Where do we stand on free legal aid? On National Legal Services Day we examine what legal aid entails and who benefits from it

10, Nov 2020 | Sanchita Kadam

Providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels is one of India’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 as adopted during the United Nations General Assembly of 2015. A robust legal aid system is something that will contribute towards achieving this goal and will at the same time fulfil the objective of the legal aid law as well as the legislative intent.

November 9 is celebrated as National Legal Services Day as The Legal Services Authorities Act 1987 came into effect on this day in 1995. Legal aid in India is backed by this law as well as constitutional provisions under the Directive principles of State Policy as well as Fundamental rights. The law itself had the constitutional foundation under Article 39A which states, “The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.”

Further the fundamental rights under Article 14 that bestows the right of equality before law and equal protection of law also establishes the importance of legal aid to people who may have inadequate avenues to access justice and the legal system. The Article 22 (1) of the Constitution states, “No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest nor shall he be denied the right to consult, and to be defended by, a legal practitioner of his choice”. Thus, legal aid is not just a sustainable goal to be met but also something that the government is required to ensure as a fundamental right of all persons who may be detained under the law.

The law

The objective of the law is “to constitute legal services authorities to provide free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities, and to organise Lok Adalats to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity.”

Under the law, apart from the Legal Services Authority at national level, every State is mandated to have one Authority at State level as well as one each for each of its districts. The main function of these authorities is to provide free legal services to the socially and economically disadvantaged and marginalised such as Women and Children; Members of Scheduled caste or Scheduled Tribes; Industrial Workmen; the disabled; Persons in Custody; Victims of Human trafficking or Natural Disasters, Ethnic/caste violence, industrial Disaster as well as persons with an annual income of less than Rs 1,00,000/- or as notified by the Central/State Governments.

The reality

The law may have laid out an ideal plan for making legal services accessible to all in conformation with the constitutional provisions but the reality in terms of its implementation is yet to fulfil the objective. As per the Annual report of the National Legal Services Authority, 2019, classes of persons receiving the least aid were Transgender community, victims of human trafficking as well as industrial workmen and persons with disabilities. In 2019, through all levels of legal services authorities, only 184 persons from Transgender community received legal, being the lowest number among all sections followed by 1,419 victims of human trafficking receiving legal aid. The figures also indicate that about 2.8 lakh women received free legal aid apart from 1.16 lakh scheduled castes and 1.32 lakh persons belonging to Scheduled tribes. Also, 2.04 lakh persons in custody benefited from free legal aid at State and/or district level.

A reading of the numbers clearly indicates that there are certain sections of the society that still need to be reached out and made aware about the free legal services they can avail of. The task at hand for the legal services authorities at the grassroots level is of utmost importance and it is their functioning that needs to be strengthened in order to expand the reach.

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