Justice P.N. Bhagwati in his report of Legal Aid Committee has defined Legal Aid as, “Legal aid implies providing an arrangement in the society whereby the administration of Justice is easily accessible and is not out of reach of those who have to resort to it for the enforcement of the rights given to them.”
The Indian Constitution highlights the concepts of Rule of Law and Constitutionalism. This is an important and inevitable part of Basic Structure of the Constitution. The right to legal aid and equal representation are included in this. No one should be denied right to legal representation on economic grounds. It is an intrinsic feature of the Constitution.
The preamble of the Constitution secures to its citizen, social, economic and political justice. Article 14 of the Constitution makes it clear that the State shall not deny to any person equality before law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. The aim of Article 14 is to ensure equal justice. The guarantee of equal justice is meaningless if the poor or illiterate or weak persons cannot enforce their rights because of their poverty or illiteracy or weakness.
Articles 38 and 39, of the Constitution of India lay down clear mandate in this regard. According to Article 38 (1) the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic or political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.
Article 39-A directs the State to ensure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of 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 by reason of economic or other disabilities.
Right to free legal aid or free legal service is an essential fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. It forms the basis of reasonable, fair and just liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which says, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.
The Code of criminal Procedure and the Code of Civil Procedure also contain provisions in relation to the free legal aid. Section 304 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides that where in a trial before the Court of Session, the accused is not represented by a pleader and where it appears to the Court that the accused has not sufficient means to engage a pleader; the Court shall assign a pleader for his defence at the expense of the State. Section 304 makes it clear that the State is under an obligation to provide legal assistance to a person charged with offence triable before the Court of Session. It enables the State Government to direct that these provisions shall apply in relation to any class of trials before other courts in the State.
Order 33 of the Civil Procedure Code provides in respect of the suit by indigent person. On the application to sue as indigent person is being granted the plaintiff shall not be liable to pay court fee and in case he is not represented by a pleader, the Court may, if the circumstances of the case so requires, assign a pleader to him. This benefit has now been extended to the defendant also.
A separate legislation, The Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 has been enacted to constitute the Legal Service 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 organise Lok Adalats to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice. The Legal Services Authorities Act establishes statutory legal services authorities at the National, State and District level. It makes provisions in relation to Lok Adalat. The main object of the Lok Adalat is to provide quick justice at less expense.
In a modern democracy which focuses on rule of law, Justice should reach the doors of those who don’t have enough means to secure Justice. The poor, vulnerable and marginalized section of society should be able to knock the doors of the Court and should be granted the right to legal aid.
In State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi, The Supreme Court has made it quite clear that it is now well established that the failure to provide free legal aid to an accused at the cost of the State unless refused by the accused, would vitiate the trial.
In M.H Hoskot v. State Of Maharashtra, Justice KrishnaIyer observed that providing free legal aid is the State’s duty and not Government’s charity.
In Hussainara Khatoon v Home Secretary, State of Bihar, Supreme Court held that : We may also refer to Article 39A the fundamental constitutional directive which reads as follows:
“39A. Equal justice and free legal aid:-The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of 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 by reason of economic or other disabilities.
But all these efforts are still not enough to make the justice reach the doors of those who cannot access justice due to the lack of economic means. The delay in the grant of adequate services often acts as a prominent factor in delay in reaching justice to the doors of the poor. The need of the hour is to build a strong and efficient system to grant access to justice and legal aid services to the vulnerable sections of the society.
 Preamble, Constitution of India, 1949
 Article 14, Constitution of India, 1949
 Article 38,39, Constitution of India, 1949
 Article 39-A, Constitution of India, 1949
 Article 21, Constitution of India, 1949
 Section 304, Criminal Procedue Code, 1973
 Order 33, Civil Procedure Code, 1908
 State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi, 1996 AIR, 1 1995 SCC (5) 730
 M.H Hoskot v. State Of Maharashtra, 1978 AIR 1548, 1979 SCR (1) 192