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Ironing out the old-wrinkles from the justice sector

The Justice Sector Strategic Plan 2018-2023 by the Anti-Corruption Commission throws some interesting lights on the challenges faced by our key players in the sector

By Sonam Choki

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in its Justice Sector Strategic Plan states as Bhutanโ€™s justice sector grows in size, complexity and relevance the need for it to evolve to meet emerging challenges also becomes fundamental.  

Given the changing times and multitude of changes it is, therefore, become imperative to define a strategic framework – or road map – for justice sector reform and development so that justice institutions can provide more accessible, inclusive, accountable, responsive, and quality services the Commission states.

ACC states that the importance of the justice sector as an integral element in the governance of Bhutan is increasingly becoming recognised. It also adds that a strong, responsive, and inclusive justice sector has a wider influence on society and the success of national development goals.

In a self-assessment undertaken by key justice sector institutions and stakeholders, the ACC document pointed out that some weaknesses in our judiciary system included, among others, inadequate coordination between institutions and lack of human resources capacity, capability, and retention.

The assessment states that there is lack of a framework for implementation of legal aid and weak data management that led to inadequate management and accountability. It also stated that legal institutions are often seen as being substantively accessible, but not considered as being approachable by the community.

โ€œThreat Increasing risks of corruption/weak ethics; lack of data and limited data accuracy; favouritism/nepotism and insufficient transparency in the criteria for appointments; and lack of administrative and financial independence.

In the strategic plan, it is reflected that the Royal Courts of Justice does not have adequate personnel which has become one of its biggest bottleneck in recent times.

The Secretariat, stationed in Thimphu at the Supreme Court under the Registrar General, is tasked to administer the Judiciary throughout Bhutan, as the District and Sub-district Courts do not have administrative personnel.

It is also reported that there is perceived lack of trust and confidence in the courts and justice sector with a social stigma existing if people need to go to court which, according to the report, is related to limited awareness of laws and the role of an independent judiciary.

Further, the absence of an institution-specific strategic plan makes it difficult for the Judiciaryโ€™s leadership to articulate and communicate a clear strategic direction for the institution, with the result that organisational planning and management is undertaken in the absence of a clearly defined strategic action agenda.

โ€œConsistency in decision-making and in the application of procedures and systems also provide challenges to accessing the courts, including the standardisation of process across all courts. These have the potential to impact on the quality of decision-making and to create uncertainty in the system as a whole,โ€ the strategic report states.

It was also found that while all judicial officers have law degrees, and a significant number have masters of law, court administration capacity is lower.

The strategic plan outlays that administration need to be strengthened both in terms of number and professionalism to allow judges to adjudicate cases effectively, and the establishment of specialised benches and specialisation was seen as a necessity.

โ€œWhile the Judiciary is seen as being independent in its decision-making function, it is not independent in terms of its administration, both personnel and financial, as finances are administered by RCSC and are governed by the Bhutan Civil Service Rules,โ€ it states.

Additionally, it states that financial independence of the institution is limited as budgets are subject to approval, refinement, and prioritisation by the Ministry of Finance.

Among others, it stated that low levels of legal literacy and limited access to legal advice result in most litigants appearing in Court in person as pro se (unrepresented) litigants. This situation was the exacerbated by lack of operational legal aid and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms/centres.

The Office of the Attorney General

The report also draws attention on the OAG who also come under the purview of their plan. However, the Plan has identified some glaring challenges for the OAG to weed-out in the years ahead.

ACC report on the Justice Sector Strategic Plan 2018-2023 states the use and management of the OAGโ€™s resources is limited as a result of a lack of human resource, planning, and management capacity in the organisation.

Further it has identified the key challenges which, among others, include an absence of succession planning, and a need to further expand its staffing and resources to respond to significantly increased workloads across all divisions.

The need to improve and expand the institutionโ€™s internal case management systems to provide adequate case management were identified, while data collection and dissemination also needed coordination and management between institutions in the sector.

It was stated that the OAG also need to standardise and document their processes and also streamle and standardise their use of English and Dzongkha throughout the justice/ legal process.

โ€œWith both these languages being used at different points in the justice process, staff must be proficient in both languages. Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity as to the role each language plays in the process and when it should be used,โ€ it stated.

The need to build the professional capacity and specialist knowledge, skills, and attitudes of its staff to better meet the emerging demands placed upon the organization were also highlighted.

Among others, it was staed that strengthening security for prosecutors from threats by defendants while prosecuting cases, so that they can perform their professional functions without threats, intimidation, hindrance, harassment, improper interference were also stated.

โ€œLegal literacy and awareness of rights in Bhutan are universally low. A further challenge, therefore, is to ensure coordination of such activities with other sector institutions with parallel mandates,โ€ it states.

The Royal Bhutan Police

As key stakeholders, the role of RBP has also a crucial part in the legal framework of the country. However, the institution continues to be faced with their own challenges. As a way forward, the plan identifies that one of the challenge for the RBP is to continue to improve capacity to serve the community, including the needs of women and children.

The limited capacity to analyse and produce quality and timely evidence, in particular through the development of local forensic analysis capability was also identified as one prime challenge for the RBP to consider.

Further, it was found that the absence of an institution-specific strategic plan made it difficult for the Policeโ€™s leadership to articulate and communicate a clear strategic direction, which resulted in organisational planning and management being undertaken in the absence of a clearly defined strategic agenda.

โ€œData collection and reporting, across all aspects of reporting of crimes and investigations, in particular with regards to crimes relating to sexual and gender-based violence/vulnerable groups; and enabling sex-disaggregated data needs to be initiated,โ€ it stated.

The need to refine accreditation of the police officers and strengthen capacity building programs for the new recruits to improve the quality of the Police Services were also reflected in the plan.

In addition, strengthening investigations capacity and development of more effective systems and guidelines to improve the consistency and quality of evidence being gathered were also recommended.

โ€œThere is also a need to professionalise the police to ensure that all officers receive training specific to respond to changing crime trends and to institutionalise improved evidence gathering system,โ€ the report further states.

Lastly, the need to continue to build partnerships with all justice sector institutions and civil society to promote institutional and community awareness and understanding of Police functions were also seen as some probable developments the RBP could pursue on.

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