Who are entitled to receive free legal aid? Assess the role of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in rendering free legal aid in India.

by Vajiram & Ravi

The question "Who are entitled to receive free legal aid? Assess the role of the National Legal Services Authority(NALSA) in rendering free legal aid in India" was asked in the Mains 2023 GS Paper 2. Let us look at the model answer to this question.

Answer: Article 39-A of the Constitution in Directive Principle of State Policy mandates universal access to free legal aid, aiming to establish a legal framework that upholds justice without regard to social or economic distinctions. This constitutional provision led to the enactment of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, giving rise to the formation of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).

Eligibility for Free Legal Services

  • Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
  • Victims of Trafficking or Begar
  • Women and Children.
  • Mentally Ill or Disabled Persons
  • A person who is going through tough times, like being a affected by a big disaster, violence based on ethnicity or caste, a flood, drought, earthquake, or a big industrial accident.
  • Industrial Workmen
  • Individuals in custody, including those in protective homes as defined in the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, juvenile homes as defined in the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986, or psychiatric hospitals or nursing homes as defined in the Mental Health Act, 1987, can avail free legal services.
  • Income-Based Eligibility: Individuals with an annual income less than the specified amount (as mentioned in the schedule or higher amount prescribed by the State Government) are eligible for free legal services if the case is before any court other than the Supreme Court. For cases before the Supreme Court, the income threshold is less than Rs 5 Lakh.

Role Of The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) In Rendering Free Legal Aid In India

  • Expanding Reach and Accessibility
    • NALSA has been instrumental in establishing legal aid clinics, Lok Adalats (People's Courts), and legal awareness camps to bring legal assistance closer to the grassroots level..
  • Targeting Vulnerable Groups
    • Assistance to women in cases of domestic violence during lockdown (National Legal Aid Helpline-15100), legal services for transgender rights (NALSA Judgement).
    • For legal awareness among prisoners, Haq Hamara bhi to hai campaign was recently launched by NALSA.
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanism
    • NALSA's efforts in organizing Mega Lok Adalats have resulted in the amicable settlement of a significant number of cases, reducing the burden on regular courts.
  • Awareness Campaigns and Education
    • For example: The "Legal Literacy Clubs" in schools and colleges is to instill legal awareness among students. The "Women Empowerment through Legal Literacy" program aims to educate women about their legal rights. Nyayadeep (the official newsletter of NALSA )for sharting views and ideas).

Despite its commendable efforts, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) faces a range of formidable challenges in its mission to provide free legal aid to all segments of society.

Challenges Faced by Nalsa in Ensuring Free Legal Aid for All

  • Resource Constraints and Budgetary Limitations: Budget constraints hinder NALSA's efforts in underserved areas.
    • For instance, as per India Justice Report 2019, expenditure on legal aid has been only Rs 0.75 per capita spent in 2018 and Rs 1.05 in 2019-20 – the lowest figures globally
  • Inaccessibility Of Legal Aid: According to India Justice Report 2019, more than 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people are eligible for legal aid. But only 15 million have benefitted from it since NALSA was established in 1995.
  • Shortage of Qualified Legal Professionals: According to India Justice Report 2019, out of 629 posts for full-time secretaries approved for India’s 669 District Legal Services Authorities (DLSA), only 573 are currently occupied. This poses a significant challenge in meeting the diverse legal needs of the populace.
  • Complexity of Legal Procedures and Lack of Legal Awareness: This keep rural and marginalized communities uninformed about their rights of free legal aid services.
    • In the case of Hossainara Khatun, Justice P.N. Bhagwati emphasized that a majority of rural residents lack awareness of their legal rights, leading to their exploitation and deprivation of entitled benefits.
  • Social Stigma and Discrimination: Victims of domestic violence or LGBTQ+ individuals may face social ostracization, creating reluctance in approaching legal authorities for assistance.
  • Underutilization of Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) Mechanisms: It hinders NALSA's efforts to resolve cases swiftly and cost-effectively. “Legal services cover only 1% of all pending court cases." - Justice U.U. Lalit, NALSA Chairperson

To address the challenges faced by NALSA, promoting Alternative Dispute Resolution methods like mediation and conciliation can expedite the resolution process while reducing costs. Additionally, establishing, strengthening and digitising State and District Legal Services Authorities at various levels can enhance accessibility to justice. However, to optimise NALSA's efforts, a collaborative effort between government institutions and civil society is crucial, ensuring a more inclusive and effective delivery of legal aid services to those in need.

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