By Ali Mashraf
Student Legal Aid Forum (SLAF), is a student-based platform to disseminate and raise awareness on legal aid services among the underprivileged community. The Dhaka University Chapter of SLAF, with a view to propagating the benevolent initiatives of the government regarding legal aid service, hosted a learning session on “Government Legal Aid Services: A Tool for Ensuring Access to Justice” on September 19, 2017 at the Department of Law, University of Dhaka. Law students, faculty members, executive members of SLAF and its various chapter bodies and legal aid experts were present at the seminar.
Professor Dr. Borhan Uddin Khan, Chairman, Department of Law, University of Dhaka inaugurated the program. In his inaugural speech, Dr. Khan expressed his happiness to see SLAF working in full swing to make a difference in the society and reiterated that all law students should participate in such activities in order for the marginalized people to be empowered in the society.
Afterwards, Professor Dr. Md. Rahmat Ullah, Dean, Department of Law, University of Dhaka delivered his speech for the audience. He insisted that as social engineers, law students must not be self-centered, rather should work to ensure justice for the poor litigants. He also said that law faculty would work more in engaging students in numerous social initiatives in near future and congratulated the organizers for their devotion towards this cause which would immensely benefit the society.
Following that, Dr. Farzana Akhter, Associate Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka presented on the topic, ‘Legal Aid for Ensuring Access to Justice in Bangladesh: An Overview’. At the onset, Dr. Farzana said that her presentation was based upon the findings gathered from her PhD study on government legal aid organizations. She claimed that legal aid worked as the classic corrective to breaching the gap between the rich and the poor. She highlighted the government’s responsibility regarding the topic and talked about two approaches, viz. right-based approach and welfare approach.
Mentioning various legal provisions in our Constitution and statutory laws on legal aid, she underlined the numerous accomplishments of the government till now and also pointed out the glaring inadequacies. Dr. Farzana put emphasis on mass awareness programs on legal aid and recommended an integrated approach to solve this problem where adequate financial, institutional and logistical support would be ensured to make legal aid organizations more effective in the long run.
She also talked about various incentives to draw more lawyers in legal aid services, e.g. tax exemptions, special recognitions etc. In conclusion, she talked about effective monitoring and periodic reviews to constantly update the provisions of legal aid to keep up with the social changes.
The speech was followed by a presentation by Mr. Mohammad Golam Sarwar, Lecturer, Department of Law, University of Dhaka on the topic, ‘Prospects and Benefits of Involvement of Youths in Easing the Way to Government Legal Aid Service in Bangladesh’.Mr. Sarwar stated that legal aid service was an instrumental tool to facilitate access to justice and fair trial for the poor. He reminded everyone about the poor socio-economic context of the litigants seeking legal aid services and propounded that it was a barrier to holding fair trials.
Mentioning two approaches in ensuring legal aid services, viz. individualistic and structural,he remarked that the absence of legal protection justified legal aid as a right of the poor, not charity. On the role of youth, Mr. Sarwar quoted Confucius and claimed that students should implement the lessons learnt in their classrooms by engaging in legal aid services and that such a method had 90% effect on their learning. Mr. Sarwar ended his presentation by lauding SLAF for their brilliant initiatives.
Ms. Abeda Sultana, Assistant Director (Joint District Judge), National Legal Aid Service Organization (NLASO) then spoke on the issue,‘Role of NLASO in Government Legal Aid Service’. Pointing out the various initiatives undertaken by NLASO, she commented that NLASO worked as an umbrella organization to ensure justice for the poor litigants so that they could become aware of their rights. She also talked about the National Helpline setup by NLASO to disseminate legal aid faster to the mass people. Ms. Sultana ended her speech by stating her eagerness to work in collaboration with the enlightened minds of SLAF in near future.
Afterwards, Mr. Kazi Yasin Habib, Assistant Director (Senior Assistant Judge), NLASO spoke on the issue, ‘The Practical Aspect of District Legal Aid Offices’. He talked about a lot of misconceptions that common people have regarding legal aid and underlined the working procedures in district legal aid offices. Mr. Habib also answered questions from the audience on various aspects of legal aid including issues as recent as legal aid for the Rohingya refuges in Bangladesh. He thanked SLAF for organizing such an event that ensured knowledge-sharing among law students.
The Chief Guest, Mr. Md. Zafrul Hasan, Director (Senior District Judge), NLASO then addressed the participants. He remarked that providing rapid legal aid is the quality of a good lawyer and emphasized that it was a Constitutional duty to ensure justice for the poor via legal aid. He urged the students to work pro-bono occasionally and thanked the organizers for their outstanding effort in hosting such an effective learning session.
Mr. Zahirul Islam, Senior Legal Associate, USAID’s Justice for All Program then spoke to the audience on ‘Legal Aid Awareness: Experience of LACs’. He summarized the activities of USAID’s Justice for All Program and talked about the various ways law students could engage themselves in their activities. Mr. Atiqul Haque, President, SLAF then spoke briefly on SLAF, the background story of its initiation and its activities. He encouraged the students to build network among themselves in order to publicize the concept of legal aid all over the country.
Towards the end, Mr. Al Farhad Bin Kashem, Coordinator, DU Chapter, SLAF conveyed his vote of thanks to everyone present at the event. The program ended with a photo session of the participants with the distinguished guests. Student Legal Aid Forum intends to host more such learning sessions and awareness building programs in the law schools of different universities in near future.