‘Ignorantia juris non excusat’ – Ignorance to law is not an excuse.
Legal aid is a welfare provision by the state to people who could otherwise not afford counsel from the legal system. Legal aid has a close relationship with the welfare state, and the provision of legal aid by a state is influenced by attitudes towards welfare. Legal aid also helps to ensure that welfare provisions are enforced by providing people entitled to welfare provisions, such as social housing, with access to legal advice and the courts.
The international intent to safeguard and sustain legal aid is incontestable. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under Article 14 (3)(d) guarantees to everyone, “Right to be tried in his presence, and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing; to be informed, if he does not have legal assistance, of this right; and to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it.” Article 6.3 of the European Convention on Human Rights defines legal aid as essential to guaranteeing equal access to justice for all.
In India, the Preamble of the Constitution aims to secure to the people, justice. Article 39A of the Constitution of India provides for free legal aid to the poor and weaker sections of the society and ensures justice for all. Article 14 and 22(1) of the Constitution also make it obligatory for the State to ensure equality before the law and a legal system which promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity to all.
In 1987, the Legal Services Authorities Act was enacted by the Parliament which came into force on 9th November 1995 with an object to establish a nationwide uniform network for providing free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society on the basis of equal opportunity. To further this objective, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has been constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to monitor and evaluate the implementation of legal services at national, state, district & taluka level.
Despite the legislative intent to provide valuable legal aid services, the greatest impediment towards realizing this desire has been the lack of awareness. Peoples lack of knowledge about their rights and protection under the law have made them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. The understanding that the promotion of awareness regarding legal aid is not the exclusive duty of the state requires greater acknowledgment. It is a shared responsibility of society at large.
The existing legal aid framework can be strengthened through capacity building. By imparting awareness on the existence of schemes, opportunities, and services with the help NGOs, legal aid clinics, paralegal volunteers, law students & member of local panchayat, the gap between the vulnerable masses who need such services the most and legal aid service institutions providing the services can be bridged.
Our constitutional aim “to secure justice for People of India” will be fulfilled one day when we as a community are not only aware of our individual legal rights but also take responsibility in spreading legal awareness among the ignorant and vulnerable fraternity of our society.
By Advocate Britto Michael Jothi