The Dynamics of Legal Aid: Pro Bono Advocacy in Bangladesh’s Jurisprudence

by | Apr 25, 2024

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About Fatima Zahra Ahasan Raisa

Fatima Zahra Ahasan Raisa completed her bachelor's degree in Law from the University of Chittagong. Currently, she works as a human rights activist with the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation (BHRF). She served as a research intern at the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) on the project 'Impact of COVID-19 on CNG Transport Workers'. She has graduated from the 8th Annual Winter School on 'Hatred, Violence, and Prevention of Atrocities', organized by the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice (CSGJ), Liberation War Museum. At present, she is an independent legal researcher. Her research interests include human rights, public international law, gender justice, and constitutional law.

Bangladesh’s democratic culture places a high priority on ensuring social and economic justice. By guaranteeing equality, fairness, and fundamental rights for all citizens, the Constitution seeks to establish a socialist society through democratic methods. However, achieving these goals requires distributing legal aid fairly. By enabling citizens to assert their rights and hold authority responsible, legal aid lessens power disparities and contributes to the preservation of democratic governance.

By ensuring equal access to representation, legal aid closes socio-economic gaps. In scenarios like housing disputes, where landlords often have superior legal support, renters who are struggling financially find it difficult to stand up for their rights. When legal aid steps in, renters are better equipped to successfully defend their rights. It guarantees a fair opportunity for all parties in court by levelling the playing field. By reducing differences based on income, this process promotes substantive equality.

The legal framework of Bangladesh, which is based on the principles of audi alteram partem (‘hear the other side’) and Article 27 of the Constitution, which ensures equal treatment under the law, is confronted with obstacles as a result of poverty. By lowering financial barriers to justice, the Legal Aid Services Act 2000 seeks to remedy this. Although lacking explicit eligibility criteria, Section 24 empowers the Ministry of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs to define eligible groups for legal aid, including recipients of an old age honorarium, victims of human trafficking and acid attacks, widows, persons with physical or mental disabilities lacking subsistence means, and others.

Bangladesh’s judicial system has had difficulty promoting a pro bono service culture. Although pro bono work is a deeply embedded practice in law firms, people outside the legal field often lack awareness of it. The remuneration per case for panel lawyers who provide legal aid is widely acknowledged to be meagre. Successive administrations have consistently failed to provide the necessary incentives and infrastructure to improve the calibre and abilities of these panel lawyers. Consequently, the apathy towards this important part of the legal system has made it more difficult for legal aid panels to draw in top talent from the legal profession. One of the basic goals of the legal system (providing access to justice) is undermined by the unequal representation of opposing parties in court, which renders the law ineffectual.

Due to the legal system’s lack of support, pro bono activity in Bangladesh is still irregular. Demand for pro bono representation outpaces available resources, even if certain Supreme Court senior advocates handle issues of public interest. Though the industry has its challenges, NGOs that support marginalised communities include Bangladesh Legal Aid Services and Trust, Ain O Shalish Kendra, and others. A revolutionary change in the delivery of legal assistance is marked by the creation of the international online portal i-probono, which provides legal aid clinics for working women and other counselling services.

In landmark cases such as Kazi Mukhlesur Rahman v Bangladesh and Dr. Mohiuddin Farooque v Bangladesh, the Supreme Court broadened the locus standi rules, stating that anyone with a legitimate grievance, rather than only those who have been directly affected, can pursue legal action. This has enabled opportunities for NGOs and lawyers to advocate for disadvantaged individuals who lack legal acumen or financial resources. This pivotal shift has facilitated the emergence of public interest litigation (PIL), influencing legal precedent on issues such as food adulteration, police misconduct, and environmental pollution.

Even if PIL in Bangladesh is driven by the individual efforts of lawyers or NGOs, its steady development is still unknown. In contrast, pro bono work entails challenges. Reforms pertaining to legal aid should place a high priority on improving the statutory framework, tools, pay, and training of advocates—especially those serving in lower courts—while also creating clear application processes and easily accessible channels for raising complaints. Legal firms should incorporate pro bono work into their business to increase access to justice in order to alleviate pervasive injustice. Legal aid clinics in law schools and the introduction of amicus curiae by the judiciary are two examples of further legal aid channels that need strong institutional support, legislative backing, and a change in the legal community’s attitude towards pro bono representation.

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