The Indian Constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary and the courts are given power to protect the constitution and safeguard the rights of people irrespective of their financial status. Since the aim of the constitution is to provide justice to all and the directive principles are in its integral part of the constitution, the constitution dictates that judiciary has duty to protect rights of the poor as also society as a whole. The judiciary through its significant judicial interventions has compelled as well as guided the legislature to come up with the suitable legislations to bring justice to the doorsteps of the weakest sections of the society. Apart from Public Interest Litigation and judicial activism, there are reforms in the judicial process, where it aims to make justice cheap and easy by introducing Lok Adalat system as a one of the methods to provide free legal aid and speedy justice at the door steps of the poor.
Legal Aid implies giving free legal services to the poor and needy who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of a case or a legal proceeding in any court, tribunal or before an authority. Though there was a statutory procedure providing free legal aid by appointing the advocate for defending criminal case and by exempting court fees in civil cases, it was not really making any significant impact on the ability of the underprivileged people to get the judicial redressal for their grievances. Hence under tremendous constitutional persuasion from the Supreme Court the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 was passed by the parliament of India. The Act prescribes the criteria for giving legal services to the eligible persons. It makes a person eligible for assistance under the act if he is –
(a) A member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe;
(b) A victim of trafficking in human beings or beggar as referred to in Article 23 of the
(c) A woman or a child;
(d) A mentally ill or otherwise disabled person;
(e) 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; or
(f) An industrial workman; or
(g) In custody, including custody in a protective home or in a juvenile home
(h) Of in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric nursing home within the meaning of clause (g) of Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, 1987;
(i) A person whose annual income less than rupees fifty thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Government.
This limit on income can be increased by the state governments. Limitation as to the income does not apply in the case of persons belonging to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, children, handicapped, etc. Thus by this the Indian Parliament took a step forward in making the legal aid possible in the country. Legal Services Authorities after examining the eligibility criteria of an applicant and the existence of a prima facie case in his favor provide him counsel at State expense, pay the required Court Fee in the matter and bear all incidental expenses in connection with the case. The person to whom legal aid is provided is not called upon to spend anything on the litigation once it is supported by a Legal Services Authority.
A nationwide network has been envisaged under the Act for providing legal aid and assistance. National Legal Services Authority is the apex body constituted to lay down policies and principles for making legal services available under the provisions of the Act and to frame most effective and economical schemes for legal services. In every State a State Legal Services Authority is constituted to give effect to the policies and directions of the Central Authority (NALSA) and to give legal services to the people and conduct Lok Adalats in the State. State Legal Services Authority is headed by the Chief Justice of the State High Court who is its Patron-in-Chief. A serving or retired Judge of the High Court is nominated as its Executive Chairman. District Legal Services Authority is constituted in every District to implement Legal Aid Programmes and Schemes in the District. The District Judge of the District is its ex-officio Chairman. Taluk Legal Services Committees are also constituted for each of the Taluk or Mandal or for group of Taluk or Mandals to coordinate the activities of legal services in the Taluk and to organize Lok Adalats. Every Taluk Legal Services Committee is headed by a senior Civil Judge operating within the jurisdiction of the Committee who is its ex-officio Chairman.
In order to provide free and competent legal service, the NALSA has framed the National Legal Service Authority (Free and competent Legal service) Regulations, 2010. The salient feature of Regulation is engaging senior competent lawyers on payment of regular fees in special cases like where the life and liberty of a person are in jeopardy. Supreme Court of India has also set up Supreme Court Legal Services Committee (SCLSC) to ensure free legal aid to poor and underprivileged under the Legal Services Authorities Act. The SCLSC has full time Legal Consultant who provides legal advice to poor litigants either on personal visit or through the post. Legal aid is not a charity or bounty, but is an obligation of the state and right of the citizens. The prime object of the state should be―equal justice for all‖. Thus, legal aid strives to ensure that the constitutional pledge is fulfilled in its letter and spirit and equal justice is made available to the downtrodden and weaker sections of the society. The major obstacle to the legal aid movement in India is the lack of legal awareness. People are still not aware of their basic rights due to which the legal aid movement has not achieved its goal yet. It is the absence of legal awareness which leads to exploitation and deprivation of rights and benefits of the poor.