The Government observes 28 April as 'the National Legal Aid Day' in every year since 2013 to emphasis the legal aid services and ensure access to justice across the country covering legal safety net of women, poor, helpless, marginalized people and victims. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, last year and this year the day cannot be celebrated with great esteem and huge programmes. Legal aid is the assistance given to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation or access to the court. It is neither charity nor mercy; it is a constitutional right of the poor and underprivileged section of the society. Article 27 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh guarantees that "all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law." Articles 33 and 35 also postulate that right to get justice and fair trial are fundamental rights.

Despite such provisions, many people are deprived of their constitutional rights to access justice due to poverty. The present Government in 2000 introduced and enforced the revolutionary law of the Legal Aid Service Act 2000 for ensuring the constitutional promise to rule of law and justice. The Government established the District Legal Aid Office in every District Judge Court of the country and appointed a Judge of Senior Assistant Judge or Assistant Judge as its officer. The core responsibilities of the District Legal Aid Officer (DLAO) is to mediate the dispute through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) between the parties, appoint lawyers for accused and complainant or victims, assist legal support in civil suits to privileged people and give legal consultation and opinion to any kind of people without any cost. Building social awareness and keeping role in extending access to justice in the society is also responsibility of Legal Aid Services and Committees. In a nutshell Legal Aid Office is one of the key paths to extend and give access to justice to the people.

In our subordinate judiciary, backlog of cases is the core barrier to dispense speedy justice to the people. Up until March 2019, the number of pending cases in all courts stands at 3,582,347 and in the subordinate courts which are almost 3 million. From 2008 to March 2020, 15905661 cases had been filed and 13863250 cases had been disposed of in that time [The Prothom Alo, April 20, 2021]. Now almost 38 lac cases are pending across the country with having almost 1800 Judges and Magistrates. It is pertinent that in South Asia, Bangladesh has the least judges among other countries and that is for every ten lac people there is one Judge.

The Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs is exploring options to increase the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism to reduce backlogs and delay in the court system. National Legal Aid Service Organization (NLASO) has started to explore how legal aid clients can get more benefit from ADR; therefore the Legal Aid Service Act (LASA) 2000 was amended in 2006 to include ADR as a legal aid service. In 2013, the Government empowered the District Legal Aid Officer to give legal opinion and settle the dispute through ADR by inserting section 21A in the Legal Aid Service Act-2000. The said section 21A (2) provides "The Legal Aid Officers may give legal advice to the litigants seeking legal aid, and if any matter is referred by any Court or Tribunal to the Legal Aid Officers working in the local limit of its jurisdiction for alternative dispute resolution under any existing law, the concerned Legal Aid Officer shall have the power to settle the issue."

DLAO is empowered to mediate the disputes through legal process. The Government introduced the Legal Aid (Legal Consultation and ADR) Regulation 2015 for effective mediation and ADR. There are two types of ADR such as pre-case mediation and post case mediation in the said Regulation. In pre-case mediation process, Legal Aid Officer can mediate any complain and petition through issuing notice against the opposite parties and settle the dispute amicably by mediation in office. In such situation, the family matters, violence against women (VAW), dowry allegations and civil matters can be solved very easy way because of the parties get a fair, impartial and comfortable environment where a Judicial Officer, who is also a Judge, settles the dispute with their consent evaluating the legal position to them. There is no troublesome situation or time consuming process; even they have no financial obligation to invest for getting the help.

DLAO can also issue a certificate of mediation that the party was interested to dispose the matter and it had been solved in ADR process. The order of the legal aid officer will be treated as judgment and evidence in every court of Bangladesh. This window empowers legal aid office to dispose any petition primarily filed in the office as pre-case mediation. This process can be used as an effective tool to reduce the backlog of cases in our courts. For taking such opportunity, the litigant people will not file any case and the court and investigating agency will be burden free from those matters.

To curb the backlog of cases in the courts, the Government has amended the Code of Civil Procedure 1908 (CPC) in 2017 to appoint the District Legal Aid Officer (DLAO) for ADR settlement through the courts in the post case mediation process by amending section 89A (1) and inserting District Legal Officer as ADR Officer. Now the Civil Courts of the country are legally obliged to send the civil suits to the District Legal Aid Officer for mediation among the parties.

According to the ADR Regulation 2015, after getting the order of the court, the concern DLAO will notify both parties of the civil suit to appear in the office for mediation. Then the DLAO will send the civil suit to the concern court with ADR if he succeeds, or his order of performance on ADR with the suit after taking proper action. The concern court will take decision upon the mediation of the DLAO. If the ADR is completed, then the court will pronounce the order of ADR as his judgment and the decree will be final on the basis of ADR.

The Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs has taken some effective steps for ensuring ADR in the DLAO office through the Courts. In 2019, the said Ministry with consultation of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh issued a gazette notification and declared the work of DLAO as Judicial work. Now in 64 districts across the country, DLAO has shown serious positive attitude and worked relentlessly on ADR to reduce backlog and extra pressure on the court. On 29 August, 2019 the NLASO ordered to every District Judges to take initiatives to send civil suits to the legal aid officer for ADR. Every Legal Aid Officer regularly conducts a good number of clients and entertains ADR meetings. Each office can solve almost 1 to 5 disputes through ADR process and the pre-case mediation is very successful which is proved from the statistics.

On April 27, 2020 the Bangla Tribune had published a report in accordance with the information of Ministry of Law and Justice that last 10 years the NLASO gives legal assistance to 5, 07,040 people across the country. Meanwhile, the organization has recovered TK 35, 36, 13,422/- as award and compensation for litigant people through the DLAO offices and it helps appointing penal lawyers and ADR process in disposal of 126,492 cases. 83,918 people have been supported providing legal assistance through national helpline 16430 in last four years. Till October, 2020 64 legal aid offices disposed of 34373 cases and two labour cells resolved 2041 cases through ADR. In 2020 legal aid offices disposed of 9166 cases through ADR across the country [Bonik Barta, January 17, 2021].

These figures indicate that legal aid services have been increased and extended almost 3-4 times from its inception. It is also imperative and pertinent that the present Government enhances the capacity and budget of the NLASO to accelerate the service across the country. In 2009-10 financial year the budget of NLASO was only one core taka but in 2019-20 the budget is 20 core 50 lac taka only. Last year the NLASO created 96 posts of support staffs for legal aid offices. The Government has been set up 7 legal aid cells for labour in the seven divisional labour courts for giving legal support and conducting ADR to resolve the labour related disputes.

Legal Aid Offices basically support and work for giving women legal support and assistance. Almost 70% of activities of legal aid offices are about the women rights and empowerments. Family disputes, violence against women and dowry matters are seriously and sincerely conducted by the DLAOs. Most of the cases are solved at the settlements of the DLAO as pre-case mediation. The Ministry of Law and Justice has experienced to work with JICA of Japan for effective mediation and ADR. It is expected that legal aid office will be a hub of ADR and dispute resolution centre which can ensure people's rights, rule of law and legal safety network for marginalized people.

Writer is a Senior Judicial Magistrate, Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Feni.

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