India launches free legal aid via video conferencing to villagers

NEW DELHI:  Villagers in India will soon able to connect directly with city lawyers and receive free legal advice via video conferencing as part of a government initiative aimed at improving access to justice for the country's poorest and most marginalized.

The "Tele-Law" initiative launched on Sunday will be piloted in 500 village councils in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and then rolled out across the rest of the country in a phased manner, said the law ministry.

Villagers will access the service through newly established "Common Service Centers" -- single-window centers providing online services to the public in rural areas where there is little or poor internet connectivity.

Through the "Tele-Law" portal, people will be able to access lawyers - selected by the government in their state capitals - and seek advice on anything from land disputes to domestic violence cases via video conference.

The law ministry said hundreds of village women will also be trained up as paralegal volunteers and will act as the first point of contact for rural citizens -- explaining the advice given by lawyers and assisting if further action is required.

Their training will include understanding laws on social justice and fundamental rights, and will include women and child rights as well as labor-related legislation.

"Tele-Law will fulfill our commitment to ensure access to justice and empowerment of the poor," Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister for law and information technology, said in a statement.

"The Common Services Centers and paralegal volunteers will offer easy legal advice to litigants in rural India making them digitally and financially inclusive."

An economic boom over the last two decades has lifted millions of Indians out of poverty and boosted literacy rates in the country of 1.3 billion, but access to justice remains costly and beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of poor citizens.

Some of the major challenges include a lack of public awareness of their basic rights and entitlements, the limited reach of institutions providing legal aid and too few courts and judges, say activists.