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Access to legal aid

February 12, 2018

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DEMOCRACY in any country should be underpinned by a legal system that is fair and accessible to all. Pakistan has yet to achieve the goal; thousands upon thousands of court cases linger on for years, and many petitioners die without seeing justice. This is all the more apparent in the case of prisoners who languish for years behind bars in this country. Deprived and destitute, they can hardly afford legal assistance. Given its constitutional duty to ensure a fair trial, the state must intervene when prisoners cannot navigate complex legal processes without financial aid. So it was heartening to note that Punjab has endorsed a legal aid agency offering free counsel for financially disadvantaged prisoners. Surely, this move could also help reduce prison overcrowding. While legal aid has been available to destitute prisoners in Punjab since 2015, the amount earmarked by the government has been insufficient for lawyers’ fees, eg Rs 25,000 is offered for a case in the Lahore High Court and Rs 20,000 for a case in the sessions court. A revised fee structure and improved legal expertise should help in the speedy disposal of cases.

There are several other loopholes in the system that must be addressed to make justice available to all. The reliance on state lawyers for criminal cases often results in substandard representation because of clients’ limited resources and the counsels being overburdened. Hence, free legal counsel at all stages (investigation, conviction and sentencing) is a vital component for a streamlined judicial system. Other provinces should also focus on improved legal aid — especially for juvenile offenders and mentally ill prisoners. Under the lapsed Public Defender Legal Aid Office Ordinance, 2009, a chief public defender assesses cases for legal assistance; this law should be enacted with the provinces focusing on the matter in their respective jurisdictions. Denying legal aid to poor prisoners not only contravenes human rights rules; it also fails to help rehabilitate offenders languishing in prison sans legal representation.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2018