed to have meetings and discussions with the accused.
These guidelines include provisions regarding the qualification of the Amicus Curiae, ensuring sufficient for preparatory time for the Amicus Curiae and facilitates interaction with the accused. A notable feature of these guidelines is that they prescribe quantified minimum standards which ensures that the rights of the accused cannot be severely affected
Necessity of Legal Aid
The right to free legal aid emanates from the principle of Audi Alteram Partem, that is, no party shall be left unheard. Due to social and economic considerations, some persons might not be in a position to acquire legal representation. In such a circumstance, the trial cannot be said to be fair as the accused is not familiar with the mechanizations of a criminal trial which will tip the scale to his disadvantage. The lawyers in Criminal Courts are considered to be necessities rather than luxuries and hence, every person should have the right to legal aid. Therefore, it is an established and fundamental principle of Criminal Justice System to provide legal aid to persons unable to do so.
In India, Article 39(f) of the Constitution guarantees free legal aid and equal access to justice to all citizens. The purpose of the article is to ensure that the parties have all opportunities to secure justice which should not be hampered by economic and other disabilities. Subjecting an accused to death sentence without ensuring and meaningfully fulfilling his right to free legal aid is violative of Article 21 as it amounts to deprivation of life in breach of procedure established by law. Free legal aid is also a statutory right guaranteed by the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. Section 12 of the Act provides the criteria for claiming access to free legal aid and the section includes anyone who is under custody along with other criteria. Therefore, the accused in a criminal case has the right to free legal aid. The legal aid framework functions through the Legal Services Authority which operates at various levels, from the Supreme Court to the Taluka level. It’s the duty of the Court to ensure that such appointment of counsel and all the surrounding precautions are being taken.
Therefore, the courts are mandated to provide free legal aid to such persons to ensure a free and fair trial. Further, the right to free legal aid has been upheld by the Supreme Court on multiple occasions. In the landmark case of Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar it was held that it is the duty of the State to ensure that free legal aid is provided to the accused. Such a duty has to be explicitly carried out by the Judge by informing the accused in each case that they have the right to free legal aid. The right to free legal aid arises from the moment when the accused is first produced before the Magistrate and hence the Magistrate is mandated to make the accused fully aware of his rights. Therefore, the importance and necessity of free legal aid is well established.
Legal Aid beyond procedural formalities
These norms were laid down in light of the deficiencies in the legal aid framework traced by the Court. Although the right to legal aid is well-recognized, there is a lack of comprehensive and quantified standards for ensuring fair and equal access to justice. Ensuring the right to free legal aid is not limited to appointment of the lawyer by the Legal Services Authority. The right to legal aid extends to ensuring meaningful, adequate and timely legal aid to the accused.
Ensuring meaningful and real assistance means timely appointment of qualitative lawyers has to take place. If the lawyer appointed does not attend proceedings diligently or does not cross-examine the witnesses, that does not amount to a fair trial. Further, the right to legal aid must be available to the accused at all stages of the trial and an endeavour must be made to ensure that the accused can avail it from the moment the accused is first produced before the Magistrate. If the Amicus Curiae is appointed at a stage where they do not have the necessary time to go throughout the case documents and prepare for the case, the accused’s right to legal aid is violated.
Significance of this Judgement
To provide legal aid, the Legal Services Authority engages a panel of advocates to conduct the cases of eligible accused persons. It is essential that the Amicus Curiae or the advocates appointed by Legal services Authority must possess minimum standing as provided in the guidelines. Intention of specifying minimum standing as an advocate is to ensure that the case of the accused is represented adequately and the court is also assisted adequately in the cases where the accused is not represented by any advocate. As highlighted in the deficiencies, it is a common occurrence that the lawyer appointed through legal-aid is either not adequately qualified to argue matters of death sentence or does not have the motivation required for such a case or is appointed in such a circumstance not allowing them to adequately prepare for the proceedings. Therefore, a specified requirement of 10 years of practise for the lawyer ensures that the accused is not wrongly subjected to life imprisonment or death penalty. Further, the guidelines also require that senior advocates of the High Court have to be appointed which further guarantees that the accused is not compromising his right to a fair trial.
The guidelines also specify that a minimum of seven days has to be provided to the Amicus Curiae ensuring that the accused’s rights are never severely prejudiced. In the present case, the advocate was appointed on the same day as the framing of the charges and due to the presence of these guidelines such severe breach of the accused’s right can be avoided. With a guarantee of such time for preparation, the lawyer is better prepared to defend the accused and help the court.
The judgement also facilitates the Amicus Curiae to consult with the accused and mandates that such requests must be granted. As noted by the Court, in many cases the lawyer appointed has not consulted with the accused and is not completely familiar with the details of the case. However, this guideline ensures that the lawyer can co-ordinate with the accused and put forth the best defence possible.
Although, quick access to justice is necessary to ensure justice to the victim and retain the faith of the public in the justice system, especially in cases of sexual assault and murder, the basic requirements of a fair trial cannot be sidelined. The process needs to be expedited but the accused’s position cannot be compromised. Fast-tracking of the trial should not result in an incomplete and defective trial. Law and legislative process do not amount to anything unless there is a well-functioning justice system which everyone has equal access to. This judgement makes it clear that speedy redressal of cases can never allow for the subversion of basic principles of the Criminal Justice System like a fair trial.
Free legal aid is an essential part of the right to life as held by the Supreme Court of India. As part of this mandate if the accused is unrepresented in any case the court must see that he is provided with an advocate to conduct his case. This is with a view of protecting accused’s fundamental and human rights. However, the legal aid must not be a procedural formality but also amount to meaningful and real assistance to the accused. Hence, the purpose of these guidelines is to ensure that the Amicus Curiae act with all sorts of vigour and seriousness in handling the cases of the accused seeking free legal aid. Extended efforts have to be made in this regard when it comes to cases of the death penalty as there can be no room for doubt while awarding such a sentence. With a majority of the world completely abolishing capital punishment, the courts have to exercise higher caution. Thus, the guidelines are in furtherance of the fundamental principle of criminal jurisprudence that no innocent should be punished.
 Section 12, The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987.
 Article 39(a), The Constitution of India.
About the Author: Aditya Matolli [2019-24] is pursuing B.A. L.L.B. (Hons.) from National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad.