The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, was enacted to give a statutory base to legal aid programmes throughout the country on a uniform pattern. The Act was brought into force with effect from Nineth September one thousand nine hundred ninety five, almost eight years after its enactment, after certain amendments were introduced therein by the Amendment Act of 1994. Hon. Mr. Justice R.N. Mishra (the then Chief Justice of India) played a key role in the enforcement of the Act.
National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) was constituted on 5th December, 1995. His Lordship Hon. Dr. Justice A.S. Anand, Judge, Supreme Court of India took over as the Executive Chairman of it on 17th July, 1997. By February, 1998, the office of National Legal Services Authority became properly functional for the first time. In October, 1998, His Lordship A.S. Anand then assumed the Office of the Chief Justice of India and thus became the Patron-in-Chief of National Legal Services Authority. His Lordship Hon. Mr. Justice S.R Bharucha, the senior-most Judge of the Supreme Court of India assumed the office of the Executive Chairman, NALSA.
A nationwide network has been envisaged under the Act for providing legal aid and assistance. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) is the apex body constituted to lay down policies and principles for making legal services available under the provisions of the Act and to frame most effective and economical schemes for legal services. It also disburses funds and grants to State Legal Services Authorities and NGOs for implementing legal aid schemes and programmes. In every State a State Legal Services Authority is constituted to give effect to the policies and directions of the Central Authority (NALSA) and to give legal services to the people. State Legal Services Authority is headed by the Chief Justice of the State High Court who is its Patron-in- Chief A serving or retired Judge of the High Court is nominated as its Executive Chairman. District Legal Services Authority is constituted in every District to implement Legal Aid Programmes and Schemes in the District. The District Judge of the District is its ex-officio Chairman Taluk Legal Services Committees are also constituted for each of the Taluk or Mandal or for group of Taluk or Mandate to coordinate the activities of legal services in the Taluk and to organize Lok Adalats. Every Taluk Legal Services Committee is headed by a senior Civil Judge operating within the jurisdiction of the Committee who is its ex-officio Chairman.
Criteria for Legal Service/Aid
Section 12 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, prescribes the criteria for giving legal services to the eligible persons. Section 12 of the Act reads as under, –
“12. Every person who has to file or defend a case shall be entitled to legal services under this Act if that person is-
(a) a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe,
(b) a victim of trafficking in human beings or begar as referred to in Artical 23 of the Constitution,
(c) a woman or a child,
(d) a mentally ill or otherwise disabled person,
(e) a person under circumstances of underserved want such as being a victim of a mass disaster, ethnic violence, caste atrocity, flood, drought, earthquake or industrial disaster,
(f) an industrial workman,
(g) in custody, including custody in a protective home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, or in a juvenile home within the meaning of clause (j) of Section 2 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986, or in a psychiatric hospital/nursing home within the meaning of Section 2(g) of the Mental Health Act, 1987, or
(h) in receipt of annual income less than rupees nine thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Govt, if the case is before a court other than the Supreme Court, and less than rupees twelve thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the Central Govt., if the case is before the Supreme Court’ (Rules have already been amended to enhance this income ceiling).
According to Section 2(1 )(a) of the Act, legal aid can be provided to a person for a ‘case’ which includes a suit or any proceeding before a court. Sec, 2(1) (aaa) defines the ‘court’ as a civil, criminal or revenue court and includes any tribunal or any other authority constituted under any law for the time being in force, to exercise judicial or quasi-judicial functions. As per Section 2(1)(c), ‘legal service’ includes the rendering of any service in the conduct of any case or other legal proceeding before any court/other authority/tribunal and the giving of advice on any legal matter.
Legal Services Authorities after examining the eligibility criteria of an applicant and the existence of a prime facia case in his favour provide him counsel at State expense, pay the required Court Fee in the matter and bear all incidental expenses in connection with the case. The person to whom legal aid is provided is not called upon to spend anything on the litigation once it is supported by a Legal Services Authority.
Schemes and Measures by NALSA
The following scheme and measures have been envisaged and implemented by the Central Authority- NALSA,-
(a) Establishing Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalats in ail the Districts in the country for disposal of pending matters as well as disputes at pre-litigative stage,
(b) Establishing separate Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalats for Govt Departments, Statutory Authorities and Public Sector Undertakings for disposal of pending cases as well as disputes at pre-litigative stage,
(c) Accreditation of NGOs for Legal Literacy and Legal Awareness campaign,
(d) Appointment of “Legal Aid Counsel” in all the Courts of Magistrates in the country,
(e) Disposal of cases through Lok Adaiats on old pattern,
(f) Publicity to Legal Aid Schemes and programmes to make people aware about legal aid facilities,
(g) Emphasis on competent and quality legal services to the aided persons,
(h) Legal aid facilities in jails,
(i) Setting up of Counselling and Conciliation Centers in all the Districts in the country,
(j) Sensitisation of Judicial Officers in regard to Legal Services Schemes and programmes,
(k) Publication of the Nyaya Deep”, the official newsletter of NALSA,
(L) Enhancement of Income Ceiling to Rupee Fifty thousand per annum. for legal aid before Supreme Court of India and to Rupee Twenty Five thousand per annum for legal aid up to High Courts, and
(m) Steps for framing rules for refund of court fees and execution of awards passed by Lok Adalats.
In pursuance of the call given by His Lordship Hon. Dr. Justice A.S. Anand, Nineth of November is being celebrated every’year by all Legal Services Authorities as “Legal Services Day”. NALSA has been providing and shall continue to provide funds to State Legal Services Authorities for the implementation of the Legal Aid Schemes and Programmes but the infrastructure has to be provided by the State Governments. NALSA has also called upon State Legal Services Authorities to set up ‘legal aid cells’ in jails so that the prisoners lodged therein are provided prompt and efficient legal aid.
“Legal Aid Counsel” Scheme which was conceived and introduced by His Lordship A.S. Anand has been well received all over country. Legal Aid Counsels have been provided in most of the courts of the Magistrates in the country to provide immediate legal assistance to those prisoners who are not in a position to engage their own counsel. Hon. Mr. Justice S.R Bharucha had emphasized that ‘Counselling and Conciliation Centers’ should be established in all the Districts in the country to bring about negotiated settlement of disputes between the parties. All the State Legal Services Authorities are taking steps to establish these Centers which would prove immensely useful for settling legal disputes at pre-litigative stage and would also help legal services functionaries to find out as to whether a person approaching them for legal aid has or not a prima facie case in his favour which is a pre-requisite for grant of legal aid.
NALSA is keen to develop and promote a culture of conciliation instead of litigation in the country so that the citizens of this country prefer to resolve their disputes and differences across the table in a spirit of goodwill and brotherhood. NALSA also wishes to ensure that even the weakest amongst the weak in the country does not suffer injustice arising out of any abrasive action on the part of State or private person.
Improving Legal Aid Quality – Role of Lawyers and Judges
Honourable Mr. Justice S.R Bharucha emphasised the need for improving the quality of legal aid that is being given by legal aid advocates. His Lordship observed that teeming millions of this country who live below poverty line looks towards Legal Services Authorities for help and support in resolving their legal problems. These poor and weaker sections must not remain under the impression that they are getting comparatively inferior legal assistance. His Lordship has called upon legal services authorities to revise the payment schedule for legal aid panel advocates and also compress the panels so that panel advocates get more work and better remuneration from legal services authorities and thus get encouraged to render effective legal assistance to aided persons.
The plight of poor litigants approaching Lok Adalats through the bastion of legal aid is quite deplorable. Lamenting on the poor quality of legal service extended under the rubric of legal aid the Supreme Court held that “right to defend includes right to effective and meaningful defence.” To ensure quality legal assistance the Court directed the State to fix better remuneration for lawyers. The apex court has cautioned that legal aid must not be reduced to “patronizing gestures to raw entrants to the Bar,” but the practice of extending legal assistance through such inexperienced lawyers is continuing resulting into unequal and ineffective presentation or defence. Whereas “to have the assistance of a counsel” is to be construed as the “effective” assistance of counsel performing within a minimum standard of competency. Therefore, legal aid through a raw talent amounts to denial of legal aid and hits the equality clause of Article 14 of our Constitution.40
Sensitization of Judicial Officers in regard to legal aid schemes and programmes is also important. Legal Services Authorities must ensure that judicial officers are duly sensitized about the work NALSA is doing and its importance for the poor and illiterate. Once all the judicial officers in the country get property sensitized in regard to the relevance and importance of legal aid schemes they shall themselves start caring for the poor, backward and weaker sections of the society who are not in a position to engage their own counsel and look after their legal causes.