More efforts needed to ensure legal aid for the poor

THIS is concerning that poor prisoners suffer greatly in accessing justice. Although the government and some non-governmental organizations have provided legal aid services for a long time, many poor prisoners do not receive legal aid because of a number of issues and complications; and, they keep languishing in prisons without trial. The government in 2000 introduced the Legal Aid Services Act 2000 ‘to provide for legal aid to the litigants who are incapable of seeking justice due to financial insolvency, destitution, helplessness and for various socioeconomic conditions.’ The government later established the National Legal Aid Services Organization, which is reported to have provided legal assistance for 3.53 lakh people since its establishment in 2009. The government has also established legal aid offices in all the 64 districts to offer legal aid and, yet, it has, as legal rights activists say, so far failed to provide legal aid for hundreds of poor inmates. The issues said to be holding back the full implementation of the legal aid law are many. Some of them pertain to the definition and mode of action of the law and the implementing agencies.

The law specifies that people will be eligible for legal aid if their annual income is not above Tk 150,000 in cases of the Supreme Court and Tk 100,000 in cases of other courts. Experts say that this criterion is flawed as there are many prisoners whose income might cross the stipulated mark but they might still be in need of legal aid. Other criteria — people who are physically or mentally handicapped and incapable of earning, unemployed or receiving old-age honorarium, poor women who hold vulnerable group feeding cards, women and children who are victims of trafficking, women and children who are acid victims, members of national minorities, homeless people, any person given land or house by the government, poor widows or women deserted by their husbands, persons unable to establish their right to defense in a court of law for financial crisis, any of the detained without trial who cannot afford proper representation for self-defence — are also not enough to cover all prisoners who need legal aid. What is also concerning is the absence of legal aid practice among legal practitioners. In many countries, lawyers are required to fight a certain number of cases in favor of poor people facing various criminal charges.

The government must, therefore, shore up certain issues to strengthen and expand government legal aid while non-governmental organizations must also increase their reach to help the poor to seek justice. The government must also ease the process of applying for legal aid by the poor. Legal practitioners’ community, such as the bar council and lawyers’ associations, should also make it mandatory for lawyers to represent poor litigants.

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