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Drop in for some free advice

It’s 3 pm on a Sunday. A dozen elderly gentlemen are gathered in a ground floor room of BD-205, Salt Lake, Calcutta, sipping tea. A middle-aged woman in a green cotton sari walks uncertainly in through the open door and asks in Bengali, “Is this the free legal aid centre'”

Swapna Pal, a resident of a nearby slum has found the right address. Every alternate Sunday since November 3, 2002, retired judges from all over West Bengal have been meeting here to give legal advice. Called Aini Seba, the service was started with the intention of providing free legal aid only to the ‘needy’. But according to Ranabir Mahapatra, chairman of the cell, and former district judge, Howrah, West Bengal, “In practice, guidance is extended to anyone who drops in. ”

It was as early as 1990 that Mahapatra first mooted the idea with other members of the Retired Judges Association, West Bengal (RJAWB). This was a body of retired district judges that was formed in 1987 with the purpose of making “the wealth of knowledge and judicial experience of the members available to society at large”. “We judges have seen how helpless people are who do not have the means to knock at the door of justice,” points out D.N. Banerjee, another founding member of Aini Seba. “We wanted to bring all the expertise in our command to the service of society,” adds the 75-year-old, who, after 30 years in practice, retired as judiciary secretary of the West Bengal government and now teaches law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Salt Lake.

But logistics, including space, was a problem. Finally, in 2002, the charity organisation, Bharat Sevashram Sangha, offered them the use of their premises in Salt Lake. On September 29 that year, the legal aid section was inaugurated.

Since then, 53 sessions have been conducted. Men and women who came to know of the service through various sources ' mainly by word of mouth ' flocked to the centre. The cases that came up pertained to a wide range of legal issues. According to an official estimate, so far, most cases have had to do with property disputes of various kinds, including landlord-tenant disputes (approximately 25) and cases concerning matrimonial disputes, including maintenance cases (12). Other cases related to job disputes, probate of will, municipal disputes, motor accident claims case, electricity disputes and land acquisition.

Swapna Pal is here to seek advice on the course of action she should take to evict tenants who are bent on making ‘illegal’ structural changes to the room she has let out.

As per the norm, to hear each case, a ‘bench’ comprising three judges, is formed. Banerjee is part of the bench. While listening in detail to the circumstances of the case, he asks such specific questions as, “Do you provide rent receipts to the tenant'” “This is not just to establish the right legal course of action, but to rule out false cases,” Banerjee explains. “We try and judge if a case merits any further legal action. Often, there are cases that don’t really hold ground. In such cases we try and dissuade them from proceeding.” Recently, when a man sought advice about filing an FIR against his newly-married wife, alleging that she had “conceived” before marriage, the panel of judges advised that instead of involving the police, he apply for divorce in a matrimonial court.

Pal, however, is advised to immediately file a case under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in order to prevent the tenant from proceeding with any construction. “Such an order is valid for 60 days and it gives the client some time to plan,” explains 56-year-old B.P. Dasgupta, former legal advisor, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority, and now a guest lecturer at Calcutta University’s department of law. “After this, she can take recourse to the WB Premises Tenancy Act 1997 for the eviction,” he adds.

Pal is very happy. “Legal advice is so expensive that you feel afraid to even venture into it,” says the housewife, whose husband works for the fire brigade. “So I rushed here when I heard that this was free.” She didn’t expect the kind of time and attention she got from each of the judges present here. “They are so helpful, so caring,” she says.

“There are at least two cases a day,” Mahapatra says. “But we hope gradually, more people will come.” While the sessions begin at 3 in the afternoon, they tend to end around 6 pm. “But there is no fixed timing,” says Kuhu Seal, daughter of a retired judge, who has volunteered to do official work, including taking down dictations for each case, which are filed in official registers.

The judges too come from far and wide. Asit Kumar Banerjee, secretary, RJAWB, is from Malda. He doesn’t miss a session. And age is not a deterrent. Says 76-year-old Gopal Mukherjee, “It’s fulfilling, humanitarian work and we are glad to be able to render this service.”

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