Article 39-A of the Constitution of India provides that the State shall secure that the operation of the legal system, promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disability. Articles 14 and 22(1) also make it obligatory for the State to ensure equality before law and a legal system which promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity to all. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has been constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to provide free Legal Services to the weaker sections of the society and to organize Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes. This Authority is headed by The Chief Justice of India. NALSA is housed at the Supreme Court of India.
In every State, the State Legal Services Authority has been constituted to give effect to the policies and directions of the NALSA and to give free legal services to the people and conduct Lok Adalats in the State. The State Legal Services Authority is headed by the Chief Justice of the respective High Court who is the Patron-in-Chief of the State Legal Services Authority.
In every District, District Legal Services Authority has been constituted to implement Legal Services Programmes in the District. The District Legal Services Authority is situated in the District Courts Complex in every District and chaired by the District Judge of the respective district. Legal Aid is provided to the needy from the lowest Court to the Supreme Court of India.
1. Purpose of free legal aid?
Free legal aid is the provision of free legal services in civil and criminal matters for those poor and marginalized people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of a case or a legal proceeding in any Court, Tribunal or Authority. Provision of free legal aid may include:
Representation by an Advocate in legal proceedings.
Payment of process fees, expenses of witnesses and all other charges payable or incurred in connection with any legal proceedings in appropriate cases;
Preparation of pleadings, memo of appeal, paper book including printing and translation of documents in legal proceedings;
Drafting of legal documents, special leave petition etc.
Supply of certified copies of judgments, orders, notes of evidence and other documents in legal proceedings.
2. Eligibility Criteria for availing free legal aid?
The section of society who are enlisted under Section 12 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 are entitled to get free legal aid. They are as follows:
(a). a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe;
(b). a victim of trafficking in human beings or begar as referred to in article 23 of the Constitution;
(c). a woman(irrespective of her income or financial status) or a child(till the age of majority i.e.,18 years);
(d). a person with disability as defined in clause (i) of section 2 of the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995
(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; or
(f). an industrial workman; or
(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 (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; or
(h). in receipt of annual income less than rupees nine thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Government, 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 Government, if the case is before the Supreme Court.
Senior citizens’ availability for free legal aid are based on the rules prescribed by each State Government. Under Section 13(2) of The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987
“An affidavit made by a person as to his income may be regarded as sufficient for making him eligible to the entitlement of legal services under this Act unless the concerned Authority has reason to disbelieve such an affidavit.”
3. Process for claiming free legal aid
A. Where to file the application?
Depending upon the territorial and subject matter of the case, one can approach to following authority:
Taluk Legal Services Committee which is present in the premise of the Court in that Taluk;
District Legal Services Authority (DSLA), present in the District Courts;
State Legal Services Authority, if the matter is maintained at State Level;
High Court Legal Services Committee;
Supreme Court Legal Services Committee for case before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
Each authority mentioned has a front office where applications can be moved. There is also an online portal of NALSA https://nalsa.gov.in/lsams/login.jsp?login_error=t and State Legal Services Authorities for filing applications.
B. How to apply for free legal aid?
One can apply for free legal aid either online or offline.
The person needs to fill the application form which will be available at the nearest Legal Services Authority and submit the same either physically or by post.
One can also make an application on a piece of paper by mentioning all their credentials like name, residence, gender, nationality whether SC/ST (with proof), proof of income, case for which legal aid is required and then submit it to the nearest Legal Service Authority physically or by post.
Applications can also be filed online by email to NALSA (at firstname.lastname@example.org) or by filling the application form online on the official website of NALSA.
A person can also orally submit his/her application to the Para Legal Volunteers, who are present in the front office of the Authority.
A person seeking free legal aid can approach NALSA or any Legal Services Authorities anytime between Monday-Friday from 9:30 a.m to 6 p.m. The online application form can be filled anytime as it is open 24*7.
C. Post application procedure
Once the application is submitted the NALSA will direct the application to the concerned authority and further the action will be taken by that particular authority.
Once the application is selected, the applicant is informed regarding the assignment of the lawyer.
According to Regulation 7(2) of the National Legal Services Authority (Free and Competent Legal Services) Regulations 2010, a decision on the application for free legal aid is to be taken immediately and not more than 7 days from the date of the receipt of the application.
Once the application is reviewed by the concerned authority, the reply regarding the application is sent either via post if submitted physically or if the application is done online then an application number is generated through which the person can keep a track on the case over the website of NALSA.
*Yashi Pandey, third year student at VIPS has curated this information.