Legal aid is free legal assistance to the poor and weaker sections of the society with the object to enable them to exercise rights provided by law. Free legal aid entails the provision of free legal aid in civil and criminal matters for those poor and marginalized people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of any legal proceeding in any court, tribunal or before any authority. For the maintenance of this assistance, a separate legislation, The Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 has been enacted to constitute the Legal Service Authorities to provide free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society to ensure that opportunities for securing law and justice for the weaker sections of society is not denied by reason of economic or other disabilities. This act establishes statutory legal services authorities at National, State and District level. It also provides for the organisation of Lok Adalats for the promotion of quick justice and operation of legal system at lower costs.
Some basic provisions of free legal aid as provided by National Legal Services Authority are as follows:
- Representation by an advocate in legal proceedings.
- Preparation of pleadings, memo of appeal, paper book including printing and translation of documents in legal proceedings.
- Drafting of legal documents, special leave petitions etc.
- Rendering of any service in the conduct of any case or other legal proceedings before any court or any other authority or tribunal.
- Giving of advice on any legal matter.
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 matter.
As political philosopher; Charles de Montesquieu, said that,
“In the state of nature…. all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it and they recover it only by the protection of the law.”
Legal aid is one of the means to ensure opportunities for securing equal justice and protection of law to poor, illiterate and weak and help them grow.
The constitution also gives much emphasis on the principle of natural justice which says that individuals should not be penalised by decisions affection their rights or legitimate expectations unless given prior notice of cases against them and enough time for answer them and present their own cases. The preamble of the constitution also secures to all its citizens, social, economic and political justice. Article 14 makes it clear that the state shall not deny to any person equality before law and equal protection of laws within territory of India with the basic aim to ensure equal justice. Article 38 and 39 lays down a clear mandate in this regard mentioning about the duty of state to strive to promote the welfare of people by securing social order and directs the state to ensure the operation of legal system on the basis of equal opportunities and shall provide for free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes.
Right to free legal aid or free legal service is also a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution forming the basis of reasonable, fair and just liberty as provided in the ambit of Article 21. In State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi 1995 , the Supreme Court made it clear that the failure to to provide free legal aid to an accused at the cost of the State unless refused by the accused, would vitiate the trial. It was also observed by the court that providing free legal aid is not Government’s charity but State’s duty.
Justice P.N. Bhagwati has rightly said that,
“The poor and the illiterate should be able to approach the courts and their ignorance and poverty and their ignorance and poverty should not be an impediment in the way of their obtaining justice from the Courts.”
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