Law and legal system promise a fair justice—delivery system to the people. A formal judicial system provides a forum for litigants to seek justice as per law. For effective and efficient justice, the judicial system must be affordable and approachable to the litigants. Any constraint to getting justice through a formal system would not only assail the legal system but also breach the constitutional guarantee to access justice to the individual. Pertinently, the legal aid movement has evolved along with a formal justice delivery system so that the litigants shall not be deprived of the forum in pursuit of justice on account of the availability of means to approach the judiciary.1
Constitutional mandate2 to provide legal aid either through legislative design or a policy prescription led to the enactment of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987. The Act comprehensively provides for an institutional framework and the subjects to be dealt with thereof. The hierarchical structure encompassed under the Act connects the activities undertaken by the legal services authorities and facilitates the monitoring of the performance of such authorities. Though the legal services authorities have made a substantial contribution to accessing the justice—delivery system, the activities of the authorities have failed to deliver satisfactory results due to varied reasons such as inadequate manpower, infrastructural limitations, and (un)branding of the legal aid activities. The (un)branding connotes the idea of linking legal aid activities more with the socioeconomic conditions of the litigants than with the cause of delivering justice to the people. This understanding has stultified the growth of legal aid and discouraged legal professionals to get associated with a noble cause of justice.
With a brief description of the legal aid movement in India, the paper narrates the institutional structure to guarantee legal aid to litigants. Later, it emphasises the significance of branding to upscale legal aid activities and the probable benefits of such branding in making legal aid clinics more effective.
Institutionalisation of legal aid movement
The history of legal aid is as old as the institutionalisation of the legal system. The legal system demands procedural adherence to a norm to obtain a substantive outcome for litigants. The idea of legal aid relates to the facilitation of the litigants for effective participation in the judicial process or to invoke the legal process for redressal.3 Legal aid is a corollary to the constitutional right to access courts. Legal aid ensures equal justice is made available to poor, downtrodden, and marginalised sections of society. Thus, the entitlement to seek legal aid is primarily based on the means test. In India, the means test is also coupled with the social status of the seekers of legal assistance due to societal stigmatisation in matters like family disputes. Initially, the philanthropist approach was adopted by the members of the Bar to provide legal assistance to poor people.4 Gradually, the State instituted a mechanism to obtain legal aid to ensure a fair and non-partisan redressal system.5
Initially, in India, the Government formulated schemes to provide legal aid to poor people. Later a committee was constituted to oversee the functioning of legal aid under the Chairmanship of Justice T. Mathivanan which suggested a model scheme for the programmes.6 To overcome the deficiency in the scheme, a legislative design was put in place to ensure equal access to justice for all.7 The Act aims to guarantee professional advice to poverty-stricken people who are socially and economically backward. Legal service relates to the conduction of legal proceedings and rendering legal advice.8 The Act is an instrument to fulfil the welfare duty of the State to provide equal opportunity to reasonable, fair, and just procedure regardless of socioeconomic disabilities of the individual as enshrined in the Directive Principles of the State Policy.
A comprehensive institutional framework has been envisaged under the Act to provide legal aid and assistance. The National Legal Services Authority, at the apex level, lays down policies and makes effective schemes for legal services. The State Legal Services Authority gives effect to the policies and directions of the apex authority. At the bottom level, the District Legal Services Authority and Taluk Legal Services Committees implement the programmes of legal aid and schemes.9
The intended beneficiaries of the legal aid programmes are people who are placed in the lower strata of the social structure, marginalised and weaker sections of society, and poverty-stricken.10 The schematic view under the law is that the financial condition of the litigants/person determines the ability to take recourse to the legal system for any relief. Pertinently, the financial condition of the assistance seeker has purportedly influenced the outlook of the legal aid schemes.
The Legal Aid Clinic has been established under the National Legal Services Authority (Legal Aid Clinics) Scheme, 2010 with an aim to provide legal services to poor and marginalised people as categorised under the Act. Under the Scheme, it is suggested that the clinic shall get support from the local Bar and the lawyers may be deputed on a rotation basis by the legal services authority concerned. Additionally, the clinic is also intended to be established at the law schools/universities to render legal advice to people.
Legal Aid Clinic—The need of branding
Though the legal aid clinics have been steadily playing a role in providing assistance to people, it may phenomenally improve the performance with suitably designed branding of the services. Legal aid clinics require the support of good lawyers and need not be manned by any lawyer deputed by the authority. A well-planned branding of the clinics will bring in desirable support from the leading members of the Bar and keep away the focus from beneficiaries to the nature of service rendered by the lawyers. Needless to emphasise, the nature of service is noble and driven by the selfless interest of the lawyer contra to commercial factors relating to ordinary client—counsel relationship.
The service industry gets immensely benefited from appropriate branding strategy. For legal aid clinic, the focus on the nature of service would attract good lawyers and would not unnecessarily get tagged with “commercially a non-successful lawyer”. Good branding leads to a change in perception of the product. Perception drives the growth of the business. For legal aid, the perception connected with poor people needs to be clubbed with the commitment to the cause of justice for which the lawyer spares valuable time from their professional engagement. Branding also enhances the trust of the client. Though the element of trust of the litigants seeking legal services under the Act is a subject-matter of empirical study, it is a known fact that there is a constant increase in litigation at every layer of the judicial system. It certainly symbolises the unsatisfactory performance of the clinic and the deficit of trust of the client in the legal assistance provided by the lawyers engaged in the clinic. Good branding also facilitates referral which will contribute to the growth of the legal aid movement in India. If people from marginalised sections will economically get justice, then they will advertise the efficiency of the legal aid programmes and vouch for the system. The success of the legal aid clinics will also justify more allocation of the resources from the State and lessen the burden on the courts/tribunals.
A well-planned strategy for branding will also encourage fresh graduates from the National Law Schools/Colleges to join the noble cause of supporting the marginalised people in their quest for justice. Young advocates joining the mission of assistance to poor people will give a new trajectory to the justice—delivery system in the country. It would also categories the lawyers based on the specialised services they would offer to the intended beneficiaries. The changed perception will encourage the lawyers to survey the local markets to determine the potential legal needs of the area.
A strategy to build a brand of legal aid clinic can be designed by focusing on the nature of the service instead of the beneficiaries. The lawyers associated with a legal aid clinic are to be seen as a partner to establish rule of law by promising services to realise the rule of law. Lawyering is to be viewed as a public good and above self-interest. The association with the legal aid clinics needs to be connected with the ability to discern and pursue the common good. Good branding will minimise the difference between reality and rhetoric with a strong ethical connection between law, justice, and society. The free element in the legal aid programme is strength and not a weak link between the lawyer, the beneficiaries and the legal system. A strategic branding of the legal aid clinic based on ethics, values, and commitment to justice will go a long way in upscaling the activities of the clinic and will ensure intense involvement of lawyers who otherwise are not available due to commercial engagement. Branding in legal aid should be built upon competencies, experiences, and the need of the people. Let us remember the branding mistake committed by Tata Motors in promoting Nano car as a poor man’s car and the consequences related thereto.
* Registrar and Professor, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. Author can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
*The article has been published with kind permission of Eastern Book Company cited as (2022) PL December 71.
3. For the history of legal aid, see William R. Vance, “The Historical Background of the Legal Aid Movement”,The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 124, 1926, pp. 6-15, available at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1016236> accessed on 5-10-2022.
4. Sir Henry Brooke, Bach Commission on Access to Justice—Appendix 6, “The History of Legal Aid 1945-2010”, available at <https://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Bach-Commission-Appendix-6-F-1.pdf>.
5. The Committee reported in 1945, and the post-war Labour Government accepted its recommendations, saying in a White Paper in 1948 that legislation would be introduced “to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources so that no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right, and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services”, the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949 (UK Law).