BY SUKANYA SANTHA

Drowned in a pile of legal papers, crammed inside a dimly lit room, a man sat from morning to evening every day. He had no dearth of cases. The only trusted legal mind in the vicinity, people queued outside his room to seek help. He would stay in that room till the last person left with his advice. He could have been easily mistaken for a lawyer with a roaring practice. But this 68- year-old was a convict in Bangalore Central Jail, and his ‘clients’ were his fellow inmates.

We first met T K S Kutty last year at the Bangalore Central Jail (BCJ) – Karnataka’s largest prison – in the course of our research on excessive pre-trial detention. Once a labour union leader and lawyer, Kutty had been convicted of murder with seven others in a labour dispute case in 1998 and sentenced to life imprisonment. His legal background was to come to the rescue of hundreds of prisoners.

Like most prisons in India, BCJ too has a dysfunctional legal aid system. According to jail officials, over 4200 prisoners are lodged in a prison built for only 2100. Legal aid lawyers rarely come to the prison, as Amnesty International India research in 2012 and 2013 showed. “Inmates wait for months, in worse cases even for years, to hear from legal aid authorities about their cases,” says Kutty. “Even when these lawyers come, they are interested more in making money out of poor prisoners than arguing their cases. It is a sham.”

Moved by the plight of his fellow inmates, Kutty took the initiative to become their de facto legal aid officer. Every day he would write dozens of petitions to the judiciary for early appointment of lawyers, reduction of bail amounts, and for speedy trials and appeals. When undertrials were convicted, he would alert them to remind their lawyers to ask for the trial period to be considered during sentencing. Kutty persuaded the administration to dispatch every petition from prisoners swiftly to the judiciary.

The results started showing. Trials and appeals of hundreds of prisoners were attended to in courts by legal aid lawyers. Legal aid lawyers, says Kutty, seldom show interest in acquainting themselves with cases and prisoners’ needs and grievances. But many were compelled to act on his diligent drafting of case pleadings. One jail official told us that Kutty was ‘notorious’ for sending reminder after reminder to every stakeholder, with a copy marked to the higher judiciary.

His dedication moved the prison administration to allow him to choose an assistant – an undertrial who had both a law degree and the inclination to work for fellow inmates. He was also given a separate desk to work from. “After several letters from me and other prisoners, in 2010, the prison authorities made some space available inside the prison where I could work from. This was my desperate attempt to operationalize the otherwise defunct legal aid system,” he says.

According to jail authorities, Kutty’s efforts have contributed to the release of as many as 162 prisoners. “Every time a prisoner approached me, I sent an application to the district legal aid authorities. Irrespective of their interest, I would draft the required petition on behalf of the prisoner and send it across,” says Kutty.

On January 26, Kutty and 400 other life convicts from Karnataka were released before the end of their terms for good conduct. He spent 18 years in prison. Since his release, there has been little effort from authorities to improve the legal aid system.

“Nobody is interested. Even educated prisoners, who could help in this work, stay away,” says Kutty dejectedly. The Chief Superintendent of the jail said that authorities now largely depend on Kutty’s former assistant. “We are relying on him for now. There are a few more educated prisoners, we will seek their help too,” said the Superintendent.

Some of Kutty’s experiences show shocking negligence by authorities. In one case, a prisoner from Tumkur spent two years in prison even after he was acquitted. “The court (High Court of Karnataka) did not send the judgment copy to the jail. When I sent a letter seeking the status of his case, the order of acquittal was sent to the jail,” says Kutty, wondering what would have happened if he had not sent that letter. Earlier this month, the Social Justice Bench of the Supreme Court echoed Kutty’s views on the flaws in India’s legal aid system. Warning that legal aid for the poor should not become poor legal aid, the bench passed an interim order asking for systemic changes to ensure prisoners’ constitutional right to free legal aid.

Kutty says that effective legal assistance will also need competent lawyers. “There is no dearth of legal aid lawyers. What is lacking is the quality. These lawyers are not just disinterested in helping their clients, some of them even resort to extortion,” Kutty complains. Such professional misconduct is rarely punished, even when it is brought to the notice of courts and jail authorities. Low level of education and poverty make prisoners and their families easy targets.

Sadly Kutty’s experience is not unique. In many prisons in India, inmates are crucial to the functioning of legal aid mechanisms. In a bleak and broken system, these individuals offer some hope to the thousands of undertrials languishing in India’s overcrowded jails. And a reminder to authorities that even a little will can go a long way.

(Sukanya Shantha is a Researcher with Amnesty International India. Views expressed by the author are personal. This article was first published on The Indian Express website on February 17, 2016)