The Magna Carta expressed in the charter in 1215 AD states thus: "To no man shall we deny Justice. To no man shall we delay it."
Legal Services Day is celebrated on 9th November every year by all Legal Services Authorities in India. It commemorates the passing of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, which came into force on 9th November, 1995. On this day, the Legal Services Authorities issue press releases in the newspapers to convey to the public the important provisions of the Legal Services Authorities Act, the important schemes for providing legal aid and the utility of Lok Adalats so that people get a know-how about the legislation and the facilities provided by the Legal Services Authorities. Lok Adalats and legal literacy camps are also organized to make people aware of their legal rights. The Lok Adalats aim at taking justice to the doorsteps of the poor. Justice S.P. Bharucha, Former Chief Justice of India, once aptly enunciated that teeming millions of this country who live below poverty line in tribal, backward and far flung areas look to Legal Services Authorities for help and support in resolving their legal problems. When involved in litigation they very often feel that they are fighting an unequal battle in which the party that has better financial resources can secure more able legal assistance. These poor and weaker sections must not remain under the impression that they are getting comparatively inferior legal assistance.
Free legal aid is a right of the poor and needy so that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to them. On the authority of Article 39-A of the Constitution of India, the State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice based on equal opportunity and shall in particular provide free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen because of economic or other disabilities. Articles 14 and 22 (1) also make it obligatory for the State to ensure equality before the law and a legal system which promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity to all. Therefore, the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, which now extends to the whole of India, was enacted to constitute legal services authorities to provide free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities and to organize Lok Adalats to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity. In M.P. State Legal Services Authority v. Prateek Jain, (2014) 10 SCC 690, the Supreme Court observed that the concept of Lok Adalat is an innovative Indian contribution to the world jurisprudence. It is a new form of the justice dispensation system and has largely succeeded in providing a supplementary forum to the victims for settlement of their disputes. This system is based on Gandhian principles. It is one of the components of alternative dispute resolution systems specifically provided in Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 as well. It has proved to be a very effective alternative to litigation. Lok Adalats have been created to restore access to remedies and protections and alleviate the institutional burden of the millions of petty cases clogging the regular courts. It offers the aggrieved claimant whose case would otherwise sit in the regular courts for decades, at least some compensation now. The Presiding Judge of a Lok Adalat is an experienced adjudicator with a documented record of public service and has legal acumen. Experience has shown that not only huge number of cases are settled through Lok Adalats, this system has definite advantages, some of which are, speedy justice and saving from the lengthy court procedures; justice at no cost; solving problems of backlog cases; and maintenance of cordial relations. Thus, it cannot be doubted that Lok Adalats are serving an important public purpose.
The National Legal Services Authority also known as NALSA was constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to provide free legal services to the weaker sections of the society and to organize Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes. NALSA's mission is to legally empower the marginalized and excluded groups of the society by providing effective legal representation, legal literacy and awareness and bridging the gap between the legally available benefits and the entitled beneficiaries, and also to strengthen the system of Lok Adalats and other Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms in order to provide for informal, quick, inexpensive and effective resolution of disputes and minimize the load of adjudication on the overburdened judiciary. In every State, State Legal Services Authority has been constituted to give effect to the policies and directions of the NALSA, to give free legal services to the people and conduct Lok Adalats in the State. In every District, District Legal Services Authority has been constituted to implement Legal Services Programmes in the District. Taluk Legal Services Committees have also been constituted for each of the Taluk or Mandal or for a group of Taluk or Mandals to coordinate the activities of legal services in the Taluk and to organise Lok Adalats. Every person who is a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, a victim of trafficking in human beings or beggar, a woman or a child, a person with a disability, a person under circumstances of underserved want such as being a victim of a mass disaster, ethnic, violence, caste atrocity, flood, drought, earthquake or industrial disaster, or an industrial workman, or in custody, or in a juvenile home, or in receipt of less annual income, as prescribed by the State Government, is entitled to legal services under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, for filing or defending a case. In the times of a pandemic also, it is the duty of the concerned Legal Services Authority to provide legal services to the aforementioned persons if the concerned Authority is satisfied that such person has a prima facie case to prosecute or to defend.
Lok Adalats provide a supplementary forum to the litigants for conciliatory settlement of their disputes but due to the prevailing circumstances, Lok Adalats cannot be conducted physically, hence, e-Lok Adalats have been introduced so that justice dispensation system of this country continues through virtual mode also. Justice N.V Ramana, Judge of the Supreme Court of India and also the Executive Chairman of NALSA, recently said that these testing times have resulted in innovations and we have to learn and embrace new ways for the betterment of the society. He said that the pandemic has brought about new and immediate challenges for the justice delivery system and judges in various courts across the country are working through video conferencing to make justice accessible to all. He also added that this well-organized digital solution in the form of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), a combination of technology and alternative dispute resolution, will give a new momentum to Lok Adalats in India and a crucial challenge lies ahead in making this technology available to those who live in the remotest corners of the country, and may not be able to use video conferencing. The National Legal Services Authority released a report on 15th May, 2020 with information on the work it has carried out since the imposition of lockdown. 42,529 under trial prisoners have been released and the parole has been granted to 16,391 convicts. NALSA has collaborated with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and issued directions to the State Legal Services Authorities to collaborate with One Stop Centres to address the issue of legal aid for domestic violence cases. Over 727 cases were reported and the highest cases were reported from the State of Chhattisgarh. Out of these cases, women in 658 have received legal aid. The NALSA and the National Commission for Women have rolled out a campaign for empowering women through legal awareness on the occasion of 74th Independence Day of India, to make women aware of the relevant rights and protections available to them under the various laws. Under the Project, 570 legal literacy programmes shall be carried out for women in 285 districts in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. This will surely help the women to enhance their capacities so that they can advance their rights and navigate the judicial and administrative set up for actualisation of their rights. NALSA has been doing a commendable job even in the times of a pandemic. Some of the substantial steps taken by NALSA are, the establishment of Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalats in all the Districts in the country for disposal of pending matters as well as disputes at a pre-litigative stage, disposal of cases through e-Lok Adalats, publicity to Legal Aid Schemes and programmes to make people aware about legal aid facilities, ensuring legal aid facilities in jails, setting up of Counselling and Conciliation Centers in all the Districts in the country, sensitisation of Judicial Officers regarding Legal Services Schemes and programmes, publication of Nyaya Deep, the official newsletter of NALSA, steps for framing rules for refund of court fees and execution of Awards passed by Lok Adalats, etc.
In the times of COVID-19, the Legal Services Authorities have to provide legal aid and assistance to the marginalized and weaker sections of the society. It is the duty of the Legal Services Authorities to give legal service to persons, conduct e-Lok Adalats, undertake preventive and strategic legal aid programmes. They must organize webinars for the capacity building of panel lawyers and legal awareness of the masses. They must provide effective legal representation to arrested persons during this period. Convicts have to be provided legal assistance in filing appeals. Legal assistance and advice have to be given to the victims of domestic violence and cruelty. Cases have to be settled through online mediation. The Legal Services Authorities have to reach out to people who require legal services during this pandemic as right to free legal service is implicit in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Muneeb Rashid Malik is a student of law.