LAHORE: A public interest bill aimed at providing free legal aid to the litigants unable to engage lawyers for want of money or any other reason may be consigned to the trash can if it is not passed in the last session of the Punjab Assembly – if the session is even convened this month.

The proposed Punjab Legal Aid Act was approved by the provincial cabinet two days ago, but authorities concerned are doubtful of the government’s intentions to have it passed in the last session of the assembly if it is even held at all before the end of the government’s term on May 31.

“There may be a brief session of the assembly to present the supplementary budget. And during that session the government should ensure passage of the bill, which would benefit a large number of people who cannot defend themselves through a proper lawyer due to financial constraints,” a senior official said.

Some other officials said the government had recently had a bill passed about regularisation of jobs of contractual employees a day after it was approved by the cabinet because it was its priority in order to earn goodwill of the people for next general elections.

The government would most probably convene a session of the Punjab Assembly because it would approve the extra funds it spent during the current financial year. And this would be the last opportunity to get the bill passed, they said.

The proposed bill, a copy of which was obtained by Dawn, stated that it was a constitutional right of every citizen to consult and engage a lawyer to defend themselves. But this right was not being adequately ensured to the litigants who could not afford the facility due to poverty or other reasons.

Currently, through an executive order the government is providing free legal aid to people who could not afford it, but the fees are too low to attract good lawyers.

The proposed law provides for an institutional arrangement through a legal aid agency, providing fee to lawyers according to their calibre. The agency would, for each financial year, accredit a panel of lawyers in each district, and if necessary, in any tehsil for provision of legal aid. It would classify the accredited advocates depending on classes of people or courts or both. It would also promptly pay professional fees to an advocate engaged for legal aid as prescribed by the government.

The names of the under-privileged litigants seeking free legal aid would not be shared with any unauthorised people. Any such disclosure would be considered misconduct punishable under the Punjab Employees Efficiency and Discipline and Accountability Act.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2018

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