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Legal Aid And Access to Justice: Initiatives and Importance

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   02-Nov-2023 | Tanmaya Kshirsagar



Legal aid ensures the smooth running of the justice system in a country such that everyone gets access to the justice system, regardless of their socio-economic background. To make provisions for legal aid uniformly across the country, the Legal Services Authorities Act was enacted in 1987. However, this Act was eventually enforced on November 9th, 1995, including a few amendments introduced by the Amendment Act 1994. Legal Aid also enables marginalised citizens like women, children, backward castes, people living BPL, and differently-abled individuals to access legal services and justice. The Legal Aid system of India is continuously evolving for the better, which has been discussed in detail further.

Defining Legal Aid and Access to Justice in India

Legal Aid and Access to Justice are two important concepts in the Indian legal system. Legal aid means providing free or subsidised legal services to the poor and marginalised sections of society, who cannot afford to hire a lawyer or pay court fees. Access to justice means ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to seek and obtain justice, regardless of their socio-economic status, gender, caste, religion, or any other factor. Legal Aid and Access to Justice are guaranteed by the Constitution of India, under Articles 21 and 39-A, as well as by various laws and schemes enacted by the government and the judiciary. Legal aid and access to justice aim to protect the rights and interests of vulnerable groups, promote the Rule of Law, and enhance public trust in the justice system.

The Importance of Legal Aid and Access to Justice in the Indian Context

Both these provisions are extremely important for Indian society since they empower citizens to defend their rights and interests. The Legal Aid system enables citizens to seek legal assistance for their grievances, like human rights violations, discrimination and exploitation, violence, and so on. It also helps to maintain a just social environment by reducing inequality as well as providing everyone an equal ground, regardless of their socio-economic or ethnic background. These provisions improve the efficiency and credibility of the justice system, reducing the piling up of cases, enhancing the nature of legal representation, and ensuring just and quick trials. It further facilitates the awareness and education of citizens about their rights, duties, and judicial system. These systems also promote respect for the democratic Rule of Law by uplifting the involvement of the people in the legal processes.

Statistics Regarding the Legal Aid and Access to Justice Provisions in India

More than 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people are eligible for legal aid. But only 15 million have benefitted from it since NALSA (The National Legal Services Authority) was established in 1995.

NALSA is the apex governing body providing legal aid in India which has established District Legal Services Authorities (DLSAs) as well as Taluka Legal Services committees across the nation. However, there are a few states yet to establish DLSAs in all their judicial districts, not to mention the deficiency of full-time secretaries for these DLSAs.

NALSA also runs several programs and schemes that provide legal aid to specific vulnerable or marginalised groups and conducts lok adalats, mediation centres, legal service clinics, and para-legal volunteers that enable further access to justice.

Role and Initiatives of Governmental Organisations and Committees in Providing Legal Aid

Several governmental organisations play a key role in providing legal aid and access to justice in India through several initiatives and programs. The Department of Justice, under the Ministry of Law and Justice, is in charge of the implementation of a range of schemes and programs for legal aid and access to justice. For instance, the central sector scheme named “Designing Innovative Solutions for Holistic Access to Justice in India (DISHA)”, includes elements such as Tele-law, Nyaya Bandhu, Nyaya Mitra, and Legal Literacy & Legal Awareness Programme. Moreover, NALSA extends and looks over legal aid in India. It was constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to ensure the provision of free legal services to the weaker sections of the society as well as to organise Lok Adalats for settlement of disputes.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee, the State Legal Services Authorities, the High Court Legal Services Committees, the District Legal Services Authorities, and the Taluka Legal Services Committees are the subordinate functional bodies of NALSA, that implement these programs at different levels. They are led by judges of their respective courts and have full-time secretaries to manage their functions. The Committee for Legal Aid to Poor (CLAP) is the oldest public interest law organisation in India. Founded in 1982 by eminent Sarvodaya leader Shyam Sundar Das, it aims to encourage legal literacy, legal awareness, legal aid, and Public Interest Litigation among the underprivileged sections of society.

Role of Civil Society in the Implementation of Legal Aid and Access to Justice Provisions

Civil society plays an important role in implementing legal aid provisions in India like rendering legal aid services to the weaker groups of society, especially those in rural areas and other marginal groups. Lawyers, para-legals, law students, and other non-legal providers play an important role in representing civil society to ensure the provision of legal literacy and awareness. They also look over and evaluate the accountability and efficiency of the government and judiciary in providing legal aid and access to justice. They carry out research, conduct surveys, and develop reports on various aspects of the legal system, like budgets, human resources, infrastructure, and diversity, amongst many others.

Furthermore, various professionals and individuals in civil society recommend policy reforms and legal changes to improve the situation. Civil Society Organisations also participate in forming committees, forums, and platforms to facilitate inputs and feedback on legal aid matters. Moreover, they provide support for training and capacity building of legal aid providers and stakeholders of the justice system.

Loopholes in the Smooth Implementation of Legal Aid and Access to Justice Provisions

There are certain obstacles in the implementation of legal aid provisions in India like inadequate legal education and awareness. A lot of citizens are unaware of their legal and constitutional rights and do not know how to access free legal aid services. There are further socio-cultural hindrances, like stigma, discrimination, etc., that prevent people from seeking legal aid.

There is also a lack of support by the advocates and a shortage of lawyers willing to provide free legal aid to the unprivileged. They lack motivation, incentives, training, and necessary resources to deliver the apt quality of legal aid. Challenges such as workload, low remuneration, and lack of recognition are additional factors. Lok Adalats have limited jurisdiction and powers, and thus are not able to deal with complex cases. Moreover, they depend on the consent and cooperation of the parties involved, which is not always possible.

There also exists an underutilisation of para-legal volunteers. They face issues such as a lack of supervision, guidance, coordination, and recognition.

Future Innovations and Possibilities in Strengthening the Legal Aid Provisions

Some of the recommendations for potentially strengthening and promoting the legal aid provisions in India include the newly growing faculty of Artificial Intelligence as well as machine learning to improve the quality, efficiency, and accessibility of legal aid and the justice system. By using blockchain technology and smart contracts, the system can ensure the security and transparency of legal transactions and records. By implementing the usage of several online platforms and the development of mobile applications, the system can increase the access as well as convenience of legal aid and justice services to its citizens. These online tools can also provide adequate methods and platforms for improving the engagement and learning of legal aid providers and beneficiaries.

Furthermore, it is necessary to monitor the instances of corruption and maintain the discipline of the appointed facilitators. By improving the force and members of the system, and increasing quality employment, the administrative system can be enhanced and made more efficient.

Conclusion

Thus, based on fundamentally humanitarian grounds, free Legal Aid and Access to Justice in India ensures that its citizens can get legal services without any hindrances. It also underlines the fact that justice in the country is a fundamental right. It has seen significant transitions over the history of its implementation. Legal aid has significantly changed the scenario of PILs and impacted society by important, landmark judgments under this very system. Indeed, there are several rough patches in the provision and implementation of legal aid and ensuring justice in India, but it has been a boon to its citizens.

Sources

  1. Legal Aid and Awareness in India: Issues and Challenges (legalserviceindia.com)
  2. Access to Justice under the Indian Laws (indiatimes.com)
  3. Right to Legal Aid and Access To Justice | Free Legal Aid Services India | Legal Services Authority India (indiajusticefoundation.org)
  4. A Brief History of Legal Aid (legalserviceindia.com)
  5. Legal Aid provided to 15 million out of eligible 1 billion: India Justice Report (barandbench.com)
  6. Introduction - National Legal Services Authority! (nalsa.gov.in)
  7. National Legal Services Authority (drishtiias.com)
  8. India Justice Report: Ranking states on police, judiciary, prisons and legal aid - Surveys and Reports - Tata Trusts
  9. https://theprint.in/opinion/nalsa-was-supposed-to-be-indias-beacon-for-legal-aid-but-its-stuck-in-a-systemic-rut/807587/