Challenging Ex Parte Orders on the Ground of Non-Availability of Legal Aid

We have seen how Foreigners’ Tribunals have repeatedly passed  ex parte orders declaring persons to be foreigners, and how such orders can be set aside. This research note will look into the challenging of ex parte orders on the ground that legal aid was not provided to the petitioners. This is especially relevant for the NRC process, where multiple individuals belonging to impoverished and marginalized sections of society have been left out of the NRC, and would have to challenge their exclusion. To do so, one would have to rely on legal services, which might not always be within the reach of those belonging to the aforementioned sections of society. This research note delves into the issue of legal aid, and looks at the intersection of legal aid and ex parte orders by FTs. Over the years, thousands of people in Assam have been declared as ‘foreigners’ through ex parte orders. Therefore, this research note will look into the setting aside of ex parte orders on the ground that legal aid was not provided to petitioners.

1. What is legal aid?

Legal aid means the provision of free legal services to any persons, who by virtue of some marginalization or disability, are unable to access legal services to carry on legal proceedings before courts and tribunals.

2. Legal Aid under the Indian Constitution

Article 39A of the Indian Constitution, a Directive Principle of State Policy (‘DPSP’), requires the state to:

…secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.

Article 39A has been read along with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to hold that the right to legal aid is a necessary part of a just, fair, and reasonable procedure under Article 21 of the Constitution. (Hussainara Khatoon v Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1980 (1) SCC 98), and Khatri and Others v State of Bihar and Others (AIR 1981 SC 928)).

2.1 Important Cases

A. In Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360), the right to free legal services was held to be a part of every accused person’s fundamental right under Article 21 and Article 39A. A procedure which does not make available legal services to an accused person, who is too poor to afford a lawyer and who would, therefore, have to go through the trial without legal assistance, cannot possibly be regarded as reasonable, fair, and just. It was held that:

Article 39A emphasizes that free legal service is an inalienable element of ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure for without it a person suffering from economic or other disabilities would be deprived of the opportunity for securing justice. The right to free legal service is therefore, clearly an essential ingredient of ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure for a person accused of an offence and it must be held implicit in the guarantee of Article 21. This is a constitutional right of every accused person who is unable to engage a lawyer and secure legal services, on account of reasons such as poverty, indigence or incommunicado situation and the State is under a mandate to provide a lawyer to an accused person if the circumstances of the case and the needs of justice so require, provided of course the accused person does not object to the provision of such lawyer.

B. In Madhav Hayawadanrao Hoskot v State of Maharashtra (1978 AIR 1548),the Supreme Court, speaking through J Krishna Iyer, held that the right to legal representation would apply to all cases, from the lowest to the highest court, where deprivation of life and personal liberty is in substantial peril.

 C. In Khatri and Others v State of Bihar and Others (AIR 1981 SC 928), the Supreme Court held that, “the State is under a constitutional obligation to provide free legal services to an indigent accused not only at the stage of trial but also at the stage when he is first produced before the magistrate as also when he is remanded from time to time.”Further, the Supreme Court held that the judicial officer has the obligation of informing the person that she is entitled to legal aid. It also held that: 

…it would make a mockery of legal aid if it were to be left to a poor ignorant and illiterate accused to ask for free legal services… The magistrate or the sessions judge before whom the accused appears must be held to be under an obligation to inform the accused that if he is unable to engage the services of a lawyer on account of poverty or indigence, he is entitled to obtain free legal services at the cost of the State.

D. In Superintendent of Legal Affairs v Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1979 AIR 1369), the Supreme Court held that it is always the duty of the court to see and inform the accused that she has a right to legal service, even if she does not ask for the same.

E. In Sukh Das v Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh ((1986) 2 SCC 401), the Supreme Court held that the absence of legal awareness must be taken into consideration and that the onus is on the state to pro-actively inform the person facing deprivation of liberty that she has a right to free legal aid. It was observed:

It is this absence of legal awareness which is responsible for the deception, exploitation and deprivation of rights and benefits from which the poor suffer in this land. Their legal needs always stand to become crisis-oriented because their ignorance prevents them from anticipating legal troubles and approaching a lawyer for consultation and advice in time and their poverty magnifies the impact of the legal troubles and difficulties when they come. Moreover, because of their ignorance and illiteracy, they cannot become self-reliant: they cannot even help themselves…. The result is that poverty becomes with them a condition of total helplessness. This miserable condition in which the poor find themselves can be alleviated to some extent by creating legal awareness amongst the poor… It would in these circumstances make a mockery of legal aid if it were to be left to a poor, ignorant and illiterate accused to ask for free legal services. Legal aid would become merely a paper promise and it would fail of its purpose.

F. In Gopalanachari v State of Kerala (AIR 1981 SC 674), it was held that it is well established that the state is under a constitutional mandate under Article 21 and Article 39A to provide a lawyer to an accused person if the circumstances of the case and needs of justice so requires, provided of course that the accused person does not object to the provision of such a lawyer.

G. In State of Maharashtra v Manubhai Pragaji Vashi and Ors (1995 SCC (5) 730), the Supreme Court held that the combined effect of Article 21 and Article 39A of the Constitution of India mandates that the state shall provide free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes, or in any other way,to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. It was further held that the duty cast on the state to provide free legal representation under Article 21, read with Article 39A, cannot be whittled down in any manner, either by pleading paucity of funds or otherwise.

H. In Mohd. Hussain @ Julfikar Ali v NCT of Delhi ((2012) 9 SCC 408),and Ajmal Kasab v State of Maharashtra ((2012) 9 SCC 1), the Supreme Court applied the right of free legal aid to foreign nationals.

3. Claiming a right to legal aid before the Foreigner’s Tribunals

3.1. Legal entitlement under the Legal Services Authority Act, 1878

A notification dated 28 December 2018, bearing No. LGL 165/2018/7, issued by the Legislative Department, Government of Assam, stipulated that only a person with an annual income below three lakhs would be eligible for legal aid under Section 12(h) of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987. Therefore, the FT members must inform any person who appears before the tribunal about their entitlement under this notification to receive free legal aid, prior to the initiation of any proceedings.

3.2. Failure to provide free legal aid renders the proceedings unjust, unfair, and unreasonable

The provision of legal aid is mandatory for any proceeding that has an impact on the life or personal liberty of any person, to qualify as a fair, just, and reasonable procedure, under Article 21. Therefore, proceedings before the FTs are equally bound by this obligation.

Proceedings before the FTs have been held to be sui generis,being neither civil suits nor criminal trials [Shariful Islam v Union of India, (2019) 8 Gau LR 322]. The FT is empowered to exercise the powers of a civil court under the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, as well as the powers of a Judicial Magistrate First Class under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, in accordance with Paragraph 4 of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964. Hence, it cannot be said that proceedings before the FTs are purely civil proceedings, where principles applicable to criminal justice are inapplicable altogether. The observations made in the cases which recognized the fundamental right to free legal aid must necessarily be extended to the process of citizenship determination. This is because, the finding that a person is not an Indian citizen results in restrictions upon a person’s right to life and personal liberty, given that such persons are to be detained or deported [See Paragraph 3(13) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964]. Further, even in rendering a quasi-judicial order, such as those rendered by the FTs, there must be compliance with principles of natural justice and fair trial under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Additionally, those who are declared as foreigners under the reference procedure do not have access to an appellate mechanism. Instead, they may only approach the High Court in exercise of writ jurisdiction under Article 226, which has a limited scope of review. Thus effectively, there is no appeal from findings of facts from the FT. In this scenario, the failure of the state to extend free legal aid to persons at the FT stage would further violate the standards of fair trial under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In Shariful Islam v Union of India ((2019) 8 Gau LR 322), a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court observed that access to justice was a fundamental right of the persons against whom reference was made to the FTs.

3.3. Failure to provide free legal aid results in a denial of a ‘reasonable opportunity’

Paragraph 3(1) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, requires that, “reasonable opportunity of making a representation and producing evidence in support of his case”, must be given to any person in proceedings before the FT. In Kanachur Islamic Education Trust v Union of India ((2017) 15 SCC 702), the Supreme Court had defined reasonable opportunity as being “synonymous to ‘fair hearing’, it is no longer res integra and is an important ingredient of the audi alteram partem rule and embraces almost every facet of fair procedure.”The failure to provide free legal aid and to inform the opposite party that she is entitled to free legal aid would result in the denial of fair hearing and thus, a denial of ‘reasonable opportunity’ required under Paragraph 3(1) of the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964.

3.4. Proceedings are vitiated in the absence of availability of free legal aid

The Supreme Court and various High Courts have repeatedly set aside criminal proceedings where legal aid was not pro-actively provided to the accused facing deprivation of her liberty. In Suk Das v Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh ((1986) 2 SCC 401),the trial was held to be vitiated on account of a fatal constitutional infirmity (failure to provide free legal aid), and the conviction and sentence were set aside. Similarly, in Rajoo @ Ramakant v State of MP ((2012) 8 SCC 553), the Supreme Court set aside the High Court judgment upholding the conviction and remanded the case for re-hearing by the High Court after providing the accused an opportunity of obtaining free legal representation.

In Arjun Karmakar v State of Assam ((1986) 2 Gau LR 287),a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court held that the appointment of a fresh lawyer on the date of trial was mere fulfilment of formality and no legal aid was actually provided. The High Court set aside the conviction and sentence, and directed a retrial in the case, while observing:

There is a marked tendency to take very lightly the procedure for providing legal aid to the poor. The poor are mute. They have no media, no means to express their pangs and agonies and therefore, with impunity they are provided with assistance but perhaps “no legal assistance by competent lawyer.” If it is the constitutional right of the poor to be provided with legal assistance, the assistance must be genuine, real and the best lawyers should be engaged, otherwise it might be said in the future that their constitutional rights were trampled by the judiciary. We say “caveat actor”. Let not posterity say that the poor were provided lip service or we shed crocodile tears in the name of legal aid.

The Gauhati High Court has also set aside proceedings under special legislations for the failure to provide legal aid. In Anurag Saxena v Ct S Damodaran, where the accused, a constable, was charged under section 10(n) of the Central Reserve Police Force Act, 1949, and sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment, the Gauhati High Court observed that:

Since the constitutional right of the accused has been deprived, it is necessary that free legal assistance should be provided to make the trial reasonable, fair and just. I am, therefore, of the view that in the instant case the accused is entitled to get legal assistance, if necessary, at State expense during the trial. Since no such assistance was given during his trial by the Magistrate-cum-Assistant Commandant, the denial of the same would render the trial non est in the eye of law as it was not reasonable, fair and just, and was hit by Art. 21. On this ground also, the judgment and Order of the learned trial Court cannot stand. However, I want to make it clear that each and every trial cannot be held bad for want of legal service and the Court may-judge and consider the case from all angles before arriving at any decision.

Therefore, in the absence of free legal aid, the High Court should set aside the ex parte order and remand the case to the FT for a re-hearing.

4. Plea for setting aside an ex parte order on the ground of absence of proper legal representation – Index of cases

4.1. Relevant Statutes/Rules/Orders

Paragraph 3C of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, provides for filing an application before the FT for setting aside an ex parte order within a period of thirty (30) days from the date of the said FT Opinion. The relevant extract is as follows:

“3C. Procedure for setting aside ex parte order.–

(1) Where the Foreigners Tribunal has passed an ex-parte order for non-appearance of the proceedee and he or she has sufficient cause for not appearing before the Foreigners Tribunal, it may on the application of the proceedee, if filed within thirty days of the said order, set aside its ex parte order and decide the case accordingly.

(2) The Proceedee may file an application to the Foreigner Tribunal within thirty days to review the decision of the Foreigners Tribunal claiming that he is not a foreigner and the Foreigners Tribunals may review its decision within thirty days of the receipt of such application and decide the case on merits.

(3) Subject to the provisions of this Order, the Foreigners Tribunal shall have the powers to regulate its own procedure for disposal of the cases expeditiously in a time bound manner.”

4.2. Special/Exceptional Circumstances

The Tribunal can entertain an application for setting aside an ex parte opinion if it is satisfied as to the existence of special/exceptional circumstances for the non-appearance of the person. See the ratio in State of Assam v Moslem Mandal((2013) 3 GLR 402). It was stated in Para 91:

The Tribunals constituted under the Foreigners Act read with the 1964 Order have to regulate their own procedure and they have also the quasi-judicial function to discharge and hence in a given case the Tribunal has the jurisdiction to entertain and pass the necessary order on an application to set aside an ex-parte opinion, provided it is proved to the satisfaction of the Tribunal that the proceedee was not served with the notice in the reference proceeding or that he was prevented by sufficient cause from appearing in the proceeding, reason for which was beyond his control. Such application, however, should not be entertained in a routine manner. The Tribunal can entertain such application provided the proceedee could demonstrate the existence of special/exceptional circumstances to entertain the same by way of pleadings in the application filed for setting aside the ex-parte opinion, otherwise the very purpose of enacting the 1946 Act and the 1964 Order would be frustrated. The Tribunal, therefore, would have the jurisdiction to reject such an application at the threshold, if no ground is made out.

4.3. Table of Cases

S NoCase NameCitationOutcomeReasoning
  1.  Huran Nessa v Union of India  MANU/GH/0792/2018  Allowed  The proceedee was not aware that she was required to register herself with the FRRO in the stipulated time as her husband/father had passed away before conveying such important information. This constituted an exceptional circumstance.
  2.  Samad Ali v Union of India  2012 (5) GLT 162, MANU/GH/0614/2012  Allowed  The proceedee being an illiterate and poor man submitted the requisite documents to the clerk, who assured him that they will be admitted. He was of the bona fide beliefthat there was no need for him to attend the proceedings after that. The ex parte order was set aside.
  3.  Narayan Das v State of Assam  MANU/GH/1139/2017  Dismissed  The proceedee being wholly dependent on his lawyer and that being the reason for his non-attendance was not considered a special circumstance.
  4.  Anowara Begum v State of Assam and Ors.  2017 (3) GLT 104, MANU/GH/0350/2017  Dismissed  The appellant was an illiterate person and suffered from acute poverty. After submission of the written statement, she was told by her lawyer that she would be informed as and when her presence was required. Along with the written statement, the lawyer did not enclose the relevant documents handed over to him by the appellant. The written statement also did not disclose the case of the appellant and no steps were taken by the lawyer to produce her witnesses. But these contentions were held to be contradictory and untenable. It was held that FT proceedings are not to be taken so lightly.  
  5.  Jakir Hussain v Union of India  2016 (5) GLT 319, MANU/GH/0612/2016  Dismissed  Being misled by people due to illiteracy and ignorance as grounds for non-appearance were rejected.  
  6.  Asmul Khatun v The Union of India and Ors.  MANU/GH/0794/2016  Dismissed  The petitioner was an illiterate lady and was not well-versed with court procedures. Due to wrong advice given by people, she did not attend the proceedings. This reason was not accepted.  
  7.  Idrish Ali (Md.) and Ors. v Union of India and Ors  2016(3) GLT 886, MANU/GH/0360/2016  Dismissed  The petitioners being illiterate and ignorant about the court procedure relied upon the engaged counsel, and as he did not provide proper guidance to the petitioners about the procedure of the case, they could not appear, and the case was decided ex-parte. The High Court held that it was not the case of the petitioners that they approached their engaged counsel after filing of the case and he suppressed the result of the case etc. Such a casual approach by the petitioners cannot be held as an exceptional circumstance which prevented them from appearing before the Tribunal.

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