Women are severely under-represented at the Bar in Bangladesh where the current male to female ratio of lawyers enrolled in the Bangladesh Bar Council (BBC) is approximately 10:1. To understand and address this gap, iProbono Bangladesh collaborated with UK Barristers and co-founders of Women Internationally Gaining Skills (WiGS), Sabina Khan and Samina Iqbal, to deliver an advocacy and skills training workshop for women lawyers and law students. The trainers, Sabina and Samina, have litigated in courts at all levels in the UK and were keen to respond to the gender gap in the profession and to advance women’s inclusion at the Bar. 20 women law students from ten law schools and 13 women lawyers from Dhaka and Chattogram were selected for the specialized advocacy workshop. For Sabina, this was an ideal opportunity to return to her roots, support her female peers at the bar and equip them with the highest standards of advocacy and other related skills.
As iProbono’s Junior Legal Analyst in Bangladesh, I was involved with the project from the start. This photo story provides you with a visual summary of the four-day project – from the inaugural dinner to the iProbono Bangladesh social event at the very end.
Travelling to Dhaka just before the COVID-19 pandemic halted international travel, the WiGS team met their iProbono colleagues – Arpeeta Shams Mizan, Bangladesh Legal Analyst, Meenakshi Menon, South Asia Program Analyst and me for dinner. The team discussed the plans for the days ahead and made arrangements for the scoping exercise with judges of the Dhaka Judge Court (the civil and criminal trial courts of Dhaka district) the next day.
Visit to the Dhaka Judge Court
Before initiating the workshop, the team conducted a series of scoping visits across Dhaka along with the barristers from London including the Dhaka Judge Court building that houses both the civil and criminal trial courts of the district. The team met with Ms. Shamsunnahar, District and Sessions Judge at the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal, Ms. Jesmin Ara Begum, District and Sessions Judge, Speedy Trial Tribunal and Ms. Ifat Mubina Eusuf, Joint District and Sessions Judge, Money Loan Court. In the Bangladeshi legal system, advocacy skills such as examination-in-chief and cross-examination of parties and witnesses are an essential part of trial court proceedings. Thus, it was pertinent for the team to get the insights of the trial court judges before the training. These interactions allowed the team to understand the areas that required focus and where they could help the participants improve their skillset.
The judges welcomed this initiative for skill development and stressed the importance of such training programs to enable the participation of women across all courts. District and Sessions Judge, Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal, Dhaka, Ms. Shamsunnahar opined, “In the future, such advocacy training programs should be held in collaboration with the local bar associations in all the districts of Bangladesh to enhance the advocacy skills of our legal practitioners.”
Meeting women judges, understanding the court proceeding and the role of women in the legal system gave the WiGS team an opportunity to consider their agenda and adapt their training to meet the needs of the participants. After these conversations they decided to allocate additional time to focus on advocacy skills training, i.e. teaching the techniques of effective examination-in-chief and cross-examination of witnesses.
Advocacy Skills Training
By the third day, the advocacy skills training for women law students began at the Faculty of Law, University of Dhaka (DU). Over the two-day session, the trainers would deliver workshops using the ‘Hampel Method’ – a foundation training for law students and newly qualified barristers in the UK, approved by the four Inns of Court in the UK.
At the beginning of the session, Professor Mizanur Rahman, Director, Centre for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), Faculty of Law, DU, shared his views on the importance of advocacy skills training for law students. He commented on the need for well-trained lawyers to improve the overall quality of legal practice in the country and urged the students to make the most of this opportunity. Professor Md. Rahmat Ullah, Dean, Faculty of Law, DU, was a special guest at the ceremony.
The first part of the advocacy training focused on examination-in-chief of witnesses. Students worked in pairs, where one posed as the lawyer and the other as the witness, and then vice versa. The trainers observed them closely and intervened only when it was necessary to provide feedback. In the afternoon, participants learned the art of cross-examination, where they were advised to be firm and persistent in their questioning to catch the witness off-guard.
A glimpse of the mock cross-examination: the lawyer tries to intimidate the witness while the witness struggles to give a satisfactory answer
On the second day of training, Sabina and Samina lead smaller group sessions with the participants to provide instructions for the day’s training. In one exercise, the trainers introduced the nuances of cross-examination – for many trainees this was the first time during their legal studies that they had the opportunity to participate in examining witnesses. The trainers in their observation of the group remarked that their performances had significantly improved over the course of two days, however, they underlined the importance of practising the techniques learnt in order to refine it further.
Peer-To-Peer Learning Sessions
The peer-to-peer learning sessions were particularly insightful and focused on pressing legal issues including forced marriage and transgender rights. The session was interactive and participants shared their experiences and insights, highlighting the difference between the legislations in the UK and Bangladesh on these topics. They spoke passionately about equal rights of individuals and condemned discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation. They pointed out how the legislative process in Bangladesh had failed to distinguish between the concepts of gender and sex, leading to the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community under national laws.
At the closing ceremony, I addressed the participants and highlighted the dearth of advocacy skills training programs in Bangladesh, these initiatives can enable students of law in Bangladesh to enhance their advocacy skills even before they enrol in the bar. Professor Md. Rahmat Ullah, Dean, Faculty of Law, DU and the chair of the closing ceremony also thanked everyone involved with organising the training and encouraged similar initiatives in the future. He referred to the collaboration between iProbono and CALS in 2018 and insisted on sustaining this bond even in the future.
Samina and Sabina lauded the performance of the students and expressed their desire to see them practicing in the courts of Bangladesh in future. “It was a privilege to work collaboratively in delivering a bespoke advocacy and skills related training program to current and future female barristers of Bangladesh,” remarked Sabina. Referring to the enthusiasm of the group during the training, Samina said: “The participants were keen from the outset and showed impressive improvement in their advocacy. This has paved the way for exciting collaborations in the future.”
Meenakshi Menon, iProbono South Asia Program Analyst, expressed her delight at being part of such an initiative on the occasion of International Women’s Day. She said: “When we set out to organize this training, we wanted to ensure that our efforts besides addressing gaps in legal knowledge will empower female students to pursue a career in criminal litigation – often perceived as a better fit for men. It was heartening to see them work diligently gaining remarkable skills and confidence over two days.”
On the final day, iProbono Bangladesh hosted a day-long session at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs – BILIA Auditorium. The training was attended by 13 women lawyers from Dhaka and Chattogram, currently practicing in both the lower courts and the apex court of Bangladesh. The programme began with a brief overview of the initiative followed by the training led by Samina and Sabina.
The iProbono Bangladesh Social
Following the Advocacy and Skills Training Program for Women Lawyers and Law Students, iProbono Bangladesh hosted a dinner for all the participants of the training on 8 March. The small gathering offered the panel lawyers and partner organisations in Bangladesh to meet each other in a relaxed environment and discuss their work.
The success of the training has gained momentum since March 2020 – iProbono is establishing a think-tank group with WiGS along with local bar associations at the district-level in Bangladesh. The objective is to roll-out more training sessions to support the professional development of women lawyers and law students in Bangladesh.
Based on the feedback from the participants, iProbono, ROLE UK and WiGS planned to develop a second program in Bangladesh. It will target a wider pool of women lawyers and law students and add more components to the training for effective learning. While the COVID-19 pandemic has halted such plans, for the time being, talks are underway to organise the training program in the districts of Dhaka and Sylhet in 2021.
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