7 years ago

Ensuring access of the poor to justice through legal aid mechanism

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Bangladesh is a developing country where respect and awareness regarding social justice and human rights are still at a low level. The condition is worse for the underprivileged mainly among the char and haor people, indigenous groups, ethnic and religious minorities, women, children and hardcore poor people. They are the victims of socio-economic and public injustice. 
EQUALITY BEFORE LAW AND LEGAL AID: The Constitution ensures that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to have equal protection of law. But the reality is different. A large number of people are not financially solvent nor do they have any other logistic support to get the appropriate service from the judicial system. In this way, protection by law and access to law have remained only on paper as an indigent person finds him/herself helpless in police custody or jail and he/she cannot afford a lawyer to defend himself/herself.
Legal aid is a tool for ensuring access to justice for those who are unable to afford legal advice or legal representation in formal courts. 
PROVISION OF LEGAL AID IN INTERNATIONAL INSTRUMENTS: In criminal matters, the provision of legal aid is recognised throughout the world. The right to get legal aid has been recognised as human rights which are implicit in Articles 7, 8 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 and is more clearly stated in clause 3 (d) of Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 provides that all are equal before law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
According to Article 6 (3) (c) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 1950 the right to free legal aid to a person charged in a criminal case is ensured. Besides, the United Nations Conference on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, 1965 and the International Conference on Human Rights, 1968 (the Tehran Conference) incorporated the provisions of legal aid in criminal matters with due importance. Some other international instruments provided provisions of legal aid in criminal matters. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 provides for legal aid in criminal matters under Articles 14 (3) (d), 6 (1), 20(1). The Commonwealth of Independent States Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 1995 contain similar provisions as article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 24 of the American Convention on Human Rights, 1978 declares that all persons are equal before law and consequently, they are entitled, without any discrimination, to equal protection by law.
LEGAL AID MOVEMENT IN BANGLADESH: The government has played a pioneering role in the legal aid movement in the country. In order to ensure access of the poor and indigent people to justice, the Legal Aid Services Act  (LASA) in 2000. Thereafter, the National Legal Aid Services Organisation (NLASO) was established. 
Legal services provided by NLASO include: Legal advice; Free vocalatnama; Lawyers to help in a legal proceeding; Fees for lawyers; Fees for the mediator or arbitrator; certified copies of order, judgment, etc. free of cost; cost of DNA test; cost of paper advertisement in CR case; any other assistance along with expenses for a case. Any poor person in the country is entitled to get free legal aid services. Besides, any individual receiving old age allowance, distressed mother holding a VGD card, women and children victims of trafficking and acid throwing, insolvent widow, abandoned or distressed women, disabled person and poor detainees can avail the free legal aid services.
ADMINISTRATION OF LEGAL AID SERVICES IN BANGLADESH: The Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Act 2000 provides help at national and district level. There are a National Legal Aid Board at national level, District Legal Aid Committees at district level, Upazilla Legal Aid Committees at Upazilla level and Union Legal Aid Committees at union level. 
Besides the National Legal Aid Organisation, there are some Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the country who also provide legal aid to the poor. Most of the Human Rights NGOs provide legal aid to aggrieved individuals. Among these NGOs, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Human Rights Commission (HRC), BRAC and Light House (LH) are playing the lead role in providing legal aid services in the country.
TOWARDS MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION: The legal empowerment of underprivileged people is increasing day by day. Good relation and meaningful coordination between the government legal aid providers and NGOs can bring good results and create impacts in the lives of the poor and vulnerable people. 
CONSIDERING THE KEY FACTOR: Legal aid is a mechanism to establish equality in society. The government has taken initiative to provide this assistance to the poor people and has created a law for this purpose and taken many schemes to implement these laws through government and NGOs efforts. But laws alone are not enough to ensure the proper implementation of the government and non-government initiatives. Public awareness must be raised to get the fruits of legal aid system. A greater collaboration between the government and NGOs may ensure better implementation of the legal aid provisions and thus greater access of the poor people to justice. 
Nicholas Biswas is a Team Leader of Light House and is managing UKAID supported legal aid consortium project titled 'Improved Justice and Legal Aid Services-IJLAS' in Rajshahi division.

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