According to Article 22 (1) and Article 14 of the Constitution of India, legal
aid is a right and Article 39-A advocates the provision of free legal aid to
citizens in need. Free legal services are provided under the Legal Services
Authorities Act 1987 and are run by the National Legal Services Authority.
Section 304 CrPC guarantees free legal services in case of court proceedings.
Both the 14th Law Commission Report and the 48th Law Commission Report talk
about the concept of free legal aid. Section 12 of the Legal Services
Authorities Act, 1987 lays down the criteria for entitlement to free legal
services, if required by needy persons.
Problems Plaguing Delivery of Free Legal Aid
The advocates deputed to provide free legal aid to the poor and indigent
prisoners incarcerated in jails seldom visit the prisoners lodged in jails and
rarely discuss the development of the case with them. Some prisoners don�t even
know which advocate has been deputed to fight their case in the courts. These
advocates deputed by the District Legal Aid Authorities or the Sub-divisional
Legal Aid Services Authorities take least interest in getting the poor prisoners
Mostly inexperienced and less efficient advocates are engaged by the
District and Subdivisional Legal Aid Services Authorities as it is difficult to
hire a good advocate at the honorarium given to these advocates so engaged.
Further, the honorarium given to the advocates engaged is also not given
regularly thereby resulting in lack of interest in the advocates in providing
relief to the prisoners by fighting their case in courts with sincerity and
There is no supervision over the work of these advocates engaged by the DLSA or SDLSA leading to poor quality of service provided to the prisoners.
Judges reportedly don�t give enough respect to the advocates engaged in
providing free legal aid as compared to that given to regular or private
advocates. The endless cycle of delayed reimbursement, lack of infrastructure
for free legal aid, and little respect from seniors in the court, make many
advocates engaged in providing free legal aid quit their job.
According to a research study in 2020, about 20% of legal aid counsels
identified a lack of infrastructure, such as designated chambers for interacting
with clients, 23% blamed the low honorarium and 34% complained about the delay
in processing payments, as some of the frustrations with the system.
Some lawyers allegedly have to pay for printing or photocopying for the
litigants� documents and drafting expenses from their own pocket.
A 2004 study by Odisha High Court Chief Justice S. Muralidhar (when he was a
judge of the Delhi High Court) shows that most of the funds are used for
administrative services rather than legal aid itself.
As per the 2018 CHRI study including 29 states and seven Union territories, per
capita spending on legal aid in India is Rs 0.75, one of the lowest in the
world. In 2019-20, as per Tata Trusts� India Justice Report 2020, per capita
spending on legal aid in India was Rs 1.05.
It has also been seen that inexperienced and incompetent advocates are appointed
as the free legal advocate thereby defeating the whole purpose of the legal aid.
It has also been noticed that legal aid advocate appointed on behalf of the
accused remained absent during the trial and all the testimonies were recorded
in his absence.
In one case a poor and innocent person was named as the accused
& was convicted by court based on unreliable eye witness and improper cross
examination by the legal aid advocate and thereafter though the accused was
enlarged on bail but due to lack of money for the bail bond he remained in the
In yet another case the legal aid advocate remained absent during the
trial by seeking the adjournments and later on he filed and withdrew the
application for pleading as the advocate and court decided and convicted the
accused without hearing the other side violating the principle of natural
justice. In a similar case an advocate who did not have any experience was
appointed as the legal aid advocate. In a different case the right to appeal was
denied to the accused based on the reason that the accused was in the prison.
Many people especially in rural areas of India are unaware of their right to
free legal aid and this lack of awareness prevents them from seeking assistance
Due to insufficient government funding for legal aid services, there is
perennial shortage of resources, including lawyers, support staff, and
There is shortage of trained and qualified lawyers and paralegals willing to
work in legal aid clinics and this affects the quality and quantity of legal aid
Due to bureaucratic red tape, the process of accessing legal aid becomes
cumbersome, making it difficult for individuals to access timely assistance.
Leaving rural and remote communities underserved, legal aid services are often
concentrated in urban areas and this geographical disparity makes it challenging
for marginalized populations to access legal aid.
Among various stakeholders involved in legal aid services, including government
agencies, non-governmental organizations, and legal professionals, there is
often a lack of coordination leading to inefficiencies in the delivery of the
Legal aid services primarily focus on criminal cases and civil cases which also
have a significant impact on individuals� lives receive little attention.
In most of the cases, due to lack of resources and training, the quality of
legal representation provided by legal aid lawyers is subpar and poor.
Many individuals lack basic legal literacy making them understand their rights
and legal system challenging, even with legal aid services available.
Limited adoption of technology in legal aid services hinders its efficiency and
accessibility especially in remote areas.
The effectiveness of legal aid services is affected by lengthy delays in the
resolution of legal matters as Indian legal system is known for its backlog of
Some individuals are reluctant to seek legal aid due to social stigma or
cultural barriers, particular in cases related to sensitive issues such as
domestic violence or discrimination.
There are high caseloads on advocates providing free legal aid due to large
number of people seeking assistance leading to burnout and a lack of adequate
time to prepare cases thoroughly.
Many lawyers engaged in free legal aid do not receive adequate remuneration for
their work, which can discourage experienced lawyers from participating in such
In September 2022, NALSA came up with Advocate Vacancies under the Legal Aid
Legal Aid Scheme where applications were invited to hire permanent, pro bono
Legal Aid Lawyers in the Criminal Section. Fixed salaries ranging from Rs 20,000
to Rs 1 lakh per month, depending on the population of the states where they
will be deployed, will be given to these lawyers. They will also have holiday
pay, although maternity leave is not currently listed as a benefit. You can well
imagine what will be the quality of a lawyer hired with a monthly salary of Rs
20,000 to Rs 1 lakh.
In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar
, the Supreme Court held that
if any accused cannot afford legal services, he is entitled to free legal aid at
the expense of the State. It is the duty of the state to ensure that the legal
system promotes justice based on equal opportunities for all its citizens.
The Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in the Sheela Bars case
The court ruled that the right to legal aid is a fundamental right under Article
21 of the Constitution of India.
In Khatri v. State of Bihar
(AIR 1981 SC 262), the Supreme Court held that the
State is constitutionally bound to provide legal aid not only at the trial stage
but also when they are first produced before a Magistrate or at any time taken
Since the fate of release of many prisoners lodged in different jails across the
country in addition to other free legal aid seekers depend on the availability
of free, quality and timely legal aid, it is high time the affairs of free legal
aid are reviewed at the national level and the different loopholes plaguing the
free delivery of legal aid are plugged as early as possible by increasing
awareness about free legal aid, by increasing the budget allocated for free
By creating a separate legal aid services, by empanelling quality
advocates for providing legal aid, by establishing free legal aid facilities in
the rural and far flung areas, by improving the remuneration of paralegal and
advocates engaged, by increasing the quantity and quality of the advocates and
paralegal deputed in proportionate to the number of free legal aid seekers both
in and outside jails, by introducing a supervision mechanism over the people
engaged in providing free legal aid and by better coordination between the
various stakeholders engaged in this noble service.
Written By: Md. Imran Wahab
- Bal Bahadur v. Customs Air Customs Officer CRL.A. no. 12 (2009)
- Sudhakar Tiwari v. State ILR (2012) III (DEL) 34
- Asmaniya Bai v. State of M.P 2000 (3) MPLJ 272
- Ramchandra Nivrutti Mulak v. State of Maharashtra LQ 2008 HC 2119
- Sunil s/o Khanderao Gaikwad & Anr. v. The State of Maharashtra & Others LQ 2013 HC 18529
- Rajinder Singh @ Bijoy singh v. State Of West Bengal (2004) CriLJ 4023
- M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1978 SC 1548
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected]
, Ph no: 9836576565