Legal Aid in India

Legal aid provides free legal assistance to people who cannot afford the fees of court proceedings and advocates for seeking justice. For those in need who cannot afford legal representation, legal aid stands as a beam of light.

It is free legal assistance provided to those who are not financially upright enough to afford legal assistance (i.e. annual income less than as prescribed by the state, in case of the proceedings within the ambit of the state judicial system, and in case of proceedings before the Supreme Court, the annual income is less than 5 lakh).

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Justice P.N. Bhagwati states:

“Legal aid is an arrangement to give the poor and uneducated people easy access to the legal system, ensuring that their lack of knowledge and financial hardship does not prevent them from seeking justice”.

In accordance with Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, everyone is guaranteed equal protection under the law, regardless of their caste, race, sex, religion, or place of birth. Additionally, according to Article 22(1) of the Indian Constitution, no person arrested can be denied the right to consult with and be represented by a lawyer of their choice.

This is in accordance with the fundamental legal principle of Audi Alteram Partem, which states that no party should be denied a hearing. Even though having access to justice is a Fundamental Right, the poor continue to suffer greatly because they cannot pay the high cost of the legal system and frequently have to accept injustice.

The basic goal of legal aid service is equitable justice for the underprivileged and oppressed. It covers the free availability of legal counsel from an advocate in court proceedings and services like Lok Adalats, Legal Awareness, Legal Advice, Public Interest Litigation and many more that might stop injustice.

Development of Legal Aid in India

Following independence, the Indian government began to address the issue of legal assistance for people experiencing poverty in several conferences of law ministers and Law Commissions. Below are chronological events that happened during the development of legal Aid in India.

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1958: Providing equitable justice and free legal assistance to the underprivileged was underlined in the 14th Law Commission Report 1958. Several states’ legal assistance boards, associations, and law departments have proposed legal aid programmes. The first State to adopt a free legal aid scheme was Kerala.

1973: A report on “Processuals Justice to Poor” was released in 1973 by the Honorable Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer-led Expert Committee on Legal Aid. The study emphasized the necessity of giving legal assistance a formal foundation, establishing legal aid clinics in law schools, and other measures to make the legal aid system widely accessible to individuals.

1976: In 1976, the 42nd Constitutional Amendment made free legal aid a legal requirement by inserting Article 39A under the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) to guarantee that no one’s access to justice is hindered by their capacity to pay for it, the State and courts must uphold the principle of “Equal Justice and Free Legal Aid” and offer free legal representation to all who qualify.

1980: A national committee was established in 1980 to manage and monitor legal aid programmes nationwide. Justice P.N. Bhagwati, a Supreme Court judge at the time, was the group’s head. This group, which later adopted CILAS (Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes), began monitoring legal aid initiatives nationwide.

1987: To provide legal assistance programmes across the nation with a formal foundation and a standardised structure, the Legal Services Authorities Act was passed in 1987. After specific changes were made by the Amendment Act of 1994, this Act went into effect in 1995.

What Is Article 39A

A constitutional clause known as Article 39A (42nd Amendment) (Free Legal Aid) was added to the Indian Constitution to protect citizens’ right to equal access to the legal system regardless of class, sex, race, or religious beliefs. Article 39A of the Indian Constitution requires the States to offer free legal assistance to the weaker and poorer segments of society. This Article is critical since it establishes a right to seek legal help and states that the State is responsible for protecting that right.

Pursuing a successful legal course of action is impossible without access to legal aid. Any genuine resolution of complaints must start with access to justice. Any affected person whose right to legal assistance is refused will not have their complaint taken seriously, and any efforts to offer it will be ineffective. According to Article 39 A, free legal service shall be provided at a reasonable cost based on the time and place.

Legal Services Authority Act, 1987

The movement in India for legal assistance had a new component with this Act. Following the Act’s final revisions, it was enacted in 1995. Justice R.N. Mishra played a crucial part in executing this Act.

The Act had two aims:

  • To offer free legal services to the underprivileged and weaker members of society, to guarantee that no person is denied access to justice because of their financial situation or another form of impairment
  • To promote equitable justice delivery by setting up Lok Adalats.

This Act also formed the institutional framework of the National Legal Services Authority, State Legal Services Authority, District Legal Services Authority, and Taluka Legal Services Authority. The functions of each authority are explained below.

National Legal Services Authority (NALSA)

  • To ensure that legal services provided under the act are widely accessible, NALSA develops policies, concepts, and efficient economic plans.
  • Conduct and encourage research in the area of legal assistance, putting a particular focus on helping the underprivileged.
  • Additionally, it arranges legal assistance camps, promotes Lok Adalat as a forum for conflict resolution, conducts regular evaluations of legal aid programmes, and researches legal services.
  • NALSA supervises the functioning of the State Legal Services Authority.

State Legal Services Authority

  • This organisation is the top authority for regulating the State’s legal services.
  • The NALSA-established policies, regulations, and practices are put into action by the State Legal Services Authority.
  • Additionally, it runs several legal assistance initiatives, including Lok Adalats.

District Legal Services Authority

  • Organize the Taluk Legal Services Committee’s initiatives and those of the District’s other legal services.
  • Well-organized Lok Adalats throughout the District.
  • Carry out any additional duties that the State Authority may impose through regulations.

Taluk Legal Services Authority

  • It coordinates Lok Adalat and additional legal services events in the Taluk.
  • State Legal Services Authority regulates it.

The service of providing free Legal Aid is governed according to this Act. Legal Services Authority Act helps needy people get free legal assistance and prevents injustice from falling under their lap just because they can’t afford the legal expenses.

Related Law Note: What Is Indigent Person and Suits By Indigent Person?

The Judiciary’s Role

In India, the judiciary has always been a strong supporter and proponent of free legal assistance. Hon’ble Justices P.N. Bhagwati and Krishna Iyer have played significant roles in the legal aid movement, emphasising the significance of free legal services in India. Here are some of the landmark judgements that helped to promote legal Aid in India.

Suk Das vs Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, 1986 AIR 991, 1986 SCR (1) 590: Justice P.N. Bhagwati delivered this significant decision. He claimed that India has a huge number of ignorant people who are unaware of their rights. As a result, it is critical to develop legal literacy and knowledge among the public and an essential component of legal assistance.

Hussainara Khatoon vs Home Secretary, State of Bihar, AIR 1979 SC 1360: This case clarified how poorly the State of Bihar’s judicial system functions. Many people were being held without due process in jails, and some were being wrongfully found guilty and given worse punishments than they deserved. The only cause of all these delays was the convict’s inability to afford a lawyer to represent them. Justice P.N. Bhagwati found that Article 39A and Article 21 implicitly guarantee the right to free legal representation as a necessary component of a “reasonable, fair, and just” process for anybody accused of a crime.


Law students (and ideally, anybody who is somehow connected with the legal field, be it as a student or a professional litigant) must participate in all activities to close the gap between the legal realisation of rights and their effective exercise by the disadvantaged and poor.

The government also must take the necessary action by teaching the citizens about their Fundamental Rights to have a successful legal aid movement in India. Legal assistance is not a gift or a charity but rather a duty of the State and a constitutional right of the people. A lack of legal understanding causes the misuse and deprivation of the rights and benefits of the poor.

Suhani Dhariwal
WritingLaw » Law Notes » History and Development of Legal Aid in India Law Study Material
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