The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), set up two decades back to provide free legal services to the poor or those who can't afford it, has taken to technology on an unprecedented scale to widen their reach and monitor the work of legal aid providers.
In the last one year, NALSA has effected a slew of changes which also saw an increased emphasis by it to monitor services delivered by legal services institutions.
NALSA, while attempting to move beyond the metropolitan cities and state capitals into the hinterland, came up with portals that can ideally shorten the time gap between connecting litigants to relevant authorities.
Portals enable poor litigants to access court documents, case status and connect to their advocates online and through dedicated phone numbers.
In November 2016, NALSA launched its bilingual e-portal 'Legal Services Management System' on which anyone can apply for legal aid, and also upload documents, track information, seek clarification or send reminders.
With the objective to further broaden the outreach of legal aid services in rural areas, in April this year, it launched 'Nyay Mitra Scheme' which operates out of district facilitation centres housed in common service centres in the rural areas or districts.
A 'Nyay Mitra', who will be a retired judicial or executive officer, will be appointed at each centre.
Their responsibilities will include assistance to litigants who are suffering due to delay in investigations or trial, by actively identifying such cases through the National Judicial Data Grid, providing legal advice and connecting litigants to relevant authorities.
In May, NALSA had initiated the establishment of 'Nyay Sampark' - Legal Aid Establishments (contact with law) - at the offices of the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) across India.
Through this, legal aid beneficiaries can get information about case status pending in any of the districts across the state, legal aid and advice and information about various schemes of Central or state governments.
At 'Nyay Sampark' various facilities are provided like a toll-free helpline number for those seeking legal aid, a video conferencing facility to connect undertrials in jails to lawyers, and a team of volunteers to help people seeking legal aid.
In an eventful year, in June, NALSA along with Department of Justice initiated the Tele Law Scheme which aims to facilitate the delivery of legal advice through an expert panel of lawyers stationed at the office of the SLSA in each state.
The project connects lawyers with clients, even when located in remote areas, through video conferencing facilities by the paralegal volunteers stationed at the Common Service Centre's run by village-level entrepreneurs.
In the same month, NALSA also launched a web portal to provide legal services to prisoners. The portal will be used by legal services authorities to document data on legal representation of prisoners.
The state and district authorities can now keep close watch on whether prisoners have defence counsels to represent them in court, and where there are none, appoint one.
The software is able to then generate reports showing total number of inmates, number of inmates unrepresented, number of inmates represented by legal services lawyers and number of inmates represented by private lawyers.
An NGO, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which has been working on the Prison Reforms Programme for more than 15 years hailed initiatives of the NALSA in using technology to widen the reach of legal aid services and monitor the work of legal aid providers.
"Majority of undertrial prisoners in India belong to poor and marginalised communities who cannot afford private lawyers, and legal aid is their only option.
"While legal aid delivery in India has improved in the last few years, it still faces serious challenges, especially with respect to quality and accountability of legal aid providers," said Raja Bagga, Programme Officer, Prison Reforms, CHRI.