The High Court issued a rule on June 23 on why it will not send out instructions to set up air-conditioning in all district courts of the country and asked the secretaries of law, power, finance ministries and the public works department to respond within four weeks. The rule came after advocate Moksed Ali filed a public interest litigation (PIL) on April 11 this year, regarding the absence of air conditioners in district courtrooms. Lawyers, judges, and people who have to appear at court suffer from unbearable heat in courtrooms in the summer.
Lawyers of district courts claim that authorities pay little heed to the numerous problems they regularly face in their workplace. For example, a few days ago, the public prosecutor of Gazipur judge court, Alhaj Haris Uddin Ahmed, lost consciousness due to extreme heat in the courtroom. “It’s too hot these days, and we demand air conditioning in the courtrooms so we can work comfortably,” he says.
Advocate Haris’s demand is legitimate; many courtrooms can only seat 20 people (including lawyers) whereas at least 200 people show up. Only five or so electric fans is not enough to cool stuffed courtrooms. “One-third of these fans don’t even work, but the concerned authorities take no initiatives to fix these. But why should that be, when the courts earn over 10 crores per month?” says advocate Chaitanya Halder, from Dhaka judge court. At the judge court, only the metropolitan sessions judge court and the chief judicial magistrate court are air-conditioned.
“Most of the courts also don’t have any generators. Sometimes, when the electricity goes off, trial processes are hampered. The judges might use small fans, but it is very difficult for the lawyers and other people in the room to tolerate such heat, “says another lawyer, of Gazipur judge court, on condition of anonymity.
Seating crises are particularly common in district courtrooms outside Dhaka. “There aren’t enough seats both in the courtrooms and the common room—the courtrooms only seat around 15 and those stools too are in poor condition,” says advocate Abdul Jabbar Masum, from Brahmanbaria judge court.
Lawyers of the lower courts have also long been demanding a change in their dress code. The tradition of a black coat, gown, tie and collar band is a colonial one, handed down from the British period. While such an elaborate outfit may make sense for the British weather, in Bangladesh, where it is hot for most of the year, advocates call for this outfit to be changed and for the dress code be set in accordance with our weather. “It’s difficult to wear these gowns on hot days, especially when we are running back and forth from our chambers to the courtrooms,” says advocate Noorjahan Kabir of Dhaka judge court.
Asaduzzaman Khan Rochi, secretary of the Dhaka Bar Association, agrees that the heavy dress code needs to go. But, having talked to many leaders of the bar councils about the lawyers’ demands, he concludes that changing the lawyers’ dress code might hamper their dignity. “If it is withdrawn, it will be difficult to differentiate the lawyers from the clients. When we discussed this matter, some said only a gown would be appropriate, while others asked to keep the coat only. This is why we are yet to come to a decision.”
Aside from the dress code, the lawyers are also vocal about infrastructural problems at the district courts. There’s a severe shortage of courtrooms in the Dhaka judge court. “The Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Daman (Women and Children Repression Prevention) Tribunal has nine courts but only five courtrooms. They need to share the rooms by coordinating the time slots of trial procedures,” says advocate Rochi. “Meanwhile, the cyber tribunal that deals with important militant cases has no courtroom at all. The same problem applies to the anti-terrorism tribunal. They need to depend on others to conduct their cases. This is unfortunate,” he comments.
With the number of cases so high at the lower court, it is no surprise that the court must accommodate people beyond its capacity. It is quite alarming, however, that nearly 50,000 people use the only staircase in the 10-storied building of the Dhaka chief metropolitan magistrate (CMM) court from 10 in the morning until court ends for the day. “In the morning, when the court opens it is all we can do to squeeze through the crowd. There are lifts but not enough for everyone who come every day. You will find the same thing in the metropolitan sessions judge court and the district court building,” says advocate Joy Kumar Kanjilal from Dhaka judge court.
On March 7 this year, at least 14 people, including a few lawyers, were injured when a lift in the old building of Dhaka district judge court crashed. The lift had been installed in 1980. One employee later died and a few injured are still undergoing treatment.
In addition to the heat, even a little rain floods the court premises and makes it difficult for lawyers and other visitors to navigate in the downpour. In Dhaka judge court, the bar association secretary is trying to establish a footbridge to be able to move freely from the CMM court to the judge court. “We have already talked to the law and housing ministries and the public works department. We hope that they will look into it soon,” says the Dhaka bar association secretary.
Star Weekend also spoke to several female lawyers who mentioned that the condition of the washrooms is particularly bad in most of the district courts. When walking anywhere near these, you will be compelled to cover your nose. There are also no separate washrooms for women. According to advocate Sumaiya Zaman, it is most difficult for when women are on their period, because most bathrooms are in poor condition.
“There is a bathroom in the women lawyers’ common room at the Dhaka judge court, but nobody can use it as it’s almost abandoned. The toilets on the other floors are not female-friendly at all. It is very unfair to women visiting the court. There is also no breastfeeding corners for women who come to the court with babies,” she adds.
Those who come to seek justice face the most trouble as they are not allowed to stay in the courtrooms and there is no separate seating arrangement for them. Although there are one or two ramshackle wooden chairs scattered in the corridors, it is difficult to find a space to sit. The premises are always overcrowded and pushing and shoving to get through is a given.
Numerous hawkers occupy the premises, and even the corridors inside, selling street food. Although thousands of people gather there every day, the authorities don’t maintain minimum cleanliness—overflowing garbage bins in the corridors are a nuisance for the lawyers who work there year-round as well as passers-through.
“There is no information centre, I have to ask random people to help find the exact location of a specific tribunal or a courtroom. Older people especially don’t have the physical strength to climb up all the stairs of a 10-storied building,” says 48-year-old Amina Begum, the sister of a defendant, who has been coming to the courts frequently.
Star Weekend contacted Md Shahadat Hossain, the chief engineer of the public works department, to find out whether there are any plans to refurbish and modernise the infrastructure of the district courts. He shares that a project referred to as the chief judicial building project is currently underway. “Under this project, a good number of modern buildings are being constructed in almost every district court. The old buildings will gradually be replaced with those new buildings. They have already completed the construction in many districts,” he says.