Sunday, July 27, 2014

LEGAL (IL)LITERACY



My daughter was talking to me about a senior of hers from school whose parents had divorced and who lived with his mother.  Apparently his mother travelled abroad a lot and he was alone for long periods of time. Curious, I asked her what his mother did for a living. 

“Oh I don’t know. Must be living off her alimony” she said dismissively!  I asked her if she knew what was meant by “alimony”. She fumbled and then went on to give me an explanation (  sprinkling in words like “child support” )  that seemed like something straight out of some American sitcom- about income that women who were into “serial marriages” and “milking” the ex husbands  earned to maintain a certain life style.  That explained her dismissive tone I guessed.

I then offered to tell her another story – about a friend of mine who is also divorced and living with a son about the same age. My friend is  a Ph.D  and working at a reputed Indian university. Her son is a brilliant student and keen on studying abroad in an American University. But foreign education as we all know is very expensive especially at the undergraduate level as there are almost no scholarships available to foreign students. The father of this boy is very well to do. However he is very non committal about supporting his son’s education abroad.   I told my daughter about the mother’s dilemma -  how  was she going to raise the money to support the boy’s education abroad? She has been planning to sell the house she lives in to finance his studies.

My little young lady was shocked!! “But how can that be? Why can’t the father support his son? Can’t the courts make him support the boy’s education” she asked indignantly. I had to explain to her that in the Indian context, family law was very different. While divorced women were entitled to “maintenance”  there was no clear stipulation about the amount and what were the further financial commitments  involving children in this regard. A lot of men got away with paying nothing to their ex wives.  There went crashing down, my daughter’s image of a glamorous ex wife from “Desperate housewives” ! 

While a school girl’s ignorance about this is excusable, I have been thinking about how little  all of us, even adults,  seem to know about our laws though we are very vociferous about having a uniform civil code! However, few of us would admit to knowing so little.  I don’t think it is embarrassment  that holds us back but ignorance about our own ignorance. We seem to think we know enough but actually it is not so. 

I think much of this false impression about our legal knowledge , especially among the educated English speaking middle class  comes from the fact that what we consider as “legal knowledge” is not knowledge pertaining to the legal system in India but the US. The media is flooded with American sitcoms like “Boston legal” “ Good Wife” etc which are all about legal matters. And then there are those books written by  John Grisham.  We lap them all up and then live in cuckoo land thinking that our judicial system must be like that!!! And  of course our education system being so lopsided towards science does not educate any  young person adequately on the judicial system in the country.  I will not be surprised if I were to do a random survey among  IT professionals in their mid twenties asking if we had “Trial by jury” in India and get a response of “Yes” from a 50% and “Don’t know” from about 40%!!

The Indian legal system is a legacy of the colonial times. It has some antiquated laws yet, some very progressive ones.  For instance, if you take the law on Bigamy - any man who is married to two women at the same time is said to have committed Bigamy and his second relationship does not have any legal sanction. Our Indian laws however, give children born out of wedlock rights on all property that is earned by the father/ mother ( not inherited property) as the law believes that children are not responsible for their parent’s actions. 

But it is appalling how our films and TV serials interpret the law!  It is almost as though the law is put in to justify the plot and not vice versa . For e.g in a Bigamy situation, the teary eyed first wife is made to sign a legal document that is supposed to be giving her husband “permission” to marry a second time.  Such portrayals make many people in India think that a man may marry a second time if his first wife permits him to. This is actually rubbish!! What that legal document the first wife in a film or a serial is made to sign is in essence a “No objection “ document because if at all anyone can take the man to task legally for marrying a second time it is Wife no 1 !!. The document is only a safeguard against such a future action.  Similarly no abandoned children of a man can be denied any part of the property earned by him ! 

I don’t know if there is some way by which legal action can be brought against the makers of such films/serials for presenting the law wrongly. But in a country that has a lot of more serious legal transgressions, I guess this is trivial!

I wish all these people who are now fighting about “preserving Indian culture and values” would focus their energies on “educating Indians about Indian laws”. It is not enough to have it put together in civics text books in the classes VIII to X only to have them wiped clean out of the mind as the students read “more important  concepts”  like Archimedes Principle and Faraday’s law  beyond their Xth. Legal education needs to come out of books and into mainstream media in a way that people understand it better. 

Despite the fact that the US is a more litigious society than ours, we still cannot deny that we would not need the legal system at some point in our lives. So, how prepared are we for that? A court room scene with a black robed judge shouting “Order order” or a loud mouthed lawyer shouting “Objection  milord” is not sufficient. We need to know why the judge let out the hero saying  Ba izzat bari kiya jata hai” before we see “THE END” flashing on the screen with the title song playing in the background. 

Movies like “Jolly LLB” came close to depicting the law for what it actually is- the crammed district courts etc. But I am yet to see a movie that is about a good Public Interest Litigation like “Erin Brocovich”.  It is not that there have been so such judgments. It is just that there is a dearth of good film makers who can present the law correctly and in an entertaining / interesting manner.  Until we have that the illiterate /poorly educated would get cheated of their rights  while the English educated  Indians might just want to know why someone does not invoke the “Fifth Amendment” around a trial proceeding  if some is treated unfairly in the legal process!!!

8 comments:

Anilkumar Kurup said...

Well you are right about “Erin Brocovich”. Not many in India . Or are there any in Indian movies?

Movies about the segregation era in the USA are many and many are of immense public interest and value.

I feel that the matters of law are skewed against women here , though it may be changing. I mean when it comes to the clash of personal laws and the civil code.
Remember the litigation Mary Roy ( Arundati Roy's ) mother won against the archaic Christian succession law. And the commotion and outrage expressed by the church leaders against the Supreme Court's ruling?
Often men get the upper hand.
The portrayal of women in TV serials are ridiculous. Most women display dumbness and meekness in these TV serials that often it is disgusting. The ridiculous part is it is women who watch and are spellbound by such operas .

SG said...

Nice post. Loved reading it.

In USA, the parents have legal obligation to support a child (education, food, stay at home) only up to the child reaching 18 years of age. After that parents have no legal obligation to support the kid.

There are some good laws that India can implement from USA. In India, thousands of cases are still pending because powerful people/lawyers get “postponement” of hearing several times for several years. That is not the case in USA. Judge will very rarely grant a postponement. If you and your lawyer is not in the court, the case will be decided based on what the opposite party says. That should be implemented in India.

The movies and TVs in India are ridiculous. I am always pissed off at the scene where the accused is in the court. The judge asks him is there anyone to represent you. The accused says I don’t have anyone. Then comes in the court some important lawyer character and declares “I am here your honor to defend him”. It does not happen in real life. The judge won’t allow that.

Another one is the father is the judge and son is the accused. Pure rubbish.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@SG India does have a lot of good legislation but the way the law drags its feet here is not funny!!! And what is urgently required is legal literacy so that we are not at the mercy of some useless lawyers whose entire careers consist only of "adjournment". The scenes you mentioned make me shudder!! Yet they are all part of every other Indian pot boiler. And yes, how about scenes where the accused makes a long speech - probably longer than the judgement!!

Meera Sundararajan said...

@Anil the issue is not about the law being against women because I firmly believe that our country has a progressive legal system that has women's welfare at heart. But the way the law is understood is very warped. Women watch whatever comes on tv and if it is shit like this that the TV feeds them they learn to consume it!

B Pradeep Nair said...

Indeed, Meera. A number of Indian laws are so outdated. We blame the British, but Britain herself has changed such laws, while we still stick to the old ones. I am not able to recall exactly which ones they are.

SG said...

One more thing I hate is people in India using the word “prejudice” for their convenience. I cannot discuss because it is prejudice. It is the right word where there is a jury trial. These juries are innocent people and they will form opinion (good or bad) about the case by reading newspaper, or listening to radio or watching TV. Then if they are selected, they had already formed their opinion.

There is no prejudice when there is no jury and the judge decides the case. Generally, a judge will not form an opinion this way or that way by reading the newspaper. (Exception: Judges who accept bribes.)

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ SG I agree we use the word prejudice very loosely. I also find that ethics are easily compromised in our legal system. Lawyers ( and also doctors) merrily gossip and share information about clients/ patients with all and sundry. Whatever happened to confidentiality? Anyway with the new breed of legal professionals coming out of the National Law Schools ( which have strict entrance exams etc) we may have better legal professionals in our country. Hopefully they will also fast track the cases which at the moment move at a snail's pace

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Pradeep, you are right. We hold on British things that the Brits themselves have thrown out!!!

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