It is no use maintaining a judicial machinery if it is beyond the means of an average citizen to take recourse to it when he suffers a wrong. Legal aid enables the needy and poor litigants to obtain justice. The Law Commission in its 14th Report observed that unless some provision is made for assisting the poor man for the payment of court fees and lawyer’s fees and other costs of litigation he is denied equality of opportunity to seek justice, and, thus denied the equality of law and equal protection of law guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Krishna Iyer Legal Aid Committee (1972) submitted in its report that a properly organised and implemented scheme of legal aid would have many advantages:
(i) It would spread among the people a consciousness of their rights and duties.
(ii) It would act as a shield against exploitation and as a means of and spreading justice by making available justice within the frame work of law.
(iii) It would discourage resort to extra-legal methods of obtaining redress and thus tend to enhance regard for the rule of law.
(iv) It will strengthen respect for law which is a great asset in a democratic society.
In 1976, via 42nd Amendment to the Constitution the government added a new directive principle – Article 39A. This directive requires the State to provide free legal aid to deserving people so that justice is not denied to any one merely because of economic disability.
The Bhagwati Committee in 1976 made some important recommendations: mobilisation of voluntary wings of Bar for free legal services; reduction in court fees and exemption from payment of court fees in certain cases; providing legal aid particularly to working classes, women, SC and STs, and other weaker sections; and, creating legal services clinics in universities and law schools.
In Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360), the Supreme Court recognised the right to free legal services as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution.
In Centre of Legal Research v State of Kerala (AIR 1986 SC 2195), the Supreme Court has emphasised upon the State Governments the great need to encourage and support voluntary organisations and social action groups in operating the legal aid programme. It is absolutely essential that people should be involved in legal aid programme because such programme is not charity but it is a social entitlement of the people and those in need of legal assistance cannot be looked upon as mere beneficiaries of the programme but they should be regarded as participants in it. A strategic legal aid programme consist of promotion of legal literacy, organisation of legal aid camps, encouragement of public interest litigation and holding of lok adalats or ‘niti melas’.
The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, contains provisions regarding the legal aid. The Act lays down criteria for entitlement for legal services: the workers, SC and STs, women, children, handicapped, victims of begar and trafficking in human beings, etc. are automatically entitled to legal services. Others are entitled if their annual income is less than Rs. 12,000 for cases in the Supreme Court, and less than Rs. 9,000 for cases in other courts.
As discussed above, the program of legal aid would have to be activist and multi-dimensional. The various dimensions of legal aid are being implemented by the Committee for implementation of Legal Aid Schemes (CILAS). This is a powerful body with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as its patron and a senior judge of the Supreme Court as its Executive Chairman co-ordinates its activities with State Boards for legal aid and advice. These Boards constitute the district and taluka legal aid committees, which in effect spreads the net of legal aid right up to the villages.
Today there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations who are taking active part in litigating for the rights of exploited and disadvantaged sections of society. A few such organizations in Delhi are Common Cause, Sakshi, Saheli, PILSAC, etc.