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Legal aid: A difficult promise to keep

Originally published in Public Agenda on August 24, 2012.

By Schuyler Durham

The Legal Resources Centre, an NGO focusing on human rights in the legal sphere, sponsored a meeting on legal fee waivers for indigents during the 2012 elections on Wednesday, August 22, 2012.

The meeting was headed by the Director of Legal Aid, Mr Al-Hassan Yahaya Seini, and included representatives from a variety of stakeholders in legal justice, including political party representatives, members of the media and human rights organisations.

Ghana’s 1992 Constitution assures all citizens the right to legal justice, regardless of financial worth. However, indigents, who Mr Seini defined as those making the minimum wage or below, often do not receive service from lawyers or representation in court to the extent that the Constitution declares. Simply walking into a lawyer’s office for legal consultation can cost 500 Ghana cedis and, as Mr Seini pointed out, “I’m not sure how many [Ghanaians] make 500 Ghana cedis a month.” Other financial barriers include gathering evidence, ferrying witnesses and filing fees. When finished, the entire legal process can cost up to 5000 Ghana cedis.

While all fees would ideally be waived for qualified indigents, a problem emerges as Ghana tries to determine who should pay for it. Mr Seini noted that no one expects lawyers to work for free all the time, and as such someone needs to help pay. The Constitution puts that responsibility into the hands of the state.

In 1997, Parliament passed Act 542, which established a scheme for regulating legal aid, as well as creating a board who oversee the application of the law. The board receives applications for legal aid and decides who qualifies for waived fees. The board also oversees lawyers who are either selected by the board to provide aide, lawyers obliged to do national service, or recommended by regional lists of available lawyers. The legal aid board has a limited presence across the nation, with legal aid centres located only at regional capitals. The centres, Mr Seini said, “could be a lot bigger… could be a lot better.”

The consequence of the lack of many centres is decreased accessibility for Ghanaian citizens, especially those from rural areas. While conflicts like land disputes are common, justice is hardly ever served since parties involved lack the funds for simply commuting to and from the legal aid centres.

Another consequence of the inadequacy of legal aid centres is the lack of awareness. Few Ghanaians, especially those who need legal help the most, are aware of what the Constitution promises them. Many individuals at the meeting voiced their concern about the lack of information readily available to the public. Mr Seini agreed, saying that lack of resources is a major issue in this regard. He hopes that radio discussion of legal aid will increase in the future. He also noted that there is an effort to establish a week of recognition, “Legal Aid Week,” though plans to follow through with the idea were put on halt this year. Previous attempts at Legal Aid Week produced unsatisfactory results, bringing in little attendance and hardly sparking any social change.

Other issues with the legal system brought to the attention of those at the meeting included the difficult language associated with what Mr Seini referred to as “formal justice.” Formal justice needs English transcription, which creates a language barrier for the percentage of Ghanaians who are illiterate in English. Even those who can read and write in English find difficulties within formal justice, as the vernacular of the courts is often weighted down with unnecessarily large words and contrived language.

Throughout the meeting, a concrete solution to increase funds was never settled upon. Everyone attending the meeting agreed that all citizens have a right to equal legal aid, though there was little more than vague speculation as to how this human right can be more assuredly provided. Mr Seini himself agreed that the poor were not receiving the justice they deserved under the current Constitution, commenting “if we are going to exclude the poor, we should say so [in the Constitution] in more clear terms.”

As for his personal role, Mr Seini feels like he is not in a position to say that the poor deserve more than they get. That role, according to Mr Seini, belongs to civil societies, organisations, and average citizens like you the reader.

Writer is a student from University of Oregon, Eugene, United States.

Read the entire article online here…


1 Comment

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