'Free legal aid is key to justice'

July 28, 2022

Nepal’s 2015 Constitution guaranteed rights related to justice as fundamental rights of the people. In that regard, the Government of Nepal has devoted substantial resources to put in place the necessary policies, laws and institutions to meet that guarantee. As the United Nations agency mandated to support Member States on the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals, UNDP has been working alongside the Government of Nepal to formulate critical policies and strengthen institutions responsible for delivering justice to the people of Nepal. UNDP’s ‘Enhancing Access to Justice through Institutional Reform Project (A2J), funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy (since 2018), builds on the achievements of previous projects on the rule of law and human rights, initiated about two decades ago. The A2J Project supports Nepal’s Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs (MoLJPA) institute reforms in the country’s legal aid system, including the implementation of the Integrated Legal Aid System, which aims to coordinate and regulate accessible socio-legal aid services throughout Nepal. The project has been running for over 20 years, with different funding partners.

UNDP’s Kamal Raj Sigdel sat down with Phanindra Gautam, joint secretary at the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs who is currently overseeing the project [project website] as its National Project Director, to look back at the history of the project, its achievements, the lessons learned and the ways forward. While substantive achievements have been made in institutionalizing free legal aid, Gautam says that a great deal remains to be done to build the capacities of institutions, equip them with necessary resources and technology, and ensure equal access to justice for all. The COVID-19 pandemic, notwithstanding its economic and human losses, provided the government with an opportunity to introduce new and innovative solutions in efficient justice delivery, including starting online training, strengthening reporting and monitoring systems, and instituting basic innovations in taking judicial services online.

Photo of Phanindra Gautam at his table

Excerpts from the interview:

UNDP and the Government of Nepal have long been working together to enhance rule of law and access to justice, particularly for women and the most marginalized communities. Looking back, what are some of the prominent results the project has achieved so far?

The collaboration between UNDP and the Government of Nepal on enhancing access to justice has continued for over 20 years now, with funding from different international development partners. Since 2018, the access to justice project has been funded by the Government of Norway and it focuses on four areas – improving free legal aid services for women and the most marginalized communities through institutional reforms, capacity development of federal, provincial and local institutions on law drafting processes, capacity development of Judicial Committees at the local level, and promotion of human rights in businesses.

There have been some tangible achievements in all these areas. Most notably, this project significantly contributed to and supported the Nepal Government in formulating the Integrated Legal Aid Policy 2019 by bringing together key actors and institutions responsible for legal aid delivery. The Policy was formulated with an understanding that free legal aid is key to protecting and promoting fundamental rights of the general public particularly women and the poeple from poor and marginalized communities. Currently, we are in the process of finalising the Legal Aid Bill in line with the Integrated Legal Aid Policy and the 2015 Constitution.

Building capacities of Judicial Committees at the local level is another focus area. On that front, we are working in Province 1, Madhesh, Karnali, and Sudurpashchim provinces. Province 1 was added in the second phase of the project. These provinces were selected because they have a comparatively lower Human Development Index. We have developed training courses and working guidelines, and have organised residential trainings for the committee members to enhance their capacity to deliver justice. This has contributed significantly to improving the performance of the committees. For future planning and implementation, we have compiled all of the learning, experience, and best practices implemented so far.

Since we are operating under a new federal system of governance, we have also come up with research reports and insights on legislation in the changed context. The project has supported the technical aspects of the law-making process at the federal, province and local levels by providing necessary human resources and facilitating consultations and discussions among civil servants and representatives of the various political parties.

We also led an extensive discussion series with business communities on the links and relationships between human rights and business. The discussions have helped sensitise Nepali entrepreneurs on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 2011 and identify what aspects of fundamental human rights they should follow. The discussions in turn also allowed us to understand the grievances of the business community. As a result, the government is currently working on a federal-level policy related to business and human rights, which has been acknowledged by the National Human Rights Commission in its national strategic plan.

In all these activities, our central priority has been women and marginalised groups, those who are left behind. The understanding is that access to justice is everyone’s fundamental right, including the marginalised. 

Overall, I have seen the project make remarkable achievements in all these areas. I hope there will be more to share in the coming days.

The project has evolved over the years as the country transitioned from a unitary to a federal system, and through the COVID-19 crisis. What has been learned and how has this experience shaped the project?

In general, we focused on priority areas that were agreed upon when we rolled out the new phase of the project in 2018. However, we have learned a few important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and have made the necessary adjustments.

Over the last few years, our working modality has responded to changing circumstances. The COVID-19 global pandemic, for example, forced us to utilise information communication and technology to switch to virtual meetings, which helped us to reach out to the general public and other stakeholders even during the crisis.

We have also been exploring the concept of ‘e-judiciary’. In line with existing judicial procedures and court practices, we have been trying to develop programmes to make the judicial process easier, efficient and more transparent so that we justice delivery is not hampered even during a crisis. For example, we are exploring how lawyers representing both plaintiffs and defendants can participate virtually in hearings.

Similarly, we are developing training modules on law-making, prosecution, legal investigation, and research through virtual platforms while also taking the evaluation and quality control process online. We have already rolled out a few products, like an online course on basic law-making where we provide unique access codes to interested people who can then enrol in the online training at their convenience and learn about the basics of law-making. Launched through the Office of the Attorney General, the online course also provides e-certificates to participants after the completion of the required credit hours.

In the coming days, we hope to reach out to more Judicial Committees for capacity development. We aim to connect all Judicial Committees and ensure they have access to the required legal information and resources such as legal documents, guidelines, working procedures, the Nepal Gazette, decisions of the Supreme Court, and so on.

What has cooperation between the government and its international partners been like in this initiative? What role do you see for partners in the coming years? 

The Government of Norway has been supporting Nepal in the areas of law and justice for a long time now. Some 20 years ago, the Nepal Bar Association and the Norwegian Bar Association first started cooperating on institutionalising legal aid. Irrespective of changes in their government and leadership, Norway has never overlooked the need for support in Nepal’s priority areas. The Government of Nepal appreciates this continued support and I too would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Norwegian government and their embassy in Nepal.

I feel that this support should continue in the coming days as there is a strong need for assistance in the changed context, especially under the current federal system where governments at all three levels have limited resources, technology, and capacities. I believe the Norwegian Government can play a significant role in helping Nepal address these needs.

I would also like to express my gratitude to UNDP for all the support and for playing a leadership role. With its support, all the institutions in the justice system – the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission, Nepal Bar Association, and the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs – along with other related provincial institutions have witnessed tangible changes. I believe that this support will continue in the future as well.

(Learn more about UNDP's Access to Justice Project in Nepal)