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Justice in ramshackle courts

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
 A dock at the Accra Central District Court
A dock at the Accra Central District Court

This past week, I have been thinking about what building there is in a Ghanaian town or community that will be regarded as the most important or which defines the town and community.

Once upon a time, I would list the chief’s palace, the police station, the church, (it is difficult to talk about the church building in a little town these days, when at the last count, my little village had 13 different churches), the Post Office, (an endangered specie if ever there was one), the school, the community centre and if you were in the district capital, then these days you would count the district assembly building and the various things that come with it.

Community centres used to be the most desired structures and a favourite building that the Youth Development Association would raise funds for.

It would be the centre of all activity in the town. Then the church hall became important and would serve as the meeting place for funerals, weddings, parties and political activities.

You would notice I haven’t brought in the courthouse.

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I spent my formative years in the Volta regional capital Ho but I don’t recall that I knew or had any idea where the court building was in the town.

If I thought about the courthouse, I certainly did not think I would have anything to do there.

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A far cry from the situation in the United States. For the Americans, there is no doubt that it is the courthouse that is part of the iconography of American life, it is at the heart of every town and is equivalent to the city hall as the symbol of the municipality in European cities.

Let me illustrate the point I am trying to make with a quote from Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (United States Supreme Court, 1972-1987): “Public buildings often accurately reflect the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people, For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local centre of the law and government, but as a meeting ground, cultural hub and social gathering place”.

State of the courts

This past week, I have been in the company of the Chief Justice, Her Ladyship, Justice Sophia Akuffo as she went round the Western and Western North regions to visit and see for herself the state of the courts in those parts.

She had been to some other regions already and had been making public her displeasure about the general state of the court buildings in the country.

Obviously, the courthouse in Ghana does not occupy the type of iconic status a courthouse does in the United States, but what I saw after a week of trudging around and seeing every court building in the Western Region, deepens my fear that all we have is a façade of a state.

We hear the legal people talk endlessly about “the honourable court”, it is my view that it is impossible to conduct any honourable business in the ramshackle structures that pass for courthouses in parts of the country. And I will have great difficulty submitting to the pretension that these were official buildings where the people worked, deserved any respect.

For the majority of the population, our only contact with the judiciary will be in the magistrates’ courts, that is where you get married, that is where the disputes that are part of everyday life are settled, the petty thieves are sent away and these are the places that are quite frankly not fit for purpose.

Leaking roofs, backless benches and tables made heavier by generations of accumulated grime are what define the courthouses.

I saw courthouses that had not seen a coat of paint since they were built and were first used as community centres or local assembly halls or offices of the colonial District Commissioners.

They were Dickensian in outlook and I thought it a wonder that anyone could work in a place like that and still manage a smile.

I thought it an even greater wonder that anyone could look for and find anything in that building.

There were often no shelves or cupboards in the rooms in which the dockets and other court materials were kept.

Then it struck me forcibly that these are the places where lawyers, members of the “honourable” profession dress up in all their frippery daily and go to speak in a language that is not easily understood by non-lawyers.

Why didn’t journalists report deterioration?

I stopped in mid outrage when I took a look at the journalists who had thronged around the Chief Justice, shoving their cameras and microphones into her face to capture her displeasure.

These journalists go to the courts regularly to report on cases.

They file reports and news stories from these places.

Could it be that the journalists had never noticed the desperate state of these buildings and it had to take the Chief Justice to arrive to point out that the ceilings were caving in before they would report on the state of the courthouses?

If lawyers and journalists go to a place every day to earn a living and that place hasn’t got an advocate, it seems to me it is doomed to be a place of misery forever.

The responsibility to provide suitable courthouses lies on the Metropolitan, Municipal and District assemblies, and that seems to me to be an admission that nobody is in a hurry to provide suitable court buildings.

Faced with the clamour to provide schools, drainage, toilets, water and markets etc.

it is not surprising that court buildings don’t rank very high on the must-do list of the assemblies.

Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo is on a crusade to shame the assemblies into waking up to their responsibilities.

For the first time, there is a prototype design of what a court building should be like and this has been sent out to all the assemblies.

The Municipal and District Chief Executives all seem anxious to do what the law says they should do and build the courthouses, but they all mutter under their breaths the assemblies are handicapped because of lack of funds.

As one brave queen mother put it, if they have to choose between building school blocks and courthouses, they would build the schools first.

That sent my mind racing to a scene in Liberia when I was covering the civil war and to the empty classrooms that could not be used because there was no peace.

It will take a brave person to sit in an assembly in this country and vote against building a classroom for children and use the money to build a courthouse to try those who break the law.

The majority of our court buildings are in a disgraceful state and not fit for purpose.

It is time to have a conversation on how important we, as a people, want to rate the places where justice is dispensed.

It is probably also time for the courts to rethink some of their practices; maybe they should allow cameras inside the courtrooms, even if it is only to show the leaky and crumbling roofs.

I must mention the honourable exception of Half Assini and Nkroful where the court buildings met the exact standards of the Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo.