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Impermanent Justice: Legal Reform Workshop debates need for permanent prosecution service

To generate productive policy discussion and articulate the legal issues requiring reform, the workshops drew issues to discuss from all segments of society.

With the growth of Government power and increase in law-making and regulation comes a natural rise in litigation. However despite these trends in Bangladesh, the establishment of a permanent prosecution / government pleading service to represent the State in a consistently high quality manner, across all such cases has not been forthcoming.

The second Legal Reform Workshop held on 11 April 2015 at the CIRDAP Auditorium in Chameli House, Dhaka on ‘Law Officers of the State and Permanent Prosecution Service’ sought to examine this pressing and topical issue in Bangladesh. The Legal Reform Workshops are a series of structured Workshops organized by Dr. Shahdeen Malik (Advocate and Constitutional expert as well as Director of the School of Law at BRAC University and Honorary Director of the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA)) and the Centre for Rights and Governance with support from UNDP, Bangladesh. The Workshops draw from all segments of society, to generate productive policy discussion and articulate the legal issues requiring reform, whilst also providing the impetus and setting the narrative for a comprehensive legal reform agenda.

The first Workshop was held on 21 March 2015 on the topic ‘Legal Education: the Case for Reform.’ Esteemed panelists including Mr. Justice Md. Abdul Wahhab Miah (Judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh) debated the need for more practically focused legal education with five young advocates and recent law graduates who presented papers outlining the struggles they face in finishing their legal studies without vital practical experience or tangible abilities in legal practice. Practical suggestions for reform were canvassed with the almost 90 attendees to ensure that law students in Bangladesh graduate with the necessary practical skills and impetus to actually take up the practice of law professionally.

The political nature of prosecutorial appointments in Bangladesh, as well as issues of excessive workload and inadequate remuneration and resource support were discussed at the Workshop on ‘Law Officers of the State and Permanent Prosecution Service.’ The ad-hoc and largely political appointment of public prosecutors makes it difficult to ensure the quality of legal representation and services provided as appointees may be feel more answerable to the prevailing power to ensure the security of their tenure, then to the court and their duty to act in accordance with the highest ethical standards as mandated by the United Nations Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors. A properly remunerated and resourced permanent public prosecution / law cadre office would also discourage the practice of taking on outside private work, to the detriment of the quality of work and time afforded to the lawyer’s government practice.

Discussion at the Workshop was prompted by the presentation of a paper on the issue by Dr Tureen Afroz, who is not only an Associate Professor of Law at BRAC University but also Prosecutor at International Crimes Tribunal. Dr Afroz discussed the lack of effective supervision and performance evaluation of public attorneys in Bangladesh as well as the absence of any compulsory training programs for such attorneys. The Government Attorney Service Ordinance of 2008 unfortunatley did not include an improved model of monitoring and accountability. The ordinance was highly criticized by practitioners and ultimately not implemented. There nonetheless remains a clear need for legislation, or at least a policy guideline setting out a code of conduct to stamp out present unethical practices and conflicts of interest arising out of public prosecutors also appearing as defence lawyers.

The Workshop was chaired by Professor Shahnaz Huda (Department of Law, University of Dhaka), and Barrister Shafiq Ahmed (former Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs) attended as the Chief Guest. Mr. Ahmed called for the appointment of 10-15 permanent prosecutors per district on a pilot basis. It was argued that these need to be selected from amongst regular practicing lawyers who have a healthy working knowledge of laws and decisions of the apex court. Concerned district courts could even recommend candidates to the Government for selection as permanent prosecutors.

Mr. Habibul Awwal (Secretary, Ministry of Defence and former Secretary, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs) also addressed the Workshop, contending that a permanent public prosecution and/or law cadre similar to cadre services of other States, is required to ensure better justice for all Bangladeshis. Many attendees however, including invited Public Prosecutors and Presidents of District Bar Associations from outside Dhaka, argued that there was insufficient political will to create a truly independent permanent prosecution service in Bangladesh.

Recommendations are currently being tabled to progress this important debate and ensure public prosecutors and government pleaders in Bangladesh are well equipped and positioned to thoroughly screen and professionally prepare cases.The clear need for such pre-trial scrutiny to weed out cases that are unlikely to meet the necessary standards of proof in court, thus saving considerable court time (and expense), can be discerned from the low conviction rates that permeate criminal cases in Bangladesh. Accordingly over time a permanent and dedicated public prosecution service will not only benefit countless victims of crimes which were otherwise unsuccessful in court due to poor preparation and presentation by the State, but also the public at large by reducing the massive backlogs across all courts in Bangladesh which significantly delay the administration of justice in the country.

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