In the case of Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India, being argued by Disability Law Initiative and the Human Rights Law Network, one of the issues being considered by the Supreme Court is accessibility in the Courts for persons with disabilities. While it is an obvious and pressing need that the judicial system be available to all, the lack of measures to accommodate disabled persons when they access the Courts is particularly troubling. Fortunately, the 2016 Disabilities Act has a number of provisions, which if properly implemented would go a long way in making Courts and judicial proceedings disabled friendly.
Court infrastructure in India today is hardly accessible, leading to mobility difficulties for disabled persons. Court filings are not in computer readable format for vision impaired persons, and there is no availability of sign language interpreters for the hearing impaired. There is no help desk or similar facility, and judicial members and other court staff are not sensitized to the special needs and entitlements of persons with disabilities. This adversely affects not only litigants with disabilities, especially those living outside family, but also current and aspiring disabled lawyers. This is not a problem only found in India. Even the US Supreme Court in the 2004 case of “Tennessee v. Lane” observed:
“The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history, and has persisted despite several legislative efforts to remedy the problem of disability discrimination” – click here for Tennessee Vs. Lane, 541 US 509 (2004)
Closer to home, in December 2017, the Supreme Court of India in the case of Disabled Rights Group vs. Union of India, citation (2018) 2 SCC 397, said:
“…A disability is only actually a disability when it prevents someone from doing what they want or need to do. A lawyer can be just as effective in a wheelchair, as long as she has access to the courtroom and the legal library, as well as to whatever other places and material or equipment that are necessary for her to do her job well…”
Recognizing this, the 2016 Disabilities Act mandates a number of measures to make Courts and judicial proceedings accessible and disabled friendly in India. Section 12 of the Act is specifically on the subject of access to justice. This section provides that:
- Persons with disabilities have the right to access any Court without discrimination.
- The Court registry is to ensure that documents and evidence are available in accessible formats.
- Recording of testimonies and arguments given by persons with disabilities would be in their preferred means of communication.
- The State Governments must put in place suitable measures for persons with disabilities to exercise their legal rights.
But, without detailed guidelines and standards for accessibility in the Courts, implementation may not be uniform or cover all the requirements. Here, Section 40 of the Act provides that rules shall be laid down by the Central Government setting the standards of accessibility in the built environment as well as for “public facilities and services”. The latter, according to Section 2(x), would include access to justice. Section 46 further requires that accessibility measures be provided within two years of the standards being set.
The 2016 Disability Act mandates the Courts to be accessible
The mandate of the 2016 Act becomes clear: the Central Government is to lay down the standards and guidelines for access to the Courts and judicial proceedings, and that these are to be implemented by the State Governments in concert with the Court administration within a period of two years.
However, as is frequently the case, the provisions in the 2016 Disabilities Act are yet to be implemented. No standards or guidelines have been set out yet, and it is commonly known that the district courts as well as the High Courts are not disabled friendly nor are the judicial proceedings accessible. Disabled persons, their organizations, and other stakeholders therefore have an opportunity to approach the bodies tasked with protecting the rights and entitlements of persons with disabilities, such as the Central and State Disability Commissioners and Disability Advisory Boards. Such bodies must take the necessary steps to ensure the provisions set out in this regard in the Disability Act are implemented in letter and spirit, with a view to making the Courts in their respective States inclusive in their functioning.