Legal Aid, Development and Bangladesh: Signs of Progress (2011-09-30)
In the May-June 2010 Newsletter, I contributed a short article on the development of government legal aid services in Bangladesh and the work being done by the CIDA-Bangladesh Legal Reform Project (BLRP), a bilateral technical assistance project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. At the time I noted that while there were encouraging signs of a renewed commitment to legal aid on the part of the government of Bangladesh, the advances were fragile and the program still faced huge challenges. While this caution still applies, the reform momentum has continued and even accelerated, in sharp contrast to the bleak reports on legal aid programs in much of the “developed” world. Indeed, the program has developed further and faster than anyone could have predicted even three years ago.
The newly established National Legal Aid Services Organization (NLASO) has moved surprisingly fast on a number of fronts. The financial eligibility ceiling for applicants has been raised twice since 2009 to levels which are realistic in the Bangladesh context (to include incomes up to about $60 per month). Lawyers’ fees (Bangladesh is a judicare system), which had eroded more than 40% due to inflation from their original level – already too low – were raised and more services and expenses included. The percentage of the Legal Aid Fund actually disbursed has risen (although it has not yet reached 100%). The NLASO has slowly started to monitor and get regular reports from District Legal Aid Committees, which in the past were for all practical purposes unsupervised. New file management systems created by BLRP in its pilot Districts (described in my previous article) have been approved for use in all Districts. Local legal aid committees have been established for sub-District level administrative units (called Upazilas) and additional funds released for local awareness programming. By far the most important development, though, has been the decision to create legal aid offices and assign full-time staff in all 64 Districts. As of December 2010, one lower level staff person has been assigned to Legal Aid in all Districts and all the new staff persons have gone through an initial training program provided by BLRP. This is just an interim step, though – the real news is that a proposal to assign permanently three staff persons to each District office, including a judicial officer-level Coordinator, has been approved by all relevant ministries and is awaiting final sign-off from the Prime Minister’s Office. The proposal is based on the model developed by BLRP and proven workable in pilot Districts. The NLASO is expected to have its first-ever strategic plan in place before BLRP ends in March 2012. After ignoring the NLASO for years, other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies are starting to show interest in the government program.
The opium-dream-like nature of this picture – a legal aid program with more money than it can spend, broader eligibility, huge staff increases, higher payments to lawyers – must of course be tempered by recognition of the extremely low baseline against which the changes must be measured. Nevertheless, the possibility that Bangladesh will soon have some form of national government-funded legal aid system, however modest by the standards of developed economies, remains alive.