Nalsa, Free Legal Aid and Public Interest Litigation

Article 39A of the Constitution provides for free legal aid to the poor and weaker sections of the society. The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, (as amended by the Act of 1994) which came into force on November 9,1995, seeks to establish a nation-wide network for providing free and comprehensive legal services to the weaker sections of the society. A National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) with the chief justice of India as its patron-in-chief and one other judge of the Supreme Court as its executive chairman, has been set up so to implement and monitor legal aid programmes in the country. Likewise, at the state level, the chief justice of the High court is the patron-inchief of the State Legal Services Authority.

The Legal Services Authorities Act also provides for the composition of the state legal services committees, the High court legal services committees, the district legal services committees and the taluk legal services committees. Under the Legal Services Authorities Act, every citizen whose annual income does not exceed `9,000 is eligible for free legal aid in cases before subordinate courts and High Courts. In cases before the Supreme Court, the limit is `12,000. This limit can be increased by state governments. Limitation as to the income does not apply in the case of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, women, children and, 110?Indian Polity and Governance the handicapped.

The legal aid programmes adopted by NALSA include

(i) promoting legal literacy,

(ii) setting up of legal aid clinics in universities and law colleges,

(iii) training of para-legal personnel and holding legal aid camps and the Lok Adalats.

The government had sanctioned `4 crore as grants-inaid for NALSA in 1998-99 to implement its programmes at various levels. The NALSA also monitors and evaluates the implementation of the legal aid programmes in the country. Till March, 2009, about 97 lakh persons benefitted through court-oriented legal aid programmes. Of them 13.83 lakh persons belonged to the Scheduled Castes, more than 2 lakhs to the Scheduled Tribes, 10.22 lakhs were women and 9000 children. During the period 1st April, 2011 to 30th September, 2011 more than 6.95 lakh persons benefited through legal aid services in the country. Out of them, more than 25.1 thousand persons belonged to the Scheduled Castes, about 11.5 thousand Scheduled Tribes, about 24.6 thousand were women and 1.6 thousand were children. During this period, 53,508 Lok Adalats were organized.

These Lok Adalats settled more than 13.75 lakh cases. In about 39.9 thousand Motor Vehicle Accident Claim cases, compensation to the tune of ` 420.12 crore has been awarded. Justice P.N. Bhagwati in S.P. Gupta v Union of India, 1981, had explained the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) as: Where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reasons of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, any member of public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in case any breach of fundamental rights of such persons or determinate class of persons, in High court under Article 32 seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or legal injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons.

The Public Interest Litigation will have a locus standi and can approach the court to challenge the violation of fundamental rights, but not for personal gains or private profit or political motive (Ashok Kumar Pandey v State of West Bengal, 2004). In Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee v C.K. Rajan (2003), the apex court held, …the poorest of the poor, the depraved, the illiterate, the urban and rural unorganised labour, women, children, handicapped by ignorance, indigence and illiteracy and other downtrodden have either no access to justice or had been denied justice. A new branch of proceedings known as Social Interest Litigation or ‘Public Interest Litigation’ therefore, was evolved with a view to rendering complete justice to the aforementioned classes of persons. It expanded its wings in course of time.

Public Interest Litigation (PIC) has its own importance, which may be stated as under:

  1. Its nature is remedial,
  2. A third party, not concerned with the case, can file a petition on the ground that the injured party is unable to approach the court.
  3. PIL turns the court from being a protector of rights and liberties to become the guardian of the rule of law.
  4. PIL cells help the poor and the needy. PIL is working as an important instrument of social change. It is working in the interest of every section of the society. It is a sword that can be used by everyone for securing justice.

PIL has been used as a strategy to combat atrocities in the society. In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India, the Supreme Court ordered the release of bonded labourers. In Murli S. Dogra v Union of India, the court banned smoking in public places. In a judgment in the case Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v Union of India, (1995), the Supreme Court issued guidelines for the rehabilitation and compensation for raped working women. In Vishaka v State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court laid down exhaustive guidelines for preventing sexual harassment of working-women in their places of work.

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