Accused entitled to free legal aid in all courts: SC



New Delhi: An accused is entitled to free legal aid not only during his trial in a lower court but also during adjudication of his appeals by higher courts, the Supreme Court has said.

A bench of justices A K Patnaik and Madan B Lokur gave the ruling while setting aside a Madhya Pradesh High Court verdict which had upheld the conviction and ten-year jail term given to a man in rape case without any lawyer appearing for him during adjudication of his appeal.

The bench, however, asked the high court to decide the man's appeal afresh.

"It is important to note in this context that Sections 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.

"In fact, the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee provides legal assistance to eligible persons in this (apex) court (as well). This makes it abundantly clear that legal services shall be provided to an eligible person at all stages of the proceedings, trial as well as appellate," the bench said.

Justifying its decision to set aside the high court's order, the bench said the obligation is cast on the court to enquire of the accused or convict whether he or she requires legal representation at state expense.

The bench passed the order on an appeal by a gang-rape convict Rajoo, who had contended that the high court had passed the order against him without hearing him as he was neither defended by any lawyer nor was given any legal aide by the court.

"We are also of the view that the high court was under an obligation to enquire from Rajoo whether he required legal assistance and if he did, it should have been provided to him at state expense. However, since the record of the case does not indicate any such endeavour having been made by the court, this case ought to be re-heard by the court after providing Rajoo an opportunity of obtaining legal representation," the bench said.

We dispose of this appeal by setting aside the judgment and order dated September 5, 2006 passed by the high court in criminal appeal and remit the case records back for a fresh hearing," the bench said.

PTI