Reviewing The Views
A proactive legal aid system
Perhaps, we can recall the story of Babul, who had to unnecessarily spend 25 years of his life in jail as an undertrial prisoner. He was released by the 5th Special Judge Court of Dhaka in February 2017. Had Babul been provided with a real-time and efficient legal aid service, his story could have been different. Unfortunately, we have failed to ensure the required support that forced him to lead the most creative part of his life in jail.
The top-level policymakers have already started discussions for establishing a proactive legal aid service. On the National Legal Aid Day in 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the authorities, especially the Law Ministry, to help with necessary legal aid to release the prisoners, whose cases were pending for a long time. On the occasion of National Legal Aid Day 2017, she reemphasized on further expansion of the government legal aid at the grassroots level to give it an institutional shape(28 April, 2017Abnews).
In addition to high-level political commitment, Bangladesh also has a policy and legal framework for government legal aid. The right of a person to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of choice is also a constitutional obligation. In line with the Constitutional spirit, the Government of Bangladesh first introduced public legal aid services in 1994.
A resolution was taken to establish a National Legal Aid Committee. This committee was delegated to provide legal aid at the national and district levels. Later it has become an essential part of the legal structure through the enactment of the Legal Aid Services Act (LASA) 2000 and establishment of the National Legal Aid Services Organization (NLASO). This law came into effect on 28 April 2000. As a result, 28 April is now being celebrated as National Legal Aid Day every year. The 7th five-year plan, which is developed in accordance with 'the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs)', has given special focus on the institutionalization of legal aid services with specific targets.
Over the period, many important reform initiatives were taken to have a strong and effective legal aid system. Among them, inclusion of pre and post case mediation (ADR) services at the District Legal Aid Offices (DLAO), establishment of government legal aid national helpline (toll free-16430), establishment of Legal aid office at the Supreme Court premise and district judge court premises in 64 districts, legal aid cell for Labour Courts in Dhaka and Chittagong can be considered as most important steps.
It is also observed that demand for different services under government legal aid system is constantly increasing. An official report shows that before 2009 NLASO was not able to utilize even 10% of its allocated budget. Use of the allocated budget increased to 72% in 2009, 86% in 2010 and 98% in 2011. Since 2012, NLASO has demonstrated its outstanding capacity to utilize 100% of its allocated budget.
NLASO annual report shows that, as of December 2017, a total of 192540 people (51% female) received support including lawyers to run their cases, 6492 cases were resolved and BDT 66.9 million was realized through mediation and 27986 (60% female) received legal advice. The same report also shows that its National Helpline provided legal information to 22121 people (31% female) since it was established in April 2016.
In addition, the Supreme Court Legal Aid Office provided support to 2149 and helped people in filling 810 cases since 2015. In the Labour Courts in Dhaka and Chittagong, 9137 people received legal aid and BDT 11.2 million were realized in favour of the workers.
A vertical growth line has also been observed in year wise number of beneficiaries and services. For example, a number of cases tried through mediation increased by 143% from 2014 to 2015 and 270% from 2015 to 2016. The success rate in money realization through ADR also increased. In 2015, this growth rate was 48%, which increased to 200.3% in 2016. The growth rate of beneficiaries of DLAO-led ADR services from 2014 to 2016 was observed as 266%. An upward growth rate was also observed in pre-case mediation (400% by one year) and the cases diverted from the court for post-case mediation (33% from 2015 to 2016).
Despite an impressive vertical trend line in service delivery as mentioned above, we cannot consider government legal aid as proactive and real-time service. By nature, it is still reactive, coupled with a lot of complicated legal and administrative procedures. Due to existing provisions in CrPC, the scope for pre and post case mediation of criminal cases is very limited. Even, it is still considered as a charity but not an entitlement. To comply with the constitutional commitment and international standard, an efficient and effective legal aid system should be proactive and of course on time.
The report titled 'A Mapping of Legal Aid Services in Bangladesh' recommended for institutional, organizational and structural reforms, and procedural reforms. The report suggested that the reform process look at the existing approval process for legal aid and seriously consider deployment of full-time Legal Aid Officers in 64 districts, capacity building activities for both panel lawyer and Legal Aid Officers, introduction of a standard code of conduct for panel lawyers, promotional campaign, community mobilization, partnership and networking.
NLASO in its strategic plan for 2017-2022 envisions becoming a leader 'in the delivery of legal aid services that are provided professionally with care and excellence. It has identified seven guiding principles, which include access to justice, accessibility, quality, effectiveness, equity, accountability and collaboration.
Without making proactive legal aid services available in all possible places, especially courts, prisons and police station, the aforementioned dream cannot be materialized. We may only encounter many stories of others like Babul. As a nation, we can't and should not afford it.
Munir Uddin Shamim is working on a bilateral technical project on justice reform as National Project