Monday, June 1, 2009

Can a Blind /Visually Impaired Person work as a Judge / Magistrate ?

Dear Friends,

Blind as a judge ? Often I face such questions when I raise the issue that why Visually Impaired lawyers and advocates and fresh law graduates are not being considered for the post of Judges. Is it a systemic apartheid or the apathy of the appointing authorities that they do not find blind to be competent to perform the functions of the Judge and take no measures to ensure that the backlog vacancies are cleared by appropriate methods?

Is there any legal or policy level impediment ?

Mind you, there is no impediment in appointment of a blind as a judge or magistrate or a munsif because firstly the post has been identified by Govt. of India, secondly, there is a reservation to the posts for the Blind too! Then why is it that despite passage of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full participation)Act 1995, Identification of the post of Judge for the blind in the first identification list by Min. of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India in 2001 and now the second identification list of jobs in early 2007, there has not been a single appointment on the posts of Judges? I am sure the 3% reservation for the Disabled (read 1% for VH) has remained unfilled all these years and it is almost 14 years now since the PWD Act came in to being. Why is it so?

Any role models ?

I don't say that we have had no role models as yet in India though not in recent times. I hope many of you remember Shri Sadhan Gupta, the Additional Advocate General in Kolkata who remained Advocate General for almost 7 years who was blind but that did not deter him perform his so important and sensitive job effectively nor did the Government think that he was not competent! There have been several examples world over- to name a few Dr. Hans Eugene Schulze from Germany who retired from judiciary a while back.  Recently Justice Zakeria Mohammed Zak Yacoob from South Africa became judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa despite his blindness and was recently in India advocating the rights of the Visually Impaired in the society and conducted many workshops organised by Disability Rights Initiative (Human Rights Law Network), India.

The reasons for not seeing Blind as Judges.

On one part I feel it is a failure of system which has made no efforts to sensitize the larger population about the abilities of the Visually Impaired in this era of technology and the power of screen reading softwares that has largely reduced the functional impact of visual disability among the trained blind brethren. I am amazed at the newer technology where use of tongue as an eye is being successfully explored!!

Secondly, the poor quality of education and lack of support in early and higher education is majorly responsible for not seeing many blind candidates passing the LLB exams and then appearing for judiciary tests. Even today, we have no trained teachers in Govt. Schools where visually impaired children are admitted in the name of inclusive education and they are merely passed and promoted to next grades without any effective learning. Schools run by NGOs are doing good work but have limitation of resources. A few run with Govt. Grants have many teaching posts vacant for past several years in Delhi alone. This needs immediate attention.

No access to technology and costly gadgets also increases the impact of disability on the students with blindness. The Government should provide computers and other assistive and enabling technology to the Blind to provide them equal opportunities.

Also, until recently, the Public Service commissions and High Courts did not accept blind as eligible candidates due to lack of awareness. I remember Registrar, Andhra Pradesh and PSC Jharkhand refused to provide any reservation to blind in the judiciary posts when we wrote to them to reserve seats for disabled including blind. I have their letters with me! And now I have learnt that there is an attempt on their part to keep the post of judge away from the blind.

In my view, it is the society (through disabling social infrastructure and rigid social mindsets) that disables the persons with disabilities and doesn't accept the competent candidates with disabilities due to age old biases and pre-conceived notions.

Some news to Cheer about - a New role Model!

However, now such ceilings are being broken and I am delighted at the success of Mr. T T Chakravarthy, a practicing lawyer aged 41 years from Vellore to have broken that ceiling, and setting up himself as a role model for several others who are preparing for the same. Congratulation Mr. Chakravarthy! The story is available at link: Tamil Nadu gets its first blind judical officerIn fact, when the case was pending in the court, very interesting arguments were put forward and a serious debate went on with questions such as what is a handicap? Referring to the half a dozen outstation judges, who were on transfer from other states, the lawyers argued that language was a barrier/handicap to those judges, and that they had to take the help of either a co-judge or the court staff for translation or interpretation! What if the blind judge uses the services of an assistant/scribe! The Bench asked as to how would the blind judge look into the eyes of the accused and assess the demeanour, the argument was that it was an old technique as "looks are deceptive now a days." The bench relented finally and allowed the petitioner to write the examinations.

Also there are favourable trends coming from the Courts of Law. February this year Madras High Court allowed Mr. B. Veerakumar, a blind advocate to write the PSC Examination for the Civil Judge. The detailed story could be read at link: HC to the rescue of blind lawyer.

Thus it would be seen that the change has started coming in the way the society perceives persons with disability. I feel it is all the more important that how people with disability particularly those with visual impairments think about themselves.

Reading between the lines

While it might be easier to say that a judge with visual impairment/blindness should be appointed, it should be kept in mind that posting such person even at his own merit on the posts to perform his duties without appropriate assistive devices and making available the necessary gadgets and technology is not going to help any one. On the contrary,  it would be a discouragement and a blow to the high spirits of the person with visual impairment as they may not be able to prove themselves in such a hostile environment. And then the competence of these candidates would be generalized to say that  blind persons are not effective in discharge of duties expected from a judge/magistrate hence they should not be appointed.  Also, if someone is able to somehow do well without government assistance (read- at his own cost), I fear such roles models might collapse under the high hopes that society has from them. The Media which is covering their success in Bold Letters on front pages today will soon highlight the failures too if such support of assistive devices and gadgets was not provided to enable them. This would be in simple terms " Reasonable Accommodation" which will provide them a "level playing field". Now this is their right in light of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!

Secondly, acceptance and moral support from the seniors and subordinate staff is also needed to assimilate the new entrants in the system. Hence, efforts to sensitize the workforce, especially the assistants, clerks, stenos, other judicial officers, Orderlies should be taken up on priority within departments.

The Road Ahead

We need to overhaul the system that disables.
  • We have a ministry called Social Justice and Empowerment, Govt. of India which itself seem to be overpowered with other issues plaguing it like issues of Minorities and Dalits and there is neither time nor expertise to do justice to the subject called disability despite some sensitivities. This calls for an urgent need to create a separate ministry for handling the issues related to the Disabled persons in India or at least a separate Independent Department.
  • The visually impaired candidates should be encouraged to take up law as a subject and supported in preparation for their Exams for entering judiciary the way Govt. provides coaching and other supports to the candidates from SC/ST to prepare for IAS and UPSC examinations. NGOs could be roped in for the purpose and Legal Services Authority could also play an active role.
  • A regular sensitization and awareness raising of the society at all levels and setting more role models from amongst the disabled should be first priority.
  • Followed by an affirmative action to implement the existing laws and policies.
  • Education, Skill Development and exposure to the latest technology to improve the functional capabilities should be the prime focus.
  • People with disability on their part should stop seeking doles and enhance their core competencies to be an equal member in economy.
  • The public infrastructure especially the courts, systems should be made accessible to people with disabilities.
How a Blind judge would perform better
  • Provide him Talking software and gadgets with a personal lap top.
  • The petitions, applications, written statements, replications/rejoinders, affidavit etc should be field in e-format also along with hard copies.
  • All evidential documents/ photocopies, even if legible should be compulsorily submitted in typed in double spacing and e-format. This is already being done in High Courts and Supreme Court as the judges are elderly and have low eye-sights!!
  • All documents in regional languages can also be either translated in English or Hindi and placed before the judge in print and E-format - as is done in High Courts already!
  • The Legal Library attached to the Courts should have e-text version of all the legal books and reference books which the Judge can refer to.
  • Similarly Case laws, digests, AIR etc are now a days available in CDs and can be made available to the judges.
What is needed is an open mind and then every thing is possible! I am looking forward to days when such a system is put in place and we see Judges with Visual Impairments and other disabilities performing their functions efficiently without any barrier - attitudinal, social, physical or technological!

Warm regards
Subahsh Chandra Vashishth
Advocate,  Consultant-Disability Rights
09811125521

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