India is a nation where the majority of its population is underprivileged, and many of them come under the BPL. As many as 23.6% of the total population of India is living below the purchasing power parity(PPP). World Bank in 2011 released this data based on 2005’s PPPs International Comparison Program.
Therefore, for such people, it gets impossible to fight for their rights and stand on an equal footing with their counterparts in the courtroom. This is against the Right to Equality that enshrined in the Constitution. Thereby, to overcome such hurdles and to achieve the social justice goals the legislature enacted the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987.
‘Free Legal Aid’- Meaning
Free Legal Aid means providing free legal services to the needy and poor who because of his financial status is unable to afford the services of a lawyer to conduct legal proceedings or a case in the court of law, tribunal, and forum or before any other authority.
History of Free Legal Aid
The movement for free legal Aid emerged in France in the year 1851 by the introduction of several enactments for providing legal assistance to the needy section of the society.
Later, in Britain, in 1944 the State provided for the free legal aid for the underprivileged section. Rushcliffe Committee was appointed by the then Lord Chancellor, Viscount Simon for enquiring the prevailing position of proving legal aid to the poor people of England and Wales. The Committee also provided a recommendation to improve the facility for these people.
In India, the right to free legal aid was put forward and underlined in broad words in the 14th Law Commission Report. Again, in 1969 the right was given emphasis by the Law Commission and should be available before Court of Session in all trails.
Constitutional provisions promoting Free Legal Aid
Article 39-A of the Constitution provides for equal justice and free legal aid. Therefore, this article under the Constitution lays down the founding stone for the enactment of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. The main motive was to provide a free legal service to the poor section of the society. Thereby, the Government also appointed the “Committee for Implementation Legal Aid Schemes” (CILAS). The committee was chaired by Justice P.N. Bhagwati to monitor and implement Legal Aid Programmes which could be applied to the country. Legal Aid Boards were set-ups in various States and UTs.
The Right to Free Legal Aid along with the Right to Speedy Justice and trial was recognized to be the part of Article 21.
“…This right to free legal aid is the duty of the government and is an implicit aspect of Article 21 in ensuring fairness and reasonableness; this cannot be termed as government charity”, said Justice Krishna Iyer.”
Article 22 provides for the protection against arrest and detention in certain cases. It follows that any person who is detained in custody without being informed shall not be denied the right to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.
Authorities that are constituted under the LSA, 1987
- National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) – It is the apex body formed by the Central Government under the LSA, 1987. Its primary function is to enact policies for the economic classes for providing legal services. It also provides funds to NGOs and other State Authorities.
- State Legal Service Authorities- It works under NALSA and works according to the policies implemented by NALSA.
- District Legal Service Authorities- They are provided work by delegation through the State Legal Service Authorities. They also conduct Lok Adalats.
- Supreme Court Legal Service Committee- It performs the functions provided by the State.
- HC Legal Service Committee- Consequently, It performs the functions prescribed by the State Government.
- Taluk Legal Service Committee- It performs functions provided by the District Authority, conduct Lok Adalats.
Eligibility for Free Legal Aid
It is provided under Section 12 of the LSA, 1987 and is as follows-
- Should be a member of the SC/ST category.
- Woman or a child
- Person with a disability as per S. 2(i) Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.
- Victim of trafficking in human beings or beggar as referred to under article 23.
- A person under circumstances of undeserved want such as being a victim of a mass disaster, ethnic, violence, caste atrocity, flood, drought, earthquake or industrial disaster;
- an industrial workman;
- a person in custody, including custody in a protective home (Section 2(g) of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956), or in a juvenile home (Section 2 (j) of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986), or in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric nursing home (Section 2(g) of the Mental Health Act, 1987);
- A person who receives an annual income less than rupees nine thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Government, if the case is before a court other than the Supreme Court. And less than rupees twelve thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the Central Government, if the case is before the Supreme Court.
Note: If any Fraud or Misrepresentation is conducted to get the relief of the Act. After that, the service may be withdrawn at any time, and the person is liable for facing legal sanctions.
How Free Legal Aid is received
- NGOs– There are many NGOs that work for the upliftment of the economically weaker section and provide free legal aid.
- Legal Aid Clinics in NLUs- Section 4(k) of the LSA makes it mandatory to set up a free legal aid clinic in law colleges/universities.
- Pro Bono Cases– Corporate Responsible is extended to provide free legal aid, especially in reputed firms.
- Legal Aid Clinics– They are established in villages depending upon their size and population by the District Authorities.
Many people in India exercise their right and avail free legal aid. A large portion of such citizens is even unaware of their rights and duties. Therefore, people should be made told about their rights through proper means. Many people are also unaware of the legal aid clinics that are currently set-up in cities and states. This should be made more flexible and known so that more citizens approach and avail of the services.
 M.H. Hoskot v. the State of Maharashtra (1978) SC 1548.