Development of Legal Aid in India

Published on :July 29, 2022

The entire idea of legal aid has grown gradually in India after facing a lot of challenges. However, according to Justice Muralidhar, the concept of legal aid evolved mainly through three phases. These three phases are as follows:

i.               The Pre-Independence Phase: after noticing that the process of administration of justice in India was very slow, Lord Conwallis made reforms in the criminal justice system. This transferred the control of justice from the hands of muslim law officers to the Britishers. If we talk about legal aid, the right of an accused to get represented was formally recognised only after the Criminal Procedure Code came up in 1898. This recognition was such the representation at the cost of the State was available only to indigent persons. One was necessitated to undergo a means test in order to qualify for legal aid.

ii.              The Second Phase (Post-Independence): this phase ran from 1949 to 1970 and majorly dealt with formations of committees to move forward with a systematic approach towards legal aid. The first committee was the Bombay Committee under the chairmanship of Justice N.H Bhagwati. There were several recommendations made by this committee out of which a few notable ones were that the right to legal aid was available in trial as well as appellate stages (which has subsequently also been identified by the Supreme Court in Rajoo v. State of Madhya Pradesh). Along with the means test, there was the prima facie test for civil cases and interests of justice test for criminal cases that were to decide upon the eligibility and the various sources of funds for legal aid were enumerated. After reports submitted by the two committees, the Central Government also requested the State Governments to set up legal aid institutions. During this phase, a remarkable advancement was seen in Kerala’s approach due to its governing political party. Subsequently, the 14th Law Commission Report came forth which gave a lot of priority to legal aid as a part of the justice delivery system and fixed certain remuneration for lawyers and made it a rule for lawyers to take at least 6 legal aid cases every year.

iii.            The Third Phase (1970-77): the essential part of this phase was the Processual Justice to the People Report of 1973 submitted by the Expert Committee which had Justive V.R. Krishna Iyer as the chairman. This report made a lot of suggestions out of which a remarkable one was that legal aid at the expense of the State shall be provided from the stage of arrest to the stage of disposal of appeal and the bail system was recommended to be made liberal. This was also the phase when the new Code of Criminal Procedure came and gave a statutory recognition to free legal aid. This phase brought out a lot of evolution to the criminal justice system by examining the availability of lawyers for the available population in the country, the prison system and the criminal courts. Subsequently, under the guidance of Justice P.N. Bhagwati, a Centre for Implementation of Legal Aid Schemes (CILAS) was constituted as per the 1977 Juridicare Committee Report. Looking at the failure of the Government to successfully act upon the report, the trend of PIL bloomed graciously.