Access to justice
One of the main prerequisites fundamental for the full enjoyment of rights by citizens is an unencumbered access to justice, ready and available to the citizens of any democratic country to the ever-growing unmet legal need.
However, and regrettably, access to justice for a great number of people has remained elusive or non-existent.
The problem is further exacerbated by the high cost of litigation in Ghana.
It cost a whopping GH¢1,000 in consultation fees for senior counsel, a category I fall in.
Also, hourly rates as authorised by the Ghana Bar Association (GBA) can go up to as much as GH¢1000 for senior counsel.
Relative to average earnings in the country, the figure is well above most ordinary people.
Human rights litigation, which most ‘poor’ people need to access to seek redress for the countless human rights abuses they encounter on a daily basis, does not come cheap: It ranges between GH¢6,000 to GH¢30,000.
It is even more expensive to litigate in other areas of the law.
The situation is more acute in the criminal sphere as many offenders that become embroiled in the criminal justice system are ordinary people with low wages or in most cases, without a wage at all.
Invariably, this dire situation leads to a situation where many accused persons appear in court without legal representation.
This unfortunate but regrettable state of affairs has no doubt contributed to the high number of accused persons on remand and languishing in Ghanaian Prisons.
According to Statista.Com, as of February 2023, there were 1,862 remand prisoners in Ghana.
This figure is ‘respectable’ juxtaposed against previous years as for example in 2005, the figure was as high as 3.6 thousand.
A programme, championed by the Judiciary, called Justice for All, has been very effective and has significantly contributed to the ‘low’ numbers of remand prisoners in Ghana currently.
The Legal Aid Commission was created to address the seemingly intractable problem of access to justice. Laudable as it was, the Legal Aid Commission is bedevilled with many problems that frustrate the commission to deliver on its goals.
The commission is confronted with massive challenges – human resource, inadequate infrastructure and logistical support – that militate against its work.
In terms of human resources, there is a near catastrophic lack of lawyers employed by the Legal Aid Commission to deal with the high numbers of cases it receives weekly.
According to a Policy Brief on Legal Aid (No.2, August 2022) – In the year 2020, the commission received, 9,133 cases under its Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and resolved 5,535 of them, with 3,598 pending.
Similarly, the Commission received 2,456 cases and managed to resolve 1,115 with 1,341 pending.
In a Joy News report on November 2, 2020, the Executive Director of the Commission lamented the paucity of lawyers working for the commission.
He said the commission only had 33 lawyers on its books with Accra only having seven, in a country with over 30 million citizens.
Infrastructure wise, the situation is nothing to write home about.
In the said bulletin, the Executive Director is heard saying there were five staff officers to a single room.
The problem is compounded in the regions.
Legal Aid Officers are not in all the districts of Ghana, further preventing the commission from delivering on its mandate.
It is clear from the foregoing that the Legal Aid Commission is heavily constrained in terms of human and infrastructure resources, which militates against its proper and efficient operation.
The following suggestions might go a long way in solving some of the problems.
There should be a massive drive to increase the pool of lawyers working for the Commission.
The catch phrase of this policy must necessarily be a sophisticated scheme to attract and more importantly retain lawyers.
Obviously, to achieve this, the salaries and working conditions of the lawyers at the Legal Aid Commission must be made competitive.
Additionally, the government must endeavour to establish offices in almost all Districts of Ghana.
Such offices should be decent and adequately resourced.
Another area worthy of a closer look is to revitalise the pro-bono system at the bar with a sustained campaign by the members to cultivate a habit of offering free legal representation to indigent members of the society.
The writer is a lawyer.