Legal aid is the provision which provides legal representation and access to courts system to the people who are unable to afford it. Legal aid is the method adopted to ensure that no one is deprived of legal advice because there is a lack of money or funds. Its main objective is to provide equal justice to the poor or weaker sections of society. Justice Blackmun stated that
“The concept of seeking justice cannot be equated with the value of dollars. Money plays no role in seeking justice”.
Right to legal aid has been recognized at the global level as one of the most integral parts of human rights and fundamental rights. In India, legal aid was first considered in Supreme Court in the case of Hussainara Khatoon, where the petitioner brought to the notice that there is a delay in the trial as there is an inability to seek legal advice. Thus, in this case, the court pointed out that Article 39-A emphasized that free legal service was an inalienable element of ‗reasonable, fair and just‘ procedure and that the right to free legal services was implicit in the guarantee of Article 21. Legal aid also includes public interest litigation, Lok Adalats etc. After two years in Khatri v. the State of Bihar ((1981)1SCC, the Court stated the right to free legal aid to the poor, accused and weaker section of society who are incapable of engaging lawyers. National Authority of Legal Aid has been constituted under the Legal Services Act, 1987 to evaluate legal services.
The 42nd Amendment Act, 1976 to the Constitution inserted a new provision of legal aid in Article 39A. Under Article 39A, it was made mandatory for legal aid to poor and weaker sections of the society. Legal aid is considered a fundamental right under Article 21 and article 39A. Legal aid is considered in many provisions like under section 304 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, order 33 of Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 etc.
Legal services including Free Legal Aid is included under section 12 of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987. It also includes creating legal awareness among people by spreading legal literacy through various camps, media, with the help of Lok Adalat by resolving disputes through settlement. Legal services also encompass facilitating the beneficiaries to get their entitlements under various government schemes, policies and legislations. As people do not know their rights and entitlements under Law. It is the absence of Legal awareness that they are not approaching a Lawyer for advice and consultation.
The sections of society which are eligible for legal aid are enlisted under Section 12 of the Legal Services Authority act are:
(a) A member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe;
(b) A victim of trafficking in human beings or beggar as referred to in Article 23 of the Constitution;
(c) A woman or a child;
(d) A mentally ill or otherwise disabled person;
(e) 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; or
(f) An industrial workman; or
(g) In custody, including custody in a protective home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956(104 of 1956); or in a juvenile home within the meaning of clause(j) of Section 2 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 (53 of 1986); or in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric nursing home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, 1987(14 of 1987) ;or
(h) a person in receipt of annual income less than the amount mentioned in the following schedule (or any 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 Rs 5 Lakh, if the case is before the Supreme Court.
The limit on income does not apply to women; children scheduled tribe, scheduled caste, handicapped etc. The Indian Parliament took this crucial step. The child is eligible for legal aid till the age of majority.
There are certain offences which are not covered under the ambit of legal aid scheme. According to Regulation 14 of SCLSC Regulation, the legal aid services should not be provided to the accuse of in case of defamation, malicious prosecution, fine not more than fifty rupees etc.
The nature of the free legal services includes:
(a) Representation by an Advocate in legal proceedings.
b) Payment of process fees, expenses of witnesses and all other charges payable or incurred in connection with any legal proceedings in appropriate cases;
c) Preparation of pleadings, memo of appeal, a paper book including printing and translation of documents in legal proceedings;
d) Drafting of legal documents, special leave petition etc.
e) Supply of certified copies of judgments, orders, notes of evidence and other documents in legal proceedings.
Certain numbers of lawyers are selected for Legal Aid services; their selection process is done under regulation 8 of the National Legal Services Authority Act, 2010. In this process, every Legal Institution shall invite applications from legal practitioners. These applications are reviewed by Legal Services, they have certain criteria to select lawyers as panel lawyers which are that no legal practitioner having less than 3 years of experience at the bar will be selected while selecting legal practitioner its competence, integrity, suitability and experience of such lawyers shall be taken into account. The Executive Chairman or Chairman may make a separate panel for Civil, Criminal, Constitutional Law, Environmental Law, Labour Laws, Matrimonial disputes etc. The panel which was made should be retained after 3 years but if a panel lawyer is still handling a case than that case should not be withdrawn from him.
To provide legal aid services a nationwide network is created under the act. Like if we take into account the whole nation than Supreme Court Legal Services (SCLS) is set up to ensure that legal aid is provided to the poor and weaker section of society. Supreme Court Legal Services work under Chief justice of India who makes a panel of Advocates to handle a certain number of the case within the time of certain years. If talk about State than every State has State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) which works under policies and instructions of National Legal Authority Services (NALSA). State Legal Services works under Chief Justice of their respective High Court. If we talk at District Level than District Legal Services Authority are also created which works under District Judge. All district- level Legal Services Authorities are required to run legal aid clinics in district, all villages which come under it. At the rural level, Lok Adalats are organized and are headed by Civil Judge. These all were where the government provides legal aid services.
Usually, law colleges and universities set up legal aid clinics in villages to educate them about this service; they do it as a part of legal education. Many NGOs also work in the same field to educate about free legal advice; there are many online forums also which gives free advice or help people getting it.
In the US there s no constitutional right of free legal aid, in USA single programme is the Federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) founded in 1974. In LSC there are many restrictions regarding providing legal services like principal funding will be provided to civil legal aid cases only not criminal cases, unlicensed immigrants will not get any legal aid services. Funding is provided by National, State, local Legislatures. Whereas in most of Europe funding is provided by state -administered legislatures which have budgets to provide legal aid services in both civil and criminal cases. Even in Europe, there is a legal insurance policy also which provides insurance for legal issues can defray costs of legal aid for many. In Poland, there is a strict and diverse system to provide legal aid services. The way to provide legal aid services is that the range of clinical offerings is quite diverse: asylum and immigration, business law, environmental law, international human rights, or multiple subject matters, to name but a few. Here, the clinic is governed by local conditions i.e., with the help of teachers and students of law college/ university.
As compared to other countries legal aid services in India requires more attention from the judiciary as it is the need of an hour because legal aid is the obligation of state and right of citizens. By providing legal aid we can fulfil the constitutional pledge of equal justice made for poor, downtrodden or weaker sections of society. As the prime objective is justice for all. But now also legal aid is not provided to all and our goal of providing justice to every one is not fulfilled. People are still not aware of their basic rights and therefore legal aid is not provided to all. There are certain things which we want to improve like people should be made aware of their rights which can be done by creating policies on it and conducting legal literacy programmes in various villages and districts. It is very important for the judiciary to now take into consideration legal aid as it is also distributive justice. There should also be provided sufficient funds for legal aid services by respective National and State government. Full-time monitoring committees should be made for legal aid services.
There is lot of scope of improvement in legal aid services provided by Legal Aid services authority. There is a need that legal aid services should be provided to the needful people easily as legal aid is right of the public.