Thinley Namgay

The demand for legal aid from litigants have been low, largely from lack of  information and awareness of such a service.

The Legal Aid Centre (LAC) started in 2022 under the Bhutan National Legal Institute, to provide fair trial for those unable to afford a lawyer, so far saw only  84 court litigants. However, only  52 fulfilled the criteria for the aid.

Thirty two cases did not qualify for legal aid and were instead provided legal information.

“A person is innocent until proven guilty by the court, and legal representation is crucial to ensure fair trial, protect fundamental rights, and procedural rights.” Tshering Pem, Deputy Chief Legal Officer at the LAC said.

She said that legal aid maintains the level playing field between the parties. “In a criminal case, the government prosecutor represents the case.  However, if the defendant is someone who doesn’t know much about the laws, there won’t be a level playing field.”

People from diverse backgrounds were approaching the LAC for support such as those who did not understand laws, those facing language barriers, and also persons with disabilities (PwDs).

But, those requesting legal aid had to fulfill the means and merit test.  In the means test, the LAC checked the financial capacity of the person such as whether the income of that person fell below the per capita income set by the National Statistical Bureau (NSB). Whereas the merit test looked at whether the matter enforcement and insolvency issues.

If the person fulfilled both means and merit tests, the LAC requested the Bar Council of Bhutan (BCB)  to appoint a private lawyer  registered with the BCB, as LAC did not have their own lawyers. The BCB appointed lawyer would then represent the case on behalf of that person in the court as requested by the LAC.  Only the registered lawyers were eligible to represent the case, which were mainly criminal in nature.

The government pays the fee, and travel and daily allowances for the lawyer to represent the case.

For legal assistance and legal advice related to civil cases, paralegals under the BCB, and the Human Dignity Clinic under the JSW School of Law provided the service. Depending on the nature of the case, a few civil cases also got legal representation.

Tshering Pem said that LAC, with support of relevant agencies, will ensure that people understood that even before the pre-trial or person comes in contact with the law enforcing agencies, they have the right to jabmi and legal aid.

She said Gups were told to report to the LAC if people were seeking legal aid. However, there were no legal aid requests so far from the village.