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Dr. Masrur Salekin on the existing gaps in ensuring quality legal education and proper implementation of environmental laws in Bangladesh, as well as the role of Commonwealth in filling those gaps

Interviewed by Commonwealth Chamber Correspondent Arafat Reza

Dr. Masrur Salekin is an expert in environmental law, constitutional law, human rights and economic law with over fourteen years of experience as a judge in Bangladesh and a few years as a legal practitioner. He previously worked in the Legal Affairs Department at IPDC Bangladesh Ltd and as Senior Legal Counsel in the Legal and Compliance Department at BRAC.

He has also worked as a Research Supervisor for the law, innovation, and professional skills module at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG).

As a recognition of his academic excellence and professional background, he was awarded the prestigious Hardiman Research Scholarship from NUIG to fund his doctoral studies and has recently been awarded a PhD in Law for his thesis titled “Judicial Pro-Activism and Collaborative Constitutionalism: Ensuring Environmental Justice in India, Ireland, and Bangladesh”. Prior to this, he was awarded the prestigious British Government Chevening Scholarship in 2009 to pursue an LL.M. in International Law and Development at the School of Law, University of Nottingham, UK.

He is a member of the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) and the Irish Environmental Law Association.

In this interview with our correspondent Arafat Reza, he reflects on his legal journey thus far, reflecting upon and discussing the flaws that exist in legal academia and practice in Bangladesh, the barriers that exist in developing a comprehensive legal regime to protect the environment and its enforcement, and what role the Commonwealth must play in removing these challenges.

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in law?

A. I was inspired by my father to study law; he was highly impressed by two young judges travelling with him by train back in 1998 which led him to pursue a career in the legal profession.

Since I was a child, I saw my father, who was the Metropolitan Magistrate in Chattogram in the early 90s, conduct criminal trials. It was an inspiring experience for me to see how lawyers make arguments and how my father applied judicial craftsmanship in reaching judgments. My early learning in court management began with father’s work which makes it even more special to me.

Q. You’ve been exposed to various corners of our legal fraternity at different times through your professional commitments. Do you believe we have made significant progress toward building a progressive and modern circuit to keep up with the rest of the world? If not, what are the impediments, and how do you think we can overcome them?

A. Although it may come as a surprise to many, awareness and application of legal research is almost non-existent within our academic and professional legal frameworks.

Despite being a critical component for success in law (both academically and professionally), legal research remains a neglected field in Bangladesh. We only learn the fundamentals of conducting legal research when we go abroad for postgraduate studies. It is high time we begin developing a legal research culture in our country and teaching law students the art of conducting impactful legal research.

Moreover, students in law schools receive inadequate career counseling. It is crucial that law schools take initiatives to make law graduates aware of their potential and offer fitting prospects with incentives to motivate to come back.

There are also considerable gaps between academia and professional life. For example, when we go to court, what we learn in law school is of little help. Academics appear to live a life disconnected from the practical world, which is why practitioners should teach at least procedural laws. In teaching theory and law, it is extremely crucial to combine practical experience with academic literature, which I believe will help law graduates achieve excellence.

Adequate training in drafting appeals, pleas and such is also a necessity. This is where the Commonwealth countries can work together. Students, lawyers, judges, and academics can all benefit from exchange programs between hosting institutions. The Commonwealth can assist in bringing together relevant key personalities from various Commonwealth countries to discuss and lay the groundwork for developing exchange programs among themselves, among other things.

Q. You have studied environmental law and judicial activism in great detail. Can you please tell us what role the judges (especially in a developing country like Bangladesh) can play in protecting the environment? Do you believe that our country has progressive environmental laws in place? If not, do you think they’ll be available soon? What, in your opinion, can be done to accelerate this change?

A. Bangladesh has had a specialised environmental court for a long time, though it has not been fully operational due to executive dysfunction and a lack of environmentally trained and sensitised judges, lawyers, and court staff.

In Bangladesh, the development of environmental jurisprudence has been inadequate, and in most environmental cases, judgments and their implementation have been delayed or disregarded.

However, it is worth noting that there has been a trend in the rise of tailoring traditional non-environmental rights claims as Public Interest Litigation (PIL), which has been done because Bangladeshi courts have been spontaneous and assertive in many cases involving environmental issues.

Despite the fact that several statutes guarantee the rights, access to information and public participation in environmental issues in Bangladesh is extremely limited for a variety of reasons, including a lack of education and awareness, a lack of interest, and dearth in relevant environmental laws and policies.

Access to environmental justice is also suffering from the problems obstructing access, participation, effectiveness, and sustainability.

Although judges can play an important role in environmental protection, the multifaceted, polycentric, and complex technical nature of environmental problems makes it difficult for judges to comprehend the issue and reach a sound decision just on their own. The judiciary needs collaboration with legislative, regulatory, and enforcement mechanisms are required to achieve long-term and holistic environmental solutions that cater to the complex multi-faceted interests of all stakeholders.

For the orders given by the apex court to have a lasting impact, political support along with budgetary allocations at the local, municipal, and national levels are crucial to start and keep a momentum going. Campaigning for public awareness is another long term goal that must be undertaken simultaneously.

Q. Do you have any advice for those considering a legal career in Bangladesh?

A. If you are studying law, you should try to improve your analytical, drafting, and research skills, as well as your ability to write reflectively and critically. All of these things can be improved with more practice but effort is required to look beyond academic institutions for opportunities to learn.

These skills can be developed among law students across Commonwealth countries through collaboration and increased exposure to various courts and institutions, which the Commonwealth can facilitate by organising regular workshops, conferences, seminars, and meetings between key stakeholders from these countries and arranging more financial aid for exceptionally meritorious students.​