Tomorrow is National Legal Aid Day, a day to publicize the government’s nationwide free legal aid facilities. In a society like ours, where there exists immense economic disparity between various classes of people, ensuring access to justice for all can be quite challenging.
Legal aid as a right
The term “legal aid” is often mistakenly treated as a form of charity, but, in the present era, it is now considered a right of the impoverished.
Despite legal aid not being a fundamental right itself, judicially enforceable constitutional rights present a strong ground in favour of the notion of right to legal aid.
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh ensures equal protection of the law in Article 27. The concept of legal aid is embedded more precisely in Article 33 which states the right of every detained person to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of their choice.
On the other hand, the fundamental principles of state policy envisages the responsibility of the state to emancipate backward sectors from all forms of exploitation. The policy also aspires to the state’s endeavours in ensuring equality of opportunity to all citizens.
Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with which Bangladesh complies, requires an accused offender to have legal assistance assigned if the accused has no sufficient means to pay for legal counsel.
Bangladesh is hard at work trying to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Amongst the 17 SDGs, the 16th goal envisions access to justice for all, and thereby the idea of legal aid is inherently enshrined in the SDGs.
The target of the 16th goal is to, inter alia, promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all.
Challenges for legal aid organizations
The government-operated legal aid system was first introduced in 1994. Since then, the administration has made commendable improvements in this endeavour, especially in the recent years, as the number of legal aid offices has increased and new promotional strategies have been adopted.
Legal aid services in Bangladesh operate under the Legal Aid Services Act 2000.
Most universities in Bangladesh now teach law, but, sadly, almost all of these institutions are failing to produce lawyers who are truly dedicated to justice
The law aims to provide legal help to the destitutes who, by themselves, cannot afford the cost of litigation. National Legal Aid Services Organization (NLASO), which is the leading government institution that deals with legal aid activities, was also established under the same law.
But even today, much of our legal aid work relies on contribution from a multitude of NGOs and INGOs.
Now, this may abruptly become something of a problem, since Bangladesh’s recent strides towards graduating from LDC status is likely to affect regular funding from foreign donors in non-governmental legal aid projects.
Foreign funding is likely to decrease due to the economic progress of Bangladesh, which would be represented by our newly gained status, ultimately resulting in the shutting down of many NGO and INGO projects.
Which is why government institutions must acquire a more self-reliant position in the remote areas soon.
Government initiatives require better public outreach as well. Most of us are not yet aware of the toll-free number for legal help -- something that has existed for quite a long time now. To that end, mobile app-based services also need to be introduced widely.
If those who are in need of such services are unaware of the facilities that are available to them, then the benefits of such facilities prove to be negligible.
Patronizing law clinics
One of the initiatives by the government should be to promote the idea of access to justice as a value to our law graduates, inspiring law students with the idea of legal aid so that they are encouraged to take pro bono cases upon starting their practice in the court.
Most universities in Bangladesh now teach law, but sadly, almost all of these institutions are failing to produce lawyers who are truly dedicated to justice.
Additionally, clinical education in our country is still not very popular, while our close neighbour India has made exemplary progress with law clinics by making legal aid services a part of compulsory education.
Many developed countries utilize law clinics in order to deliver legal help to the poor, alongside the students, who also benefit from the experience and implicit ethical learning.
A law school clinic equips students with hands-on-legal experience and provides services to various clients who are mainly poor.
Introducing clinical legal education is not going to magically transform our law schools into breeding grounds for justice-seeking lawyers, but it should contribute a lot to the purpose of legal aid whether directly or indirectly.
The impoverished need law professionals whose hearts bleed for their fellow citizens, not degree-holding cut-throats. To that end, clinical education can help create compassionate future lawyers.
Raihan Rahman Rafid is a student of law at the University of Dhaka.