Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
Updated: February 02, 2012 07:51 AM GMT
We are familiar with clichés that denigrate the legal profession, which appears to be steeped in untruth, corruption and ironically even injustice. People shy away from courts because they count the cost of being fleeced by avaricious lawyers, with the accompanying stress and long drawn-out legal battles an evil they would rather live without. It is therefore refreshing to know that a group of dedicated women and men are committed to making the fight for justice a reality for the numerous poor and disadvantaged people in India. As sisters and priests they may not fit the traditional image of their ‘vocation’, but a close encounter with them reveals the real depth of their commitment to the mission of Jesus in Luke 4:18. Sr Julie George SSpS director of Streevani, an NGO in Pune, takes up cases of women only. “Many women would never have reached court without my help.” She takes up cases of domestic violence and domestic workers as well. often just a legal notice to the employers helps settle an issue. “A judge in the court recognizes my work and sends poor women to me. He even believes my arguments as he knows I am not working to make money but to help the poor,” she said at a meeting of the Legal Cell for Human Rights (LCHR) in Guwahati, Assam, where she was a guest to meet other Religious like herself who have taken up the Legal Ministry as part of their mission in the Church. Advocate Ravi Sagar SJ, the director of LCHR in the North East, said he was attracted to the social apostolate right from his seminary days. He studied law along with his theological studies. “At first I was discouraged by the negative attitudes towards this profession, but now I am convinced that this ministry is for me,” said Sr Shoba Kandathil CFMSS, who works with Ravi Sagar in the LCHR in Guwahati. Working in the prison ministry, Sr Asha Preethi UFS decided to qualify as a lawyer. “Law is useful in prison ministry to bring relief to poor simple people. The jail authorities appreciate our work,” said Sr Asha, who is the North East coordinator for prison ministry. When Fr Silvanus Soreng of Tezpur diocese told his bishop that he would like to study law to help people, his bishop agreed but warned: “Do not neglect your pastoral work.” Fr Silvanus said, “I am convinced that law can assist me in my pastoral work.” Fr Owen SJ, also a lawyer, concurs. “Law is an effective instrument for helping people.” The legal ministry is a relatively new area into which a growing number of religious men and women are entering, because they are convinced that this is an important avenue by which they can bring the “good news to the poor.” Says Fr Ravi Sagar: “It is not customary for congregations to encourage members to do law. The initiative has to come from the individual.” The stories shared by the eight religious men and women I met at the meeting of the LCHR in Guwahati were stories of struggle to enter the legal field in ministry. They felt that the support of the Church was not forthcoming. Pioneers in this field got professional support from NGOs who were not necessarily Christian. Getting familiar with the legal system and the working of the courts is important for legal practice, which can be got only from getting into the system with your eyes and ears open, says Fr Ravi Sagar. He learned through personal experience that no lawyer in the profession to earn a living is prepared to share expertise with a new lawyer. Therefore he hopes that a network of Catholic lawyers in the North East will support new entrants into legal practice dedicated to serving people. The LCHR is present in three dioceses in the North East and has sixteen staff members who are lawyers but not necessarily Catholic. It is hoped that the base of LCHR is expanded to have an office in every diocese where not only new sister and priest lawyers get support and help to get initiated into legal practice, but to spread legal awareness among people and act as an instrument to settle disputes between communities, families and individuals using the law but without going to the courts. The North East comprises mainly indigenous groups for whom land issues with the government are a growing concern. The presence of committed lawyers in the rural areas is imperative to help people retain their land rights. Therefore the LCHR becomes extremely relevant to mission in this area. The Church in the North East recognizes LCHR. The bishops in the region consult them and have asked them to bring catholic lawyers together. Congregations send members to study law for the benefit of their congregation. But they do not realize that without being familiar with legal practice they can never be effective. There are about 70 – 80 sisters with legal training in India, but most only take up legal issues of their congregations. Few practice in court. The sisters who practice law have formed the Women Religious Lawyers Forum. They have helped sister lawyers get familiar with the court system. There is also the Jesuit Lawyers Association. Of the 79 Jesuits who have studied law, only 14 or 15 are lawyers. A network of Christian lawyers is so important to help people who are otherwise fleeced by unscrupulous lawyers. However the Church has yet to recognize the legal profession as an important part of mission and rue these lawyers in practice. “We need the cooperation of heads of Catholic institutions to help us become familiar with cases. We get called in only when cases are spoiled by the established lawyers. The bishops may not want to give us their cases because we are young, but allowing us to be present when introducing the case to their lawyer will help,” said Fr Ravi Sagar. Sr Shoba said the LCHR invites judges and judicial officers to the villages as resource persons. After two years they expressed their appreciation of the work being done. One judge was so impressed with the benefits poor people derived in the remote villages where no publicity is given to this work that he expressed a desire to be born again as a Catholic. Truly the legal ministry of religious women and men together with lay supporters sets them apart from the rest in the profession, as they work in a profession where they are solely committed to justice and not to making money. They are living examples of being in the world but not of the world.