Poor accused must get free legal aid at all levels: SC The Supreme Court has ruled that free assistance must be provided to all poor accused, irrespective of the severity of the crime attributed to them, at every stage of the three-tier justice delivery system and could not be restricted to the trial stage only.
"We are of the opinion that neither the Constitution not the Legal Services Authority Act makes any distinction between a trial and an appeal for the purpose of providing free legal aid to an accused or person in custody," a bench of Justices A K Patnaik and Madan Lokur said.
The bench ordered fresh hearing of appeal of one Rajoo, whose conviction in a gang rape case was upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court even though there was no legal assistance provided to the accused in the appeal stage.
He had got free legal aid during the trial proceedings. Justice Lokur, writing the judgment for the bench, said when the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee provided assistance to eligible persons in the apex court, how could there be a bar on providing free legal aid to accused in the high courts.
"It is important to note that Section 12 and 13 of the Legal Services Authorities Act do not make any distinction between the trial stage and the appellate stage for providing legal services. In other words, an eligible person is entitled to legal services at any stage of the proceedings which he or she is prosecuting or defending," the bench said.
It disagreed with earlier judgments which hinted at carving out exceptions for providing free legal assistance to accused facing trial in economic offences or offences against law prohibiting prostitution or child abuse.
"We have some reservation whether such exceptions can be carved out particularly keeping in mind the constitutional mandate and the universally accepted principle that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty," the bench said.
"If such exceptions are accepted, there may be a tendency to add some more, such as in cases of terrorism, thereby diluting the constitutional mandate and fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution," it said.
The bench said it was obligatory for every court, from trial court to the Supreme Court, to inquire whether the accused or convict required legal representation at the government's expense so as not to deprive the person a "fair trial or hearing".