Justice and prison reform for promoting human rights and preventing corruption
Title: Justice and prison reform for promoting human rights and preventing corruption
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Lead executing agencies: For the component ‘Improvement of the Real Situation of Overcrowding in Prisons (IRSOP): Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) and the Prison Directorate.
For the component ‘Justice Reform and Corruption Prevention’: Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs (MoLJPA) and the independent Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)
Overall term: 2012 to 2018
Accessing justice and rule of law remain major challenges in Bangladesh, particularly for the poor and vulnerable. While the government advocates ‘access to justice for all,’ in reality it remains relatively inaccessible for the vast majority of the population. There are multiple reasons for this, including a lack of financial and human resources and outdated laws. With corruption rife in many institutions, justice is commonly seen as a commodity rather than a right. Wide-ranging problems, including a lack of cooperation between the different justice sector agencies, have resulted in an enormous backlog of cases in the courts and in severe prison overcrowding. Consequently, countless under trial detainees, most of them very poor, spend long periods in prison waiting for their cases to be heard. Such long detentions without a conviction or trial contravene Bangladesh’s constitution. Moreover, overcrowding is exacerbated by the high number of cases that ultimately end up in the formal criminal justice system, simply because not enough use is made of alternative approaches, such as village courts or mediation.
The justice sector adopts new reform approaches based on best practices for institutional cooperation from selected project sites.
The project has two components and is being co-financed by the British Department for International Development (DFID):
Improving Prison Overcrowding
Paralegals are employed to reduce case backlog and overcrowding in prisons. Following a short, intensive period of training, they work with the police, prison staff, lawyers and judges, encouraging them to cooperate with each other. As intermediaries between the judicial system and prisoners, paralegals are vital in helping justice sector proceedings run smoothly. In ‘paralegal aid clinics,’ they use educational theatre and songs to inform prisoners of their rights and to explain the different stages involved in legal proceedings.
Paralegals also take part in the meetings held by the case coordination committees. Here relevant actors from the criminal justice and rehabilitation sectors work together to identify the cause of the case backlog and to map out a solution. Key findings are passed on to the Ministries of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs and Home Affairs, as well as to other institutions, to prompt the initiation of requisite reforms and to point the way forward.
In partnership with communities and actors in the criminal justice system (police, prisons, courts, social welfare institutions etc.), the project is supporting the rollout of restorative justice as an alternative form of dispute resolution. The objective is to divert cases from the formal system and to promote the rehabilitation of offenders. Restorative justice builds on mediation, which has a long tradition in Bangladesh. In support of the re-socialisation and reintegration of former prisoners, the project is building partnerships between prisons, NGOs and private companies, e.g. for drug therapy or vocational training. These approaches are helping to reduce the number of repeat offenders and, as a result, lower overcrowding in prisons.
Having started out in five districts, this component is now being implemented in 35 districts. By 2018, it is scheduled to cover 40 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts.
Justice Reform and Corruption Prevention
This project component advises the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs on the revision of outdated laws. The focus here is on identifying barriers to progress. In the pilot ‘Justice Audit,’ experts collected data in a bid to identify blockages within the criminal justice system and to find out what is causing the backlog at courts or overcrowding in the prisons. Data was collected from key judicial and executive organs in each of the five pilot districts. Furthermore, a representative household survey was conducted. The data is presented as an interactive, web-based, updateable resource, that will allow the weakest links in the criminal justice process to be addressed and reform measures efficiently sequenced. It will also provide a means to allow reform initiatives to be monitored and measured, thus improving accountability for how resources are used. A unique feature of the Justice Audit is that it collects and triangulates data and perceptions (from practitioners within the system and citizens) to get beneath what ‘seems’ to be, to what the situation actually is. Bangladesh’s Justice Audit is one of the few examples of a government openly providing the general public with access to information about its criminal law system. At the Law and Justice Minister’s request, a nationwide Justice Audit was launched in late 2016. It is scheduled for completion in 2018.
This component also supports the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). In addition to strategic capacity development measures, it backs the ACC’s efforts to prevent corruption by promoting partnerships between civil society and state actors in the districts. Also in the districts, corruption prevention committees are helping to set up networks that link up schools, civil society actors and state actors, such as the police.
Results achieved so far
All the actors in the criminal justice system are now working together regularly and more constructively. They exchange information and take decisions collectively in a bid to find local solutions to local problems. The flow of information between the different institutions in the project districts has improved considerably.
Work by the Paralegal Advisory Service (PAS) and the Case Coordination Committee in the period between 2012 and May 2017 resulted in the swift release of some 16,048 prisoners on bail or following acquittal – previously this was much harder to achieve. Furthermore, paralegals have assisted 160,112 justice seekers in courts and 16,909 in police stations.
Another 10,975 cases were resolved on site via alternative forms of dispute resolution, thus circumventing the courts and prisons: specifically 7,314 through mediation and 3,661 by restorative justice. Some 6,469 prisoners have undergone skills training, 10,964 drug dependant prisoners selected for rehabilitation and another 5,613 counselled.
In addition, a media campaign has informed around three million people about their rights and how to assert them and also about ways of accessing legal services and justice.
The programme started to roll out a nationwide Justice Audit in 2016. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is now implementing the first year action plan of its five-year strategic plan (2017-2021).