India. A Nun-Lawyer At The Service Of Detainees

She alternates her violet coloured sari with her black lawyer gown. And her daily prayer is followed by skillful oratory in the courtroom. Sister Theresa Joyce is a nun from the Congregation of St Anne’s Sisters, a diocesan order of Madras, in southern India, but she is also a criminal defence lawyer.

For ten years now, she has had the unique experience of following two vocations seemingly at odds with one another: consecrated life and defending people in court. But according to Sister Theresa they are not at all at odds. She smiles and says, “I don’t see any conflict. I do not share the assumption according to which lawyers are liars. A lawyer is ultimately a human being with a human heart. The individual decides which side he/she will take up. And if you follow your conscience, you’ll always be on the right side”.

Sister Joyce hails from Kolar (in the Indian state of Karnataka). She entered the Congregation of  St Anne’s Sisters and in 1990 she was professed as a nun having completed her studies. In 1994 she became interested in providing pastoral care in prisons. During her service, she met a priest who talked to her about how his life had changed after a visit to a prison: he had become more sensitive to the needs of the marginalised and of those who suffer behind bars. In them, the Gospel says, is the suffering Christ.

Fascinated by this story, Sister Joyce felt a strong urge to commit to the wellbeing and rehabilitation of prisoners. This is when she received what she refers to as a ‘special call’. She began visiting prisons more frequently, helping inmates with their material needs. ‘But that wasn’t enough. All they want is to be able to look at the blue sky again’, she felt. The young woman realised she needed to become a lawyer.

Reaching her goal was not easy. Although she was given permission to take up law, Sister Joyce could not give up her duties as a teacher within the congregation. “I only attended classes on holidays and studied all night for 20-25 days before the exams”, she recalls. For five years she worked hard to juggle community life with her teaching commitments and law studies. Her studies always came hand-in-hand with a strong spiritual motivation. It was so that in 2005 she became a lawyer. The first ever nun in the history of the Indian Church to actively practice as a criminal defence lawyer.

Her first case was a trial for a case of attempted murder. In a drunken fit, a man had hit his wife with a rock. Having spent two years in prison, he was penitent and wanted to go back to his wife, to whom he had been married for 13 years. Sister Theresa recalls: “He was languishing in jail. There was no one to post bail for him, to escort him to court or care about what was happening”. She bailed him out so that he could meet his wife. “I argued that he had no criminal intent. It was an act done in a fit of anger”, she says. Now the family could be together once again. To illustrate how she balances profession and vocation, Sister Joyce says: “We are all sinners. Prisoners are sinners who are caught… there are those who make reparation and turn good in prison. We need to have mercy and give them a helping hand”. And she goes on to say: “Detainees, deprived of their freedom, are ‘last among the last’; helping them  is not in conflict with the teachings of Christ, indeed it is their implementation”

“ As a lawyer”, she adds, “I try to stand by the truth. So I make a number of visits to the petitioner, his/her family, and understand the situation. Until I am convinced that the person is in the right and needs help, I won’t take it up”. Sister Theresa offers free legal assistance and does not discriminate between religions and castes. She gives preference to those who cannot afford a lawyer.

“The law of God is a rule of life”, she passionately says and according to this rule she has defended more than 450 cases in ten years. With her life and work she weaves the language of the Gospel – a language that comforts the marginalized – into her closing statements.