Legal aid and access to justice
Many people of Bangladesh deprived of access to justice due to their poverty. Due to lack of security & protection for women victim & witness women feels threat to file cases, in some cases after filing cases women do not continue the cases due to threat of opposition, sometimes do the compromise with the perpetrator. To provide legal aid to the affected women, poor people and other vulnerable groups government legal aid fund was introduced in 2000. It was an initiative to provide assistance to indigent litigants in the legal matters both inside and outside the courts and providing access to legal aid throughout the country.
To ensure access to justice of the poor people government enacted Legal Aid Services Act 2000, (LASA). Enacting Legal Aid Services Act 2000, LASA is a praiseworthy initiative of government. Funds under this Act is allocated in 61 districts under the custody of District and Session Judge for helping the poor and distressed people, physically challenged, widow, victim of trafficking and acid throwing, deserted women, helpless disable, who have no financial ability to get justice. One of the major observations of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) study on Legal Aid Fund is that fund utilization rate is 90% in eight districts and the same is very low in 16 districts. Underlying cause of high performing district is legal aid committee is pro active, minimum days between applications received and approval decision of DLAC, awareness of mass people, beyond monthly meeting interim meeting is held, reporting and record keeping is updated, NGOs are providing logistics support to the victim and helping victim to access district legal aid .
Limitations of Legal Aid Services Act 2000 Act and Rules:
--Fees allocated for lawyers are not at all competitive and fee reimbursement process is lengthy.
--Definition of indigent litigant is not time befitting. According to 2001 Rules of the Act, whose yearly income is 3000 may apply for the legal aid fund. It was an obsolete provision in compare to the minimum yearly income /expenditure to lead livelihood of a person.
--Awareness building initiatives both at the national as well as district and grass-root levels are absent.
--District level offices are not available where people will seek this service.
--District committee monthly meeting is not being held regularly in some of the districts.
--Logistics supports for victim are not specifically mentioned in the rules and district judges do not apply their discretionary power to allocate fund as victim's logistics..
--Upazilla and Union committee of govt. legal aid are not functional. This committee could be a good reference point to refer victim to the district committee.
--DNA test or some other similar medical tests of the victim are used as essential evidence in criminal cases, rape cases and family suits etc. There is no provision in LASA or its regulation to bear such expenditure from the legal aid fund.
Government legal aid program in the country for the last two years got more effective turn and seem to be functional. Considering pilot program success Government has decided in principle to amend the RTI Rules 2001 and Regulation 2001 which includes:
Increasing lawyer fee
It was one of the common criticisms from lawyer's community that the lawyer fee is very poor in legal aid cases. Considering the situation lawyers fee has been increased. For preparing petition of civil and family matters lawyers fee has been proposed as tk.1500, at present it is 1200. For preparing written statement of civil and family matters lawyers fee has been proposed as tk. 1500, at present it is 1200. Again, for preparing petition of criminal matters fee of assistant public prosecutor has been agreed to taka 800. For preparing admission and revision of application fee has been decided to be fixed as taka 400.
Increasing eligibility range of 'insolvent person'
Considering living standard of common people a gazette was published in 2009 where yearly income eligibility range has been increased to 30000 from 3000. Recently Government has decided in principle that people whose yearly income does not exceed Tk.50000 are entitled to get help from this fund. Shortly gazette will be published.
Increasing eligibility range of Freedom fighters
Freedom fighter whose yearly income is within tk.75000 is entitled to get help from this fund.
Introducing district legal aid offices
Govt. has agreed in principle to set up District legal Aid Offices in 64 districts. Judicial officer whose rank is similar to assistant Judge will be designated as District legal Aid Officer. Office assistant and MLSS will be recruited also and some equipment like computer and photocopier will be provided for the District legal aid office.
Formation of upazila and union committee
Recently NLASO published gazette notification to form Upazila and Union legal aid committee.
We hope that due to these progressive initiatives poor people will be benefited getting Access to Justice. Lawyer will be encouraged to facilitate litigation under Legal Aid Fund. Application form will be available in the permanent District Legal Aid Offices. Barriers on the way of access to justice for common people will be removed soon and poor litigants will be encouraged to get the highest benefit of legal aid. District legal Aid Office will be the center place for the poor litigants in availing government legal Aid fund.
[Information and data source: NLASO, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary affairs]
The Writer is Program Manager, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF).