Interview

Volume 2 Issue 7 - April 01, 2004

'It's a privilege helping people': Neeru Vaid

"It's a privilege being a lawyer and helping people" says Neeru Vaid in an interview with Anne-Marie Prayas. This young lawyer, who has helped several disabled people acquire what they rightfully deserved, shyly narrates the experiences which have won her fame.

What kind of cases did you handle when you first started practicing? Which was the first case you fought for a disabled person?

I started off dealing with routine cases. I was undergoing training under an extremely ethical human rights lawyer. He inculcated in me a strong desire to serve the needy from the position of a lawyer. I worked with riot victims in 1995 and then went on to dealing with several cases of worker rights, shelter rights and other human rights issues.

My first legal encounter with a disabled person was with a visually challenged girl called Amita. She had just finished her MA and was preparing for the Bank Probationers exam. She was demanding the right to compete with students from the general category using the common system of evaluation. I took up her case and we were able to leave the courts victorious.

You attended the Panchgani conference in 1999. Why were you drawn towards the section dealing with disability rights?

While participating in the Panchgani conference, I shared Amita's case with the people present there. Their positive response was very overwhelming and I approached Javed Abidi, Executive Director of NCPEDP [National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People], to learn more about the issues and challenges faced by disabled people in the country. He saw my potential as a lawyer and the burden on my heart to serve people in need, and he referred several other cases to me thereafter.

Most of the people who approach you are unable to pay for legal procedures, yet you need to charge your clients in order to earn an income. How do you strike a balance between philanthropy and charging fees for professional services?

There are certain cases where the clients are too poor to afford anything (like in shelter rights cases). Hence I fight their cases for free. I charge a nominal income-based fee from earning professionals. Similarly while I do not charge from the Civil Abilities groups, I charge from the other routine cases which carry on alongside. Sometimes I feel the need to charge a nominal fee in exceptionally complicated cases where such professionalism helps iron out complications.

Which case is closest to your heart?

Each and every case has been a learning experience for me and has left a deep impact on my life as a lawyer. Whichever case I may be involved in, that would be the closest to my heart at that point of time.

Which case has been the most challenging case so far?

One of the cases I was dealing with involved filing a petition on behalf of the Disability Rights Group to the government asking for the post of the Chief Commissioner to be filled in by a disabled person. This has, by far, been my most challenging case as I had to challenge prejudices and preconceived mind-sets. It was a very intermeshed and complicated procedure. Standing before the highest judicial power, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I was faced with several challenges surrounding the non-conventional approach of my proposition.

Has consciousness grown over the years among lawyers of the importance of disability rights?

Yes, indeed. Consciousness has grown and the courts are responding positively but we still have a long way to go. Initially there were very few cases reported, which were dealing with disabled people. But with the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, there has been a simultaneous rippling effect in civil society and in the courts of law. This has led to greater awareness and sensitisation.

Why don't more disabled people come forward and file cases? Are they afraid of the courts, or wary of lawyers?

People are wary of challenging the deep-seated prejudices in the minds of lawyers and policy-makers. Their fear is justified as accessibility to high powers of the court is seemingly negligible. A disabled person feels doubly disabled if he is poor. This vulnerability is heightened for women and children. On the whole, there is a general sense of intimidation surrounding the law-making bodies.

How can persons with disability benefit from the Disability Act?

There are several good deposits in the Disability Act. Theoretically the Act is extremely favourable to disabled persons but there are many lacunae as well. These loopholes surface when the legislation is tested in practical life. As and when they appear they are dealt with in court. We can soon hope for a law that justly favours all people from all sections of society.

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