India is a country where the rate of poverty as well as the rate of crime is increasing day by day. With the amount of population in our country everybody is not able to get employment or live-in standard of living. It is also true that crime not only happens against people who can afford to fight against it.
The rule of natural justice states that everyone has a right to be heard. Article 39A of the Indian Constitution, 1949 inserted by the forty second amendment discusses the right to equal justice and free legal aid. It provides that all the citizens of India have a right to seek justice if their right has been infringed and if they don’t have the resources to fight for the rights the state shall provide free legal aid to them.
The provisions made under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 which the National Legal Services Authority (hereinafter referred to as NLSA) or State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) or the concerned District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) has the responsibility to provide for the free legal aid to the needy ones.
Equal justice and free legal aid under the constitution of india
Before 1976 there was no concept of free legal aid in India. Bombay Legal Aid Society was the first one to propose the idea of free legal aid to poor litigants. It was first time in the year 1949 under the chairmanship of Justice P.N. Bhagawati a committee was set up. It was called “The Committee on Legal Aid and Legal Advice in Bombay”. Later on following Justice Bhagawati, Sir Arthur Trevol Harris being the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court also established a committee to look into the matter.
Even if the idea of free legal aid and equal justice was enshrined in the constitution long back but in reality it was not actually implemented until the case of Hussainara Khatoon & Ors. v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar. The Apex Court of India while upholding the constitutional mandate has given some epoch breaking judgments like M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra, Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar and Khatri (II) v. State of Bihar thereby strengthening the notion of free legal aid in India.
The concept of equal justice and free legal aid was inserted in the Constitution in the year 1976 under Art 39A. In 1987 the central government came up with a new legislation called as the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. This Act discussed the definition ‘legal services’ u/s 2(c) as ”rendering service in the conduct or proceeding or advice on a case before any court or tribunal or other authority”. It provided the procedure for the constitution of NLSA, SLSA and DLSA and their functions respectively which are primarily to render legal services and aids. Part IV of the Act lists the criteria for entitlement of legal services. Sec 12 of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987. It states the criteria for eligibility to access free legal services by member of SC or ST community, a victim of Human Trafficking or Begar as prescribed under Art 23 of the Constitution, woman or child, disabled person, person under circumstances of undeserved want, industrial workmen, in custody, in receipt of annual income less than Rupees 9,000 or higher as decided by state govt. if the matter in before HC and Rupees 12,000 if the matter is before the SC. Sec 13 states that any person who satisfy any or all the criteria mentioned u/s 12 shall be entitled to free legal services on the expenses of the state.
NALSA lays down policies, principles, guidelines and frames effective and economical schemes for the State Legal Services Authorities to implement the Legal Services Programmes throughout the country. Primarily, the State Legal Services Authorities, District Legal Services Authorities, Taluk Legal Services Committees, etc. have been asked to discharge the following main functions on regular basis:
- To Provide Free and Competent Legal Services to the eligible persons.
- To organize Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes.
- To organize legal awareness camps in the rural areas.