The article 'All You need to know about Legal Aid in India' is a thorough study of free legal assistance to those in need who are unable to exercise their legal rights.

The article 'All You need to know about Legal Aid in India' is a thorough study of free legal assistance to those in need who are unable to exercise their legal rights. Legal Aid aims to provide impoverished people with free legal representation in any judicial proceedings before a court, tribunal, or other authority. The purpose is that courts should be accessible to the underprivileged and illiterate, and none of these factors should prevent them from seeking justice. Indian Constitution places a high value on the rule of law. It is viewed as a component of both natural justice and the Constitution's fundamental framework in India.


“The concept of seeking justice cannot be equated with the value of dollars. Money plays no role in seeking justice.”-- Justice Blackmun

India has many people who live in poverty and are illiterate. Indians are mostly ignorant of their legal and Constitutional rights. Even if they are made aware of their rights, they are impotent since they cannot afford to get legal counsel because it has become an expensive matter. Geographical, resource, and infrastructure limitations continue to make it difficult for a sizeable portion of the Indian population to access legal services. The necessity for legal aid derives from the fact that legal representation is expensive and unaffordable for the underprivileged.

People of underprivileged groups at the panchayat level have become made worse by failing to use mainstream legal aid services. Legal aid has a long history in India, which is supported by extensive legislation, jurisprudential guidance, and several state-funded initiatives. However, the lack of a standardised format that is also financially viable has prevented lawyers from actively providing legal aid to individuals who require it. The culture of pro bono is still developing. Although non-governmental organisations, law schools, bar associations, as well as individual advocates give and arrange legal aid, the need for it is unquestionably greater than the supply.

The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed by the Indian Parliament in 1976, included a specific Directive Principle, known as Article 39-A, intending to provide free legal assistance to the worthy segments of society. Articles 21 and 39-A of our Indian Constitution support legal aid as a constitutional right. According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, no one may be deprived of their life or personal freedom unless doing so under a legal process.

History of Legal Aid in India

In ancient India, the idea of equal and fair justice was not unfamiliar. In Manusmriti, the king is charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law without deferring to his whims. Highlighting the significance of religion, Manu claims that this duty extends to the administration of justice in social, economic, and political spheres, whose sanctity must be upheld and strengthened.

In medieval times, Jahangir was credited with administering impartial justice to everyone, regardless of birth, status, or official position. He once asserted that God forbid that justice be administered favourably to nobles or even princes. The justice became renowned as “Jahangiri Nyaya” because of his fair trial.

In modern times, the State of Gujarat formed The Legal Aid Committee in 1971 under the Chairmanship of the Hon'ble Mr Justice P.N. Bhagwati and other members. According to him, those who cannot manage the litigation cost should provide a channel where they can access justice without the financial burden. Justice P.N. Bhagwati observed that:

“Legal aid means providing an arrangement in the society so that the mission of administration of justice becomes easily accessible and is not out of reach of those who have to resort to it for enforcement… the poor and illiterate should be able to approach the courts, and their ignorance and poverty should not be an impediment in the way of their obtaining justice from the courts. Legal aid should be available to the poor and illiterate, who don't have access to courts. One need not be a litigant to seek aid by means of legal aid.”

The Expert Committee report “Processual Justice to the People" (Processual Justice Report), states the connection between Public Interest Litigation and the nexus between law and poverty. The Report “National Juridicare: Equal Justice-Social Justice” (National Juridicare Report) recommended the establishment of a National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) accountable to the Parliament. The Report rejected the idea of providing India with case-by-case or litigation-based legal services, choosing instead to focus on outreach to the most vulnerable members of society and the identification of the broadest array of legal help that could be provided to them, including community development, education, and community organising.

In 1980, the Committee, at the national level, was established to manage and monitor legal aid programmes across the nation. It was headed by Hon'ble Mr Justice P.N. Bhagwati. The Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes (CILAS) began keeping an eye on legal aid operations all over the nation. To provide legal aid programmes across the nation with a statutory foundation and a standardised structure, they passed the Legal Services Authorities Act in 1987. After the Amendment Act of 1994 included some revisions, this Act was eventually put into effect on November 9th, 1995.

Legislative Provision related to Legal Aid in India

Article 39A of the Constitution of India: This Article was added by the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1976 and guaranteed equal justice and free legal assistance. It requires the state to ensure that the functioning of the legal system promotes justice based on equal opportunity and, in particular, to provide free legal aid through legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities to secure justice are not denied to any citizen because of economic or other disabilities.

Section 304 of the Code of Criminal Procedure: “Legal Aid to accused at state expense in certain cases”, The court must provide counsel at the state's expense if the accused lacks the resources to hire one for their protection.

Order 33 Rule 18 of Civil Procedural Code: “Power of Government to provide for free legal services to indigent persons” The Central or State Government may make any provisions it deems appropriate for offering free legal services to those who have been given permission to file lawsuits as indigent people.

Article 14 and 21 (1) of the Constitution of India: The Indian Constitution also requires the State to guarantee equality before the law and a legal system that advances justice on the basis of equal opportunity for everyone.

Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987: Under the Legal Services Authorities Act of 1987, legal aid provisions were introduced. Under the Act, a national network for delivering legal aid and support has been envisioned. The National Legal Services Authority is the top authority established to establish policies and guidelines for making legal services available per the provisions of the Act and to provide the most efficient and cost-effective legal services programmes.

The Criterion for providing legal aid in India

As per Section 12 of the Legal Service Authorities Act of 1987, the criteria for providing legal aid in India are:

The Women and Child

  • Women irrespective of their income/financial status

-- Under section 12 (c) of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, a child is eligible for free legal aid till the age of majority, i.e. 18 years.

--- A victim of trafficking in human beings or begar as referred to in Article 23 of the Constitution,

  • A member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe,
  • A mentally ill or otherwise disabled person,
  • A person under circumstances of undeserved want such as being a victim of a mass disaster, ethnic violence, caste atrocity, flood, drought, earthquake or industrial disaster;
  • An industrial workman
  • In custody, including custody in a protective home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956(104 of 1956); or in a juvenile home within the meaning of clause(j) of Section 2 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 (53 of 1986); or in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric nursing home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, 1987(14 of 1987),
  • if the matter is before a court other than the Supreme Court, a person receiving annual income less than the amount specified in the following schedule (or any other higher amount as may be determined by the State Government), and less than Rs 5 Lakh if the case is before the Supreme Court.
  • Senior citizens’ eligibility for free legal aid depends on the Rules framed by the respective State Governments.
  • The list has been provided for the income ceiling limit prescribed under section 12(h) of the Legal Services Authority Act in different states.

Important Case Laws

1) Sheela Barse v. State of Maharastra[1]

It was decided that providing legal support to a poor accused person who has been arrested and is in danger of losing his life or his personal liberty is a constitutional requirement stipulated by articles 21 and 14 in addition to articles 39-A.

2) Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar[2]

The availability of legal services to a prisoner, who wishes to pursue his release through the legal system, is a necessary component of a reasonable, fair, and just procedure. A crucial component of any reasonable, fair, and just system is providing free legal assistance to the underprivileged and the needy. The court used Article 39-A, which offers free legal assistance, to interpret Article 21 in light of that provision. The court recognised the poor accused person's right to free legal representation, but not in the permissive meaning of Article 22(1) and its wider amplitude, rather in the prescriptive sense of Article 21 limited to instances involving incarceration.

3) Khatri & Ors v. State of Bihar & Other[3]

It was decided that the State cannot refuse to grant this right on the grounds of financial hardship, administrative incapacity, or the fact that the accused did not request it because the State is constitutionally required to do so not only during the trial stage but also when they are first presented before the magistrate or occasionally remanded.

4) Sukh Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh[4]

The court stated that it is now accepted practice that anyone charged with a crime that could harm his life or personal freedom has a fundamental right to free legal representation at the expense of the State. This fundamental right is also implied in the requirement of a reasonable, fair, and just procedure outlined in Article 21.

5) State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi

The right to unrestricted legal representation was expanded by the court. According to Articles 21 and 39A, “equal justice” and “free legal aid” are fundamental rights that are guaranteed.

6) Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain[6]

In this case, the court said “The basis of the Indian Constitution is the rule of law. No one has ever condemned unheard-of justice. Only when a basic right, prerogative, or privilege has been violated may a legal remedy be sought. The trial is tainted even at the early stage when the defendant is initially brought before the magistrate without legal representation.”

7) State of Haryana v. Darshana Devi[7]

The Court stated that by insisting on court fees and refusing to implement order XXXIII, CPC's exemption provisions, the poor should not be priced out of the justice system.


We can define legal aid as a free legal service that advances societal welfare. Numerous initiatives have been undertaken. An accused has the right to request legal help if he cannot pay it with the help of many provisions of Indian legislation. Legal aid in India has developed, with judicial, administrative, and legislative advancements, establishing the groundwork for the free delivery of legal services to the underprivileged.

The Public interest Litigation mechanism continues to be primarily reliant on the few individual lawyers and social/legal organisations that are engaged in providing these services effectively. A testament to this is the reduced attorney salary and the absence of substitute incentives for luring seasoned litigators to provide legal help. A lot more work needs to be done before the idea of free legal assistance becomes a reality for the majority of people. The development of legal knowledge among individuals from all walks of life is the key prerequisite in this regard. Most importantly, public-spirited attorneys must continue the very noble job of delivering justice to people from all facets of society. Then and only then will the extremely lofty and idealistic goal of this idea known as legal aid be completely realised.


[1] AIR 1983 SC 373

[2] (1980) 1 SCC 98

[3] AIR 1981 SC 262

[4] AIR 1986 SC 991

[5] (1955) 5 SCC 730

[6] Civil Appeal 887 of 1975

[7] AIR 1972 SC 855

Important Links

Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary, and Entrance Exams

Law Aspirants: Ultimate Test Prep Destination

Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra is a law graduate with a Bachelor's in Business Administration and Law (B.B.A.LL.B.) from National Law University Odisha, Cuttack. Currently, she is aspiring to crack the Judicial Service examination.

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