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Free Legal Aid: A Legal Service

Legal Services includes providing Free Legal Aid to those weaker sections of the society who fall within the purview of Section 12 of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987.
Free legal aid is the provision of free legal services in civil and criminal matters for those poor and marginalized people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of a case or a legal proceeding in any Court, Tribunal or Authority. These services are governed by Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 and headed by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).

Free legal aid is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to all the citizens of the country. Article 21 of the Constitution of India states:
No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law�. Hence ensuring legal aid to everyone is necessary for ensuring substantive equality.

Furthermore, the principal of free legal aid is stretched in Indian Constitution in the Directive Principles of the State Policy contained in Part IV which emphasizes the social security character and hence imposes certain obligations on the State to take positive action to promote the welfare of the society. According to Article 39-A, it has been directed to the State to ensure that the mechanism of legal system promote justice on the basis of equal opportunities and shall compulsorily provide free legal aid to economically backward classes by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way.

Consequently, legal aid is not a philanthropic activity, but rather is a constitutional prerequisite of the state and right of the citizens. In this way, legal aid endeavours to shield that the constitutional pledge is satisfied in its later and spirit and equal justice is made open to the intimidated and weaker areas of the general public.

It is the State's obligation to watch and keep check on the legal framework that emphasizes justice on the premise of equal opportunity for every one of its nationals. For the provisions of legal aid, the Government of India had taken massive steps such as setting up of Legal Aid Boards, Societies, Law Commissions and Law Departments and in the year 1980, Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes (CILAS) was constituted under the Chairmanship of Honourable Justice P.N. Bhagwati to regulate legal aid programs all over the country.

Another step was in form of Lok Adalats which is established as a supplementary forum to the litigants in judicial dispense system of India. In 1987, to give a statutory acknowledgment to legal aid programs all through the nation the Legal Services Authorities Act was established and was implemented on 9 November 1995.

Provision of free legal aid includes:
  1. Representation by an Advocate in legal proceedings.
  2. Payment of process fees, expenses of witnesses and all other charges payable or incurred in connection with any legal proceedings in appropriate cases;
  3. Preparation of pleadings, memo of appeal, paper book including printing and translation of documents in legal proceedings;
  4. Drafting of legal documents, special leave petition etc.
  5. Supply of certified copies of judgments, orders, notes of evidence and other documents in legal proceedings [1].
Free Legal Services also include provision of aid and advice to the beneficiaries to access the benefits under the welfare statutes and schemes framed by the Central Government or the State Government and to ensure access to justice in any other manner. According to Section 2(c) of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, “legal services” includes any service in the conduct of any case or other legal proceeding before any court or other authority or tribunal and the giving of advice on any legal matter.

The scope of Article 39A has been widely explained in case of Air India Statutory Corporation v. United Labour Union [2] in which Supreme Court observed that Article 39A furnishes beacon light that justice is done on the basis of equal opportunity and no one is denied justice by reason of economic or other disabilities.

Importance of legal aid is not only lightened up in Indian Constitution but also under Section 304(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 it is stated that in a trial before the sessions judge, if the accused has no sufficient means to engage a plea, the court should assign a pleader for his defence at the expense of the state. The enormous contribution in edging the legal aid system is of judiciary which can witnessed from Supreme Court's ardent announcement with regard to the rights of the poor and destitute people in judgment of Hussainara Khatoon [3] in which the court observed the importance of Article 39A which emphasizes that free legal service was an inalienable element of reasonable, fair and just procedure and that the right to free legal services is impliedly guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The same was observed by Supreme Court in State of Haryana v Darshan Devi [4], that the poor shall not be demarcated out of the justice market on the pretext of court-fee and refusal to apply the exempted provisions of Order XXXIII, Civil Procedure Code.

In addition, legal aid is a key factor in other countries too. In U.K, the scheme of legal aid is controlled by the Legal Service Commission, and is subjected to most of the criminal and civil cases but with exceptions such as libel, most personal injury cases (which are now dealt with under Conditional Free Agreements, interests of contingency fee) and cases associated with the running of a business.

Family law cases are also covered. Legal aid commissions in Australia plays a defining role in achieving equality before the law by striving to ensure that all citizens, including those who cannot afford to pay, have access to the legal services they need to obtain justice are present in each state and territory and are in eight in number all total.

UN convention affords some sustenance on free legal aid to the poor and impoverished persons precisely in criminal proceedings. Article 14 of said covenant clearly states in Article14(i) that all individuals must be treated equally before the courts and tribunals and under clause (f) it is provided that a person must have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.

Relevant case laws:
  • Khatri v. State of Bihar [5]
    The Supreme Court held that the state is constitutionally bound to provide legal assistance by hiring a lawyer to an accused person not only at trial stage but also when they are first produced before the magistrate or remanded time and again and such a right shall not be denied on the ground of financial or administrative inability or that the accused did not ask for it. Magistrates and Sessions Judges have the must responsibility to inform the accused of his rights.
  • Suk Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh [6]
    Justice P.N. Bhagwati, highlighted the necessity of the constructing the legal awareness to the poor as they are unaware of their rights specifically right to free legal aid and further observed that in India people residing in rural areas are illiterates and are not aware of their innate legal rights conferred upon them by law. Even literate people are not knowledgeable of their rights. This absence of legal awareness makes them unapproachable to a lawyer for consultation.
  2. AIR [ 1997] SC 645: [1997] 9 SCC 377: [1997]1 LLJ 113
  3. Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, [1980] 1 SCC 98
  4. AIR [1972] SC 855
  5. Khatri v. State of Bihar, AIR[ 1981] SC 262
  6. Suk Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh AIR [1986] SC 991

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