The novel coronavirus pandemic has posed a big challenge to the country's legal system, which is already overwhelmed by a massive backlog of cases.
Owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, court proceedings are almost suspended and not a single case has been disposed of in any court of the country since March 25.
The number of cases in the Supreme Court and lower courts is almost six lakh and a few lakh more will be added to this figure.
As a result, people concerned have expressed fears that the case backlog may increase considerably.
They said if these cases are not settled quickly in alternative ways, the situation will worsen. It will take a long time to recover from this situation and the sufferings of justice seekers will also increase.
Figures available from the Supreme Court show that 328,924 cases were disposed of in the country's courts from December 1 last year to February 29 this year. Of these, 2,613 cases have been disposed of in the Appellate Division, 46,238 in the High Court and 281,073 in lower courts.
In terms of arithmetic, therefore, on average 1.9 lakh cases were disposed of every month before the outbreak of the pandemic.
According to the Supreme Court, not even a single case could be disposed of as courts have been closed due to the pandemic.
It said 21,410 cases were pending in the Appellate Division, 488,562 in the High Court and 30,88,291 cases in the lower courts till March this year.
Meanwhile, about one and a half lakh criminal cases were filed at police stations across the country from April 1 to June 1 during the pandemic, with many more cases waiting to be filed in courts.
No civil case has been filed in the last three months as civil cases have to be filed only in courts. As a result, the number of civil cases filed earlier could not be ascertained. However, according to the latest estimates of the Supreme Court, on average 50,000 new civil cases are filed every month.
From January to March 30 this year, 365,000 new criminal and civil cases had been filed in the Supreme Court and other courts.
Cases filed with police stations from April 1 to June 1 were transferred to courts, but no hearing or trial was held as court proceedings remained suspended.
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam has expressed his concerns about the increase in the backlog of cases due to the pandemic.
He said only a handful of virtual courts have been set up in the Supreme Court and lower courts, which only hear bail petitions of arrestees. The main trials of the case are at a complete standstill.
"As a result, we are quite worried about the backlog of cases needing to be dealt with after the pandemic. Planning is underway on how to get over this backlog," Alam told The Business Standard.
Barrister M Amir-ul Islam, a senior lawyer, said, "As the case backlog grows, our judiciary will go backward by two years."
The situation will take a turn for the worse. The reason, he said, is that more cases are filed against the average number of cases disposed of each month in normal times. During the pandemic, no settlement is being made, but the cases are growing in number.
He said many criminal cases are being filed with police stations at the moment. But civil cases are only filed in courts.
As a result, both justice seekers and court officials will have to struggle in handling cases once the situation improves.
He said now the number of cases currently is about 36 lakh. This will be enhanced by new cases coming in.
In addition to the criminal and civil cases being tried in the Supreme Court, there are about 94,000 writ cases. The veteran lawyer said that rule hearings or final hearings of the cases will also be a big issue for the judicial system.
Barrister Ajmalul Hossain QC, an internationally reputed legal expert, told The Business Standard that in times of the pandemic, many countries have conducted all judicial activities in judicial courts.
He cited the example of Singapore, where about 11,000 cases were disposed of between March and June. The number of cases is fewer there. Even so, the government had decided to continue court proceedings virtually.
He said the rate of Covid-19 infections in Singapore is comparatively higher than in Bangladesh.
It may be recalled that an ordinance was issued on May 9 for virtual courts to be conducted amid the pandemic. The next day, on May 10, the Chief Justice held a full court meeting with all the judges of the High Court through a video conference.
On the same day, the Supreme Court administration directed a holding of bail hearings only in lower courts virtually. However, the main trials did not take place in any case.
According to the Supreme Court administration, 95,523 bail petitions were disposed of in virtual courts across Bangladesh in 35 working days from May 11 to July 2, while bail was granted to 49,762 accused.
The Appellate Division at present has six judges, while the High Court has 97 judges. The lower courts have about 3,000 judges.
AM Amin Uddin, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told The Business Standard that many things are now getting back to normal. If the health risk of lawyers can be controlled, the courts can be reopened.
He said Bangladesh is not yet able to fully implement a virtual system in all courts. It needs time. Therefore, court activities can be conducted in accordance with health safety rules.
Barrister Junayed Ahmed Chowdhury, a lawyer for the Supreme Court, said the remarks by Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division of the Judiciary in England at the time of the coronavirus, were noteworthy. "It is conceivable that social distancing will continue for a long time and it will not be possible to go to our normal court environment until the end of 2020 or before 2021."
"We need to keep this change in mind because it will have an impact on the judicial system. The rationale behind postponing a case for a short period of time needs to be redefined in the light of this," said Barrister Junayed.
He added all the issues related to the need to complete trials, the adverse effects of delays in the judiciary, the increasing length of litigation and, above all, the need to ensure justice should be an essential element of judicial decision-making.