A brief overview of Legal Aid Authorities and Services
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
This article is written by Kaustubh Kumar: Student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi
On November 9, 1995, one of the landmark legislations i.e., The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, was implemented by the Government of India through gazette notification. The act was passed on October 11, 1987, but it took nearly eight years for the government to implement it. The Act came to bolster the 42nd Amendment, in which Article 39A was enshrined, in Part IV of the Indian Constitution stating that the State shall provide free legal aid to the poor and weaker section of society and ensure justice for all. Article 14 and Article 22(1) also makes it compulsory for the state to ensure equality before law and a legal system that promotes justice by providing equal opportunity. In the purview of the Act, hierarchically different authorities and committees were made to protect the right to justice of weaker and marginal section of the society.
The vision of the Legal Service Authorities explicitly states that they are established to promote an inclusive legal ecosystem to ensure fair and meaningful justice to the weaker section of the society. They provide free legal consultation to every individual through various helpline numbers. State Legal Service Authorities also provide free legal services to the individuals who come under the purview of the schemes run by NALSA.
National Legal Service Authority
Apex central authority, National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) established at the national level with Chief Justice of India serving as Patron-in-chief and senior-most judge of Supreme Court as Executive Chairman, to perform various crucial functions. One of the chief functions of the authority is to monitor the functioning of State Legal Service Authorities (SLSA), District Legal Service Authorities (DLSA), Supreme Court Legal Service Committee, High Court Legal Service Committee, Taluk Legal Service Committees, and Voluntary Social Service Authorities. NALSA lays down the policies, principles, schemes, guidelines, and effective framework that should be followed to make legal services available throughout the country. Ten important schemes are run by NALSA to cover each marginalized individual who needs free Legal Aid. According to the Section 12 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, free legal services cover Senior Citizens, Children, Women, Persons with Disability, Persons in Custody, Industrial Workmen, Members of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe, Victims of Mass Disaster like flood, tsunami, earthquake, etc., Victims of Trafficking of Human beings and Person with less than 3 lakh income or as notified by the respective state or central government.
NALSA takes appropriate measures to promote legal literacy among the marginalized class of the society, by educating them about rights, benefits, and privileges guaranteed by different legislations. NALSA runs numerous programs for clinical legal education in schools, colleges, universities, and various other institutions and organize legal aid camps, especially in slums, remote areas, and labor colonies to educate the underprivileged class of the society. NALSA also encourage them to settle their disputes through Lok Adalat. NALSA provides training to social workers and help them in developing legal skills so that they may take steps through social justice litigation in respect of environmental protection, consumer protection, or any special concerned matter.
State Legal Service Authorities (SLSA) and District Legal Service Authorities (DSLA)
In every state, a SLSA constituted with Chief Justice of respective High Court as Patron-in-Chief and senior-most judge of the High Court serving as Executive Chairman. There is a member secretary who performs the duties and exercises the power under the Executive Chairman. The chief function of the SLSA is to effectively implement the policies of NALSA, provide free legal services to the person who fits under the criteria prescribed in the various schemes of NALSA, run preventive and strategic legal aid programs, and encourage people to settle their disputes by conducting Lok Adalat, for cases of High Courts as well.
At the District level, DLSA established with district judge serving as the chairman and a senior judicial officer as the Secretary. The chief function of DLSAs is to implement the policies of NALSA and directions of SLSA effectively in their respective districts and to organize the Lok Adalat within districts from time to time.
Supreme Court, High Court, and Taluka Legal Service Committees
Supreme court Legal Service Committee is constituted by central authority i.e., NALSA to administer and implement the laws on legal services in the Supreme Court while High Court and Taluka Legal Services Committee is constituted by specific State Legal Service Authority to assist and implement the laws on free legal aid and legal services in High Court and Taluka level respectively.
Free Legal Services
Free Legal Services includes the provisions of free legal aid in civil as well as criminal matters to the underprivileged and marginalized class of the society who cannot afford the fees of an attorney for the legal assistance or to represent themselves in front of the court or to continue their legal proceeding in any tribunal, court or before an authority. Free Legal Services include representation by an advocate in any court, payment of court fee, process fee and all the charges incurred in legal proceedings, preparation of pleadings, memo of appeal, and paper book including printing and translating documents in legal proceedings, drafting petitions, legal documents, etc., and giving legal advice on any matter. It also includes aid and advice to the beneficiaries to access the benefits under the legislations or schemes framed by the Central Government or State Government, to make justice accessible in a holistic manner.
Access to and Withdrawal of Free Legal Aid
An individual in need of Legal Aid may approach the concerned authority or committee with an application stating reasons and grievances mentioned for seeking Legal Aid. If the applicant is illiterate or disable or is not in a position to write, then the Member secretary or any other member of that Legal Service Authority shall record his oral statement and by obtaining his/her thumb impression on the record should consider it as an application. Para Legal Volunteers may also assist the individual in writing an application. But the applicants should verify the eligibility criteria as mentioned in the concerned act. If the committee comes to know at a later stage that the applicant misrepresented himself to the authority and possesses sufficient means then the committee shall withdraw the legal aid immediately. In the event, when an applicant died due to certain circumstances, the authority may withdraw the legal aid except in civil proceedings where liability still survives. Authority can also withdraw free legal aid provided to the applicant when he/she assigns another advocate and where the application for legal service is found to be an abuse of the due process of law or legal service by the applicant.
Lok Adalat was established under the Legal Service Authorities Act, 1987. Lok Adalat is an important Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism available to settle the disputes/cases pending in the courts, tribunals, or at the pre-litigation stage, amicably. As per the Section 21 of the concerned Act, the award passed by Lok Adalat is deemed as the decree of a civil court and is binding to the parties and shall not be challenged further in any court of law. Lok Adalats are organized by Legal Service Authorities/Committees, to lighten the load on Courts by settling the cases pending before them as well as cases of the pre-litigation stage.
Lok Adalat deals with the cases of Matrimonial/Family Disputes, Criminal Compoundable offenses, Land Acquisition, Labour Disputes, Pension cases, Bank Recovery Cases, Electricity bill and Telephone bill cases, Municipal matters like House tax, Water tax, etc., consumer grievance cases, etc. Chapter VI-A was included in the Legal Services Authorities Act, in 2002, to establish a procedure for the conciliation and settlement of cases relating to Public Utility Services like services in the hospital, insurance services, postal services, supply of light or water, etc. In accordance to which various permanent Lok Adalat constituted in most of the states.
NALSA, SLSAs, and DSLAs were established with the mission to help the marginal section of society. They got successful in doing so, to a certain extent. But people in our country still lack the legal literacy about their basic rights provided by the constitution. Although LSAs are conducting various legal skill programs by organizing legal camps and clinics, there is still a lot to do so that each individual shall get covered. NALSA, SLSAs, and DLSAs should organize door-to-door campaigns with Para Legal Volunteers to spread awareness about its missions and works. Through print and electronic media advertisements, it should also create public awareness about its schemes and initiatives among the masses so that individuals may learn about Free Legal Services entitled to them.
NALSA has promulgated and implemented various schemes for Legal Service Institutions to perform its core functions effectively. As per the Annual Report 2019, released by NALSA, they conducted nearly 1,96,728 awareness programs, attended by 2,68,35,386 persons. As per data of disputes settled by Lok Adalats and Permanent Lok Adalats together, 60,32,165 cases were disposed of, which clearly shows how Legal Aid Services and ADR mechanisms like Lok Adalat are doing a crucial job by giving their best. Hence, we should also become a part of the campaign by assisting legal service authorities in creating awareness about free legal aid and schemes run by NALSA.