Challenges in Access to Justice for the Poor

Published On: 22 September, 2023

Authored By: Nyonika Chandak Jindal Global Law School (JGLS)

Challenges in Access to Justice for the Poor

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”[1]; access to justice represents a cornerstone of any democratic society, ensuring that every person, regardless of their economic standing, has the opportunity to exercise their legal rights and protections. India, nation – being the most populated currently and its population is virtually certain to continue to grow for several decades[2], the country also has the highest number of poor people and children worldwide[3] – renowned for its extensive legal history and diverse culture,  the idea of universal justice is enshrined within the Constitution as a fundamental entitlement. Nonetheless, the harsh reality persists that millions of underprivileged and economically disadvantaged citizens encounter significant obstacles when attempting to access justice. This legal research paper delves into the intricate and diverse array of challenges hindering the impoverished population’s access to justice in India. By scrutinizing the underlying structural, systemic, and socioeconomic factors contributing to this issue, this paper aims to illuminate the pressing requirement for reform and the quest for a more just and equitable legal system.

Any democratic society’s essential tenet is the idea of equal access to justice. It emphasizes that everyone should have the chance to seek and get justice in a way that is fair, impartial, and effective, regardless of their history, economic situation, or social position. This idea involves more than just having physical access to legal institutions and procedures; it also refers to things like how much legal services cost, whether or not legal assistance is offered, and whether or not there is prejudice in the legal system.

In India, these principles of access to justice are reinforced through constitutional provisions and fundamental rights that emphasize equal treatment under the law, the right to life and personal liberty, access to constitutional remedies, and the assurance of legal representation. This is based on Article 21 of the Indian constitution[4], that states “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except in accordance with the procedure prescribed by law”. These constitutional guarantees not only emphasize the importance of access to justice but also lay the foundation for legal mechanisms and institutions designed to make justice accessible and available to all citizens, thereby reinforcing the fundamental values of democracy.

In Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi and Others(1981)[5] the Supreme Court declared that: “…the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings. … it must, in any view of the matter, include the right to the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of the human self[6].

In a society, ensuring equitable access to justice is of paramount importance because it serves as a cornerstone for upholding principles such as equality, fairness, and the rule of law. It guarantees that the rights and freedoms promised to all citizens are not merely abstract ideas but tangible and enforceable entitlements. This accessibility fosters social cohesion, mitigates conflicts, and encourages accountability by providing individuals with a structured and peaceful means to resolve disputes and seek remedies for their grievances.

Furthermore, the Directive Principles of State Policy, as contained in Article 39A[7],The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid”, highlight the state’s dedication to ensuring that no citizen is denied justice because of their financial situation or another disability. This guiding principle serves as the cornerstone for the creation of legal aid programs and other measures aimed at genuinely democratizing access to justice for the underprivileged and oppressed. It requires the state to take proactive steps to develop a more just judicial system where access to justice is not hampered by economic inequalities.

We can also notice this in People’s Union For Democratic Rights And Others V Union Of India & Others (1982)[8], the Supreme Court has established that “the workmen whose rights have been violated are poor, ignorant, illiterate humans”, In the end, the Supreme Court broadened the scope of Article 21’s (the right to life) implication and determined that it now encompasses the “Right to live with fundamental human dignity” in the relevant instance. It went on to say that both bonded labour and forced labour are covered by the basic human right to dignity. The rights and benefits that employees are entitled to under various labour laws have been elevated to the status of Fundamental Rights as an element of fundamental human dignity.

Despite this being the ideal scenario, the impediments to the poor’s access to justice in India are complex and deeply ingrained, creating significant obstacles to the attainment of fair legal remedies. First and foremost, structural issues with the Indian judicial system are significant. A serious issue is the judiciary’s massive case backlog, which causes lengthy delays and makes it more difficult for plaintiffs, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to win their claims. In addition, the lack of judges and courts makes it even harder to serve the legal requirements of India’s enormous and diverse people.

Discrepancies in socioeconomic status add still another level of intricacy. Because of their inability to afford it, many people in India who suffer from poverty refrain from seeking legal redress. The disparity in access to justice gets wider as a result of this economic division, which also perpetuates injustice and inequality. A considerable section of the population also suffers from a lack of legal knowledge, which makes matters more difficult because it prevents many people from taking use of the legal system because they are ignorant of their rights and the procedures that are available to them.

These challenges add up to a significant barrier that prevents the poor in India from accessing justice, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive reforms and initiatives that aim to remove these obstacles and make access to justice a reality for all citizens, regardless of their financial situation.

According to the Supreme Court, in Khatri v. State of Bihar[9], the state has a constitutional obligation to offer free legal representation to those who are accused of crimes and are in need of it at all stages of the legal process in order to uphold the rule of law, and any attempt to justify its refusal to do so by citing administrative or financial limitations is baseless.[10] Despite the provisions being in place, the former chief justice of India, UU Lalit, highlighted that over 70 percent of the population is below the poverty line and only 12 percent opt for the free legal aid provided by legal services authorities[11]. He continued by saying that legal aid must instill in such individuals the trust that the system can guide them through this door to the “temple of justice” and that “it will be taken care of in the most professional manner.”

The disparity between the ideal of justice for all and the reality on the ground continues despite constitutional protections, historic court rulings, and the existence of legal assistance programs. Reforms must be comprehensive, proactive, and driven by a commitment to change. Governmental entities, legal experts, civil society organizations, and the international community must work together to close the justice gap.

As we look to the future, we must make every effort to remove the obstacles standing in the way of the poor receiving justice. Regardless of their financial situation, every citizen must experience the principles established in the Constitution as a living, breathing reality.

[1] Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr..], 

[2] “UN DESA Policy Brief No. 153: India Overtakes China as the World’s Most Populous Country | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations,

[3] “India Has Pushed Back Poverty, Still Home to Most Poor People in World: UNDP Index.” Down To Earth, 

[4] “Constitution of India.” Constitution of India | Legislative Department | India, Accessed 16 Sept. 2023. 

[5]Francis Coralie Mullin vs. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi 1981 SCR (2) 516.

[6] Rai, Diva. “Role of Poverty Law in India.” iPleaders, 18 Nov. 2021, Accessed 16 Sept. 2023.

[7] Supra Note 4; Constitution of India

[8] People’s Union for Democratic Rights and Others vs.Union of India & Others, AIR 1982 SC 1473.

[9]Khatri vs. State of Bihar, (1981) 1 SCC 627

[10] Raghav, Aryan. Khatri vs State of Bihar – JLRJS,

[11] India, Press Trust of. “‘litigation like Bleeding Wound’: Next Chief Justice on Legal Aid For Poor.” NDTV.Com, 21 Aug. 2022,

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