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OP-ED: Does everyone have access to justice?

  • Published at 01:24 am September 19th, 2021

Greater accountability within the judiciary must be ensured

If we probe into the term, “fair and equitable justice,” we find that justice is fair and equitable when it is just in its outcome, provides both the plaintiff and defendant with an adequate scope to state their case and answer their opponents, is wrapped up within a reasonable time limit, involves procedures and costs proportionate to the nature of the issue, and so on.

The supreme law of the territory indirectly emphasizes access to justice in several articles. Article 27 of the Bangladesh constitution, titled “Equality before Law,” dictates: “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.” Article 31 further confirms that it is an inalienable right of every citizen to enjoy the protection of law and to be treated in accordance with law.

Article 26 of the constitution reconfirms that any segment of law made conflicting to any fundamental right will be deemed void. Though no forthright definition of “access to justice” is included, these articles indirectly talk about access to justice.

In Bangladesh, access to justice is not properly executed due to a number of problems. Delays in the formal justice system have become one of the major barriers. Access to formal justice is held back by a huge case backlog and delays in the disposal of cases.

According to statistical information on the institution and the disposal of civil cases in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court 2007, it was found that 4,376 civil cases were pending from last year, among 6,324 cases. 936 criminal cases were pending from a total of 1,517 cases.

Access to justice for this section is also held back by the high cost of the litigation process. Cost of litigation may not be a burdensome concern for developed countries, but in Bangladesh, it is indispensable that fees for lawyers, travel costs, forgone daily wages, costs of collecting evidence, and various court fees are onerous for the poor.

In comparison with the huge population, the number of justices and HC judges we have is not nearly enough. As of July 2017, 1,268 judges dealt with over 2.7 million cases in the lower courts. 86 HC judges dealt with 431,000 cases and six Supreme Court justices dealt with 13,000 cases.

Clearly, the ratio between the judges and cases is disharmonious. So, the question arises, how will this huge pile of cases be resolved with the low number of judges in the courts?

Procedural complexity in dealing with cases is indispensable from a Bangladeshi perspective. Not everyone is capable of coping with court procedures, so they cannot help but rely on lawyers and representatives. A certain doubt arises -- the lawyers and staff can charge far beyond the minimal amount to handle these particular cases.

Currently, corruption in the justice system has increased greatly. Fines have also increased. Paying bribes to court staff and even opposing lawyers sometimes becomes a deciding factor in the disposal of cases.

From a survey relating to corruption in the judiciary of Bangladesh, it was found that 52.4% of the accused or the plaintiffs said that they had to bribe court officials. Besides this, extra fees to associates and others are also included.

Vulnerable people cannot always bear court expenses. To ease cost pressures, legal aid is an important factor. In Bangladesh, adequate legal aid service is not available. It’s important, because otherwise many litigants who are theoretically entitled to get service from state-appointed lawyers may not get quality services or might have to suffer long delays.

To establish the rule of law and to ensure access to justice, complementary methods like Alternative Dispute Resolution processes must be prioritized. NGOs can improve the quality of justice processes through providing timely, clear, and respectful support to disputants. 

Legal aid facilities should be ensured. Greater accountability for policies, lawyers, and the judiciary must be ensured. Case management strategies must be effectively planned and executed. Developing witness and victim protection schemes are also important to ensure access to justice. Last but not least, women-friendly facilities must be provided and access to emergency shelters must be made available.

Nadim Zawad Akil is a student of law.