Legal Aid is the free legal assistance given to the weaker sections of society such as the poor in the judicial proceedings before the Courts or Tribunals to protect their rights and liberties bestowed upon them by laws. Legal aid is given to people who are not able to enforce their legal rights due to poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, etc.
Justice Bhagwati defined legal aid as an arrangement made in the society for extending and providing the mechanism for making the administration of justice easily accessible to all people who have the right to resort to it for enforcing their legal rights.
Underlying the importance of legal aid, the Fourteenth Report of the Law Commission of India emphasized that without legal aid equality before the law cannot be achieved.
There is a direct and express provision of legal aid in the Constitution of India in the form of the Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 39-A asking the State to endeavor to operate the legal system of the country in a way that promotes justice based on equal opportunity and provide free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen because of economic or any other disability. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality to all and Article 21 states that any person shall not be deprived of his life and personal liberty except as per the procedure made by law. Further, Article 21 when read with Article 39-A implies legal aid should be made available to the indigent accused and a prisoner.
Apart from the Constitution, the Code of Criminal Procedure under Section 304 makes a provision for legal aid at the expense of the State for the unrepresented accused facing trial.
Legal Aid has two broad dimensions-
The first aspect of legal Aid aims at providing financial assistance to the poor litigant who is not able to file a case in the Court of law.
The second aspect of the legal aid is which Justice Bhagwati calls ‘preventive legal aid devices programs’.
The preventive legal aid service program has six components. These components are as follows-
Firstly, there should be legal aid camps and Lok Adalats in rural areas so that legal services are available to the door-steps of the people in the villages.
Secondly, Spreading legal awareness among the people about the rights and privileges conferred upon them by various social welfare legislations.
Thirdly, the Mobilization of law professors and law students for providing legal services to the weaker sections of the society through legal aid clinics in universities and law colleges.
Fourthly, promoting Public Interest Litigation to vindicate the rights of poor people.
Fifthly, Encouraging research area of law affecting the poor and training paralegals.
People who are entitled to free legal aid include any person belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe, any woman or child, victim of any disaster like earthquake, riots or industrial workmen, etc.
EVOLUTION OF LEGAL AID IN INDIA:
Legal aid in India was nurtured under the support from the British Rushcliffe Committee Report that enquired into the legal assistance and advice given to the poor people in England and Wales and also from the judgments given by the American Supreme Court. However, during the Mughal period of Indian history, the institution of court and court procedures established, and with the office of government pleaders for the poor surfaced the concept of legal aid. The need for State legal aid further gained strength during the British period. The voluntary efforts of the Bombay society initiated in 1924 and increased in 1945 with its demand for a committee on the pattern of Rushcliffe contributed to the enactment of statutory provisions in Cr.P.C. and C.P.C. The era of committees of legal aid begun with the Bhagwati committee on legal aid and legal advice in the Bombay committee report of 1949. Further, a committee under the Chairmanship of Sir Arthur Trevor Harries was made by the Government of Bengal for providing free legal aid services to the indigent litigants at the cost of the State, Gujrat committee report considering the question of providing free legal aid in civil, criminal, and other legal proceedings before the Court or Tribunal to the poor litigants, expert committee report stating that the right to free legal representation at State expenses is mandatory shook the Independent Government of India to provide legal aid to the poor and needy.
The Central Report and the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India inserted Article 39-A to the Constitution. This Article made the Union and the State Governments to undertake the task of legal aid under the State-sponsored schemes. The Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 enforced in November 1995 is a major effort to achieve the objective of ensuring equal opportunities for delivering justice irrespective of the weak economic conditions and social deprivation, to organize Lok Adalat, to make legal aid clinics. This Act was enacted to make legal services authorities to provide free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society. Various legal aid boards and committees are established under legal schemes and statutes to provide legal services.
ROLE OF THE INDIAN JUDICIARY IN ACHIEVING LEGAL AID:
The right to legal aid attained status and importance with the dynamic and wide interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution of India by the socially conscious judges. The Supreme Court of India deserves appreciation for its caring approach towards the common masses of the country. The Indian Judiciary not only extended the benefit of legal aid as a human right of the Indian citizens but also widened the scope of legal aid to include legal literacy under it and directing for framing of legal aid schemes by the State governments and the Union Government. The Indian judiciary also encouraged public participation in providing legal aid through voluntary organizations thereby giving birth to social action groups. The contribution of the Indian judiciary in protecting and promoting legal aid can be understood by the Court’s observations and judgments in the following cases.
In Hussainara Khatoon and others, V. Home Secretary of Bihar, 3 Bench judges of the Indian Supreme Court declared speedy trial as a constituent of legal aid and issued a direction to the government for providing legal services. Free legal aid turned out to be a fundamental right of the citizens of India facing criminal trials. Apart from issuing a directive to the Government for framing the schemes for legal aid, the Supreme Court of India in this case imposed a duty on the Magistrates to release the under-trial prisoners on bail by extending free legal services of a lawyer.
The Supreme Court in the Sunil Batra V. Delhi Administration spelled out quasi mandates that include that the prisoner’s rights shall be protected by the Court by its writ jurisdiction plus contempt power. To give effect to this jurisdiction, free legal services to the accused prisoner programs shall be promoted by professional organizations recognized by the court like free legal aid society.
In the Gopalan V. State of Kerela, the three judges bench of the Supreme Court named legal aid as a human right recognized under the Constitution of India as a fundamental right and reminded the courts to preserve and promote this right. Declaring legal aid as a mandatory obligation of the government, the Supreme Court further declared that this right of the accused commences when he is first produced before the Magistrate. The Apex Court further declared that legal literacy is an important constituent of legal aid because without it legal aid will turn out to be ‘mere paper promise’. The Magistrate is also under an obligation to inform the accused of his right to legal aid.
From the above discussion we can conclude that if such equal opportunities to get justice is not given to a large number of people, the majority of the population will result in loss of faith in the judicial system and democratic functioning of the society. In a country like India, where we know that most of the people in rural areas of India are not only poor, uneducated, ignorant of their legal rights, free legal aid to such people is a must to achieve socio-economic equality.
Legal aid helps the poor accused person to stand equal to his rich and resourceful adversary. The role of the judiciary has been observed to be positive and dynamic while interpreting the provisions of the Constitution for making available legal aid to the needy thereby guaranteeing justice to the oppressed and depressed. Further, in the State efforts for providing legal aid, the role of voluntary organizations and social action groups is very important.