Judicial Reforms

Analysis of Free Legal Aid Services in India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : NALSA

Mains level : Status of free legal aid in India


  • In 1987, the Legal Services Authorities (LSA) Act was enacted to give free and competent legal services to the poor.
  • The Act paved the way for the constitution of National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) and other legal service institutions at the State, district and taluka level.
  • Free legal services under LSA Act are available to a person belonging to Schedule Tribe and Schedule Caste, woman, child, victim of human trafficking, differently abled person, industrial workman, and person in custody in a protective home and the poor.
  • According to the statistics provided by NALSA, about 8.22 lakh people across India benefited through legal aid services from April 2017 to June 2018.

The unpopular free legal aid: Report

  • A majority of the people who are entitled to the free legal aid system see the service as an option only when they cannot afford a private lawyer.
  • First-of-its-kind pan-India research by National Law University, Delhi (NLUD) has found that people don’t have faith over the services of legal aid counsel (LAC) under the free legal aid services due to a variety of factors.
  • The services offered by LAC are absolutely free. But a majority of potential beneficiaries are disinclined towards the option of availing these services.
  • This is observed in the research report titled ‘Quality of Legal Representation: An Empirical Analysis of Free Legal Aid Services in India’.

Status of Legal system in India

  • Last year, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) had come out with a report stating that India’s per capita lawyer ratio is better than most countries in the world.
  • There are about 1.8 million lawyers in India which mean there is one lawyer for every 736 people.
  • The same report also stated there are 61,593 panel lawyers in the country, which translates to just one legal aid lawyer per 18,609 population or five legal aid lawyers per 1,00,000 population.
  • Also, 22.6% of the beneficiaries responded that they won’t opt for free legal aid services for the second time.

What most aggrieved sections think

  • The study also found that 60% of women, who were aware of the free legal aid services, chose to opt for private legal practitioner because they could have better control over their lawyer.
  • These women have no faith and confidence over the quality of services offered under the legal aid system, the study said.

Why private lawyers?

  • The beneficiaries opt for free legal aid service due to the dearth of resources to engage a private lawyer.
  • About 75% of beneficiaries opted for free legal aid because they had no means and resources to hire a paid private practitioner.
  • They would never have approached for the legal aid services if they had resources to engage private legal practitioners,” the study found.

Fault lines in LAC

  • The survey found that 56% of LAC spends an average of 1 to 10 hours per week on legal aid cases. On the contrary, around 58% LAC spend on an average of 20 hours and above per week on private cases.
  • Although the services offer by LAC are absolutely free, the ground reality is that around 16.30% of beneficiaries claimed their LAC often demand money before or after every court hearing.
  • Also, around 33% of the judicial officers said complaints were received against LACs for demanding money from beneficiaries.
  • LAC can withdraw from an aided case by submitting a reason to member-secretary. In this scenario, a beneficiary has to go through the painstaking task of retelling their case history to newly allotted LAC.

Problems with beneficiary

  • The trust deficit among the beneficiaries towards the panel lawyers was hard to eradicate.
  • The problem with most of the beneficiaries is that they are illiterate and don’t have the procedural knowledge of the functioning of courts.
  • Hence they end up getting irked after three or four dates. Thereafter, they don’t want to come to court.

NALSA’s views

  • The quality of legal aid is one of the prime focus areas of NALSA in 2019.
  • NALSA was improving the selection process of panel lawyers to ensure selection and empanelment of committed lawyers.
  • After periodic assessments, lawyers can be delisted from the panel.
  • The Structure and Framework of Monitoring Committees have been changed, and now these committees also do the work of mentoring of panel lawyers in legal aided cases.
  • Front offices at the district level are being upgraded to make them one-stop centres for legal aid seekers.
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