At the age of sixteen I signed my name in full and accepted from our mailman a piece of paper that was about to change my entire life – court summons for a case registered against my mother and me, challenging the identity of my father and grandmother, both of whom we’d lost in the last two years.
The summons taught me the first of many life lessons I learnt over the span of the litigation that went on for six and a half very precious years of my youth. The lesson being – do not accept any paper without reading and understanding it in its entirety.
The litigation process was long, tiring and confusing. At that young age, I was given a seat at the table along with adults. I walked in and out of lawyers’ offices along with my mother, carrying every proof there was on planet earth of my father’s identity, and his and our legal rights to all there was.
If you’ve ever read a case file, you’ll understand the feeling of helplessness that comes with that language and those sections. For a layman – worse, a child or young adult –the sections just look like random numbers strung together, that somehow are the basis of your case and your future. The pendency of the suit changed my identity to “defendant number two” at an age where I was still discovering myself – I was still only a teenager.
A Childhood Robbed of Me
While my peers had the luxury to throw temper tantrums, I had to be my most composed self. At an age where people barely know what they want to do with their lives, I was almost stripped of the opportunity of finding out. I couldn’t go away for college because my life revolved around a series of dates that the court would decide for further hearings. I couldn’t take up an intense course because where would I find the energy or will? I put life on hold when my peers were racing ahead.
I’ve been the wallflower at social gatherings, the loner around friends, the ‘mother’ of my friends circle, the most boring, the always serious – because how do you let loose when your life is tied together in a few hundred pages of a file in a court room somewhere in a civil court in Firozpur? I find myself comparing the life of a child/young adult fighting a case with that of a juvenile delinquent. But unlike the juvenile, a child that’s being dragged to court in a civil litigation has done nothing to be put there.
A litigation suit imprisons your mind. You’re free to move about, but only as long as you make it in time for the next hearing, next meeting with your lawyers, have time to collect all documents from tehsils and suvidha centers, make time to meet all your witnesses, and if you’re a student like I was at the time, make time to write all your exams. Your entire life revolves around a date, that changes every month or so. I’ve spent a lot of days sitting in the courtroom from 10 AM to 4 PM, waiting for the petitioners to turn up, and then go back angry and annoyed as the judge gives them one more chance, and then some more.
Human nature has reached a stage where even a 14-year-old isn’t immune to, or safe from, the greed of humans – where, to scare someone into handing over money or property, people will drag a child into court.
Nothing takes away your childhood like losing your father, and then walking into a court room day after day and proving his identity to a bunch of strangers who don’t even know he – the person who used to be your entire world – ever existed. Strength in circumstances like these is derived from example, but who does a child that young ape? Adults? Who’ve had tons more experience in dealing with the world, with the petitioners and with authority? As children we’re taught to respect our elders as a rule. But what if you want to hate them?
Imagine putting a child that’s never been inside their school principal’s office, into a court room with lawyers, readers and a judge. Imagine being so vile that you put a child in front of the highest legal system of the nation?
Fear of the Unknown
The reality of the judicial system is that lawyers are overworked, perpetually. Each meeting with the lawyers involved me giving them a brief of the case and then answering the questions they had. It was impossible to find time for them to answer all of mine. While the entire experience was gruesome, the biggest fear was still the fear of the unknown.
The Indian legal system is difficult as it is for students of law to grasp, let alone for a sixteen-year-old. It was like finding my way through a maze, in the dark. I graduated before the case, and while my college score wasn’t up to the mark, my scorecard for understanding the case was even lower.
Luckily for me, I found myself face to face with an opportunity that would take me out of my misery and fear – of the unknown. I enrolled for the law entrance exams, and two years hence, find myself finally grasping concepts that I’d read and re-read from the age of sixteen.
The amount of cramming it takes me to get through my semester exams, makes me almost giggle at my sixteen-year-old self that was trying to grasp the sections and legal maxims. I’d come across a lot of advice during the pendency of the case; never did I come across a person who told me it shouldn’t be my burden, or that I should focus more on myself. Oddly enough, my fighting the case was far more important than my fighting the hundred battles within myself and with myself.
A Private War
Over the span of these six and a half years I’d seen the insides of more court rooms than most of my friends who were studying/ reading law. The litigation was over. The case was decided in our favour. But my personal battle had just begun. While crossing the court one day, I found myself wondering if there are still children like myself walking into the court, fighting for their loved ones, seeking justice when the concept itself is almost alien to them.
You cannot bring a child into a court of law and then have them be lost there forever. You have to hold their hand, explain to them the situation, its magnitude and the effect it will have on them. You have to swim with them to the shore.
Losing a loved one is enough upheaval in a child’s life, but add to that a litigation, and you have the perfect concoction for robbing away innocence and stealing the sparkle from the eyes of a child. Emotional hell is real. I’ll ask all of you what I often ask myself: is it fair? Having been on the other side of everything gives me a perspective different from most members of the legal system.
Moral Support to Children Going Through Legal Cases
I want to look at law without compromising on humanity. Our system may have the law smack right, but we’re not doing enough to protect people from the damage the struggle brings to them. I hope to form in the next two years, a team of psychologists and lawyers that can work in partnership with one another, to provide assistance and care to children and young adults that have to face the Indian legal system.
A team that will explain to every such child the meaning of litigation, the details of their case, all the terms, sections, questions, due process of law – and give them a place to vent out their feelings along. Hoping to ensure they don’t have to go through it with a head full of unanswered questions or a heart that loses its ability to feel emotions other than fear.
The world is a scary enough place as it is, it shouldn’t be made scarier than it already is. As a student of law I now know and will strive to achieve, “not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.”
(Remanpreet Sandhu is a student of law. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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