The National Council (NC) members discussed the need to provide legal aid service to indigent persons yesterday.

An indigent person, according to the legislative committee, is a person who is poor, helpless and needy who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of a case or a legal proceeding.

The legislative committee chairperson, Sangay Khandu, who is also the Samtse NC member, while submitting the committee review report, said that although the issue was discussed in previous sessions, particularly during the budget deliberations, NC took the decision to undertake a comprehensive review during the strategic workshop held last June.

He cited Acts, and the Constitution that mandate a need to provide legal aid services to indigent persons. “If legal aid services are not provided, there will be discrepancies in uniform application of the law.”

The chairperson pointed out that while Acts mandate provision of legal aid, it has not identified any specific agency or focal point responsible for providing legal aid services. “There is no public defender office in the country.”

He also said that people are unaware of their rights to legal aid. “The judiciary also acknowledged that they have never provided any legal aid service so far.”

Committee member and Mongar NC member Sonam Wangchuk, said considering that all people are equal before the law and the Constitution ensures equality of opportunity to secure justice, the committee recommends legal aid services be provided to both civil and criminal cases. “This is to ensure that the poor and needy not only have the right but also the means to seek justice.”

He also said that a separate autonomous institution, in collaboration with the Bar Council and Bhutan National Law Institute (BNLI) should be established to spearhead the implementation of legal aid services in the country.

Gasa NC member Sangay Khandu said he was the first to question the Prime Minister in 2014 on the non-utilisation of budget provisioned for legal aid to indigent accused as enshrined in the laws and if relevant organisations fulfilled their mandate.

Differing from the committee’s recommendation, Zhemgang NC member Pema Drakpa, said that the Bar Council is responsible to defend the public as mandated in the Jabmi Act.

Trongsa NC member Tharchen also said that Bar Council is appropriate to handle indigent aid.

He also raised concerns on the criteria for an indigent person based on the minimum daily wage rate. “The criteria should be stringent so that it does not open a floodgate for state fund.”

The committee chairperson said that they discussed with Bar Council members who informed them that they have nothing to do with providing legal aid services to the indigent. “Judiciary said they are adjudicators of justice and there would be a conflict of interest if they provide the service.”

The house will also deliberate the issue on November 28 to finalise the resolutions.

Tashi Dema