Justice on wheels for rural poor

The courtroom is tiny, the judge's chamber can squeeze in only two plaintiffs, and it's parked under an old mango tree. A Volvo bus turned into a courtroom is taking justice to the doorsteps of the rural poor.

For the past month, Justice Sundeep Singh, 37, has been travelling in the mobile courtroom through the remote villages of Haryana, northern India, as part of a novel 'Justice on Wheels' experiment.

For millions of rural Indians who have been cheated, injured in accidents, robbed or sexually assaulted, taking someone to court is unthinkable.

They cannot afford the bus fare to the nearest town to hire a lawyer, much less pay legal fees that can bankrupt even the wealthy. Those already engaged in litigation are desperate, with cases dragging on for years.

One case over a land dispute came to an end last week when the judge pronounced his verdict. It had taken 50 years.

But now Haryana villagers can walk to where the mobile courtroom is parked on the appointed day and pursue their cases without having to travel to the nearest big town.

'I spent my life savings on my daughter's engagement,' said farmer Noor Mohammed, 45, who had been fighting his case for five years. 'But I had to call it off after the boy demanded a Santro car. I need to get the money back because I can't get her engaged again without it.'

Mr Mohammed is hoping that Justice Singh will expedite his case. Apart from taking justice right into villages, the mobile court's remit is to speed things up.

'I have just brought two warring neighbours together,' said Justice Singh. 'They had been fighting over a land boundary for eight years. Their lawyers had never suggested an amicable agreement as an alternative to spending years in the courts.'

At Punhana village, the bus is parked outside the police station. Fitted with computers, filing cupboards and even a tiny gavel for the judge, curious villagers jostle for a peep inside. Court officials take out ancient Remington typewriters for taking down statements. Weather-beaten farmers squat in the sweltering monsoon heat, waiting for their turn with Justice Singh.

He tries to settle cases, where possible, in a few hearings. It helps to be on the spot, among the wheat and sugar cane fields. 'If I need a document or a witness, I don't have to adjourn the court. I can tell the farmer to go home, get them and come back right away,' he said.

Ibrahim Khan, a farmer who wants the court to help him recover land misappropriated by a relative, is convinced that justice is exclusively for the rich in India.

'The poor never get justice. Cases go on for two decades, longer. Only the rich can afford to keep paying lawyers that long.'

If the experiment works, hundreds of similar mobile courts will roll out into remote villages.

Clogged up

Number of cases currently being heard in Indian courts 25m