Only 16 out of 633 women prisoners received free legal aid in Punjab via the Women in Distress and Detention Fund

The fund’s administrative board had delegated all powers to provincial administrative committees, chaired by home secretaries, to dispose of cases.

According to reports, only 16 out of 633 women inmates in Punjab prisons are provided free legal assistance under the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act. A petition has been presented in the Lahore High Court to seek a court direction for making such assistance available for all women prisoners.

About the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act

According to petitioner advocate Nadeem Sarwar, the federal human rights ministry had recently established a massive fund for free legal aid and financial assistance to women prisoners under the two-decade-old law. The federal minister for human rights heads the fund’s board. Sources state that the board members include:

  • Two female parliamentarians from Senate and National Assembly
  • Two female social workers from each province
  • Provincial secretaries for home
  • Federal secretaries for women division and human rights

Misuse of the Women Detention Fund

As per Sarwar, the fund’s administrative board had delegated all powers to provincial administrative committees, chaired by home secretaries, to dispose of cases. Talking about the irresponsible behavior of these authorities, Sarwar said:

Since the creation of the Fund, many meetings of the administrative committee have been convened so far. It is surprising to submit that only 16 women out of 633 in Punjab jails had been provided legal assistance. According to information from the Punjab prisons department, eight women inmates in Sheikhupura jail, five in Sialkot prison, and three in Sargodha district jail had been provided free legal assistance under the Act.

Petitioner advocate Nadeem Sarwar further shared:

The Women in Distress and Detention Fund is not being utilized properly due to government inaction and non-implementation of the law. Upon assuming her office, Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari had claimed that the government would ensure the provision of free legal aid to women prisoners.

Sarwar continued to state:

However, the federal human rights ministry had not processed cases of hundreds of women languishing in jails due to lack of legal representation. Several women prisoners in different prisons of Punjab Province are behind bars for the rest of their lives for no other reason than their poor financial position.

The non-functional role of the Punjab Legal Aid Agency and Legal Aid and Justice Authority

Apart from the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, the Punjab Legal Aid Act 2018 and the federal Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act 2020 has provisions for free legal aid to poor and vulnerable prisoners. Speaking about this, Nida Aly, Executive Director of Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, said:

Unfortunately, Punjab Legal Aid Agency and Legal Aid and Justice Authority to be established under these laws are non-functional due to government inaction.

What is the way forward?

According to figures released in November 2021 by the Punjab prisons department, there were 914 women prisoners, including 644 under trial inmates, in all provincial prisons. These women deserve a fair trial by employing their right to free legal aid.

While the petition about the government’s failure to ensure free legal aid to women prisoners has been presented in the Lahore High Court, the case hasn’t made any progress yet. Justice Mirza Viqas Rauf sought replies from the federal and provincial governments on the petition on the 10th of January.

According to Nadeem Sarwar, the court has issued notices to the federal secretary for human rights, the Punjab home secretary, the inspector general of Punjab prisons, and the Punjab human rights secretary to submit their replies by the next hearing on the 26th of January. Hopefully, the petition will make some progress by then.

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