In 1887, John Mensah Sarbah became the first Ghanaian lawyer to be called to the Bar. It was obviously a landmark occasion that helped establish the legal profession in the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast then did not have any institutionalised formal education in law and Mensah Sarbah was trained in England and called to the Lincoln Inn.
It was not until 1958, following Independence and the establishment of the Ghana School of Law that the country began to train lawyers locally.
According to historical records, while Charles Bannerman, James Bannerman, Edmund Bannerman, James Button Brew and George Blankson were on the roll of lawyers before Mensah Sarbah, they were Solicitors and Mensah Sarbah was the first Barrister to be called to the Bar.
Prior to Mensah Sarbah’s enviable feat, the Supreme Court of Judicature of the Gold Coast Colony was established in 1876 by an Ordinance of the Imperial Westminster, and it was heavily influenced by the British Legal System.
At its very early stage, the Court consisted of a Chief Justice and not more than four puisne judges.
Early days, evolution
As the legal system in the Gold Coast evolved over time, so did the Bar Association. In 1958, the Ghana Bar Association (GBA) drew its first Constitution and Code of Ethics and subsequently began organising regular annual conferences.
The GBA annual conferences have been regularly held except for some few years, when as a result of disruptions resulting from coup d’états the conference could not be held.
Today, the GBA has evolved as a democratic institution and the foremost association of lawyers in the country.
While membership of the association is not compulsory, being a member of the Association is a natural progression for an overwhelming majority of young lawyers.
And unlike the days of Mensah Sarbah, the legal system has evolved and under today’s system, the difference between a solicitor and a barrister in respect of who a legal practitioner is, has been erased.
Originally, the intended effect was to have a distinction between barristers and solicitors: the barrister, an advocate of the court and the solicitor, the counsellor and drafter of documents. But this system, inherited from the British legal system has virtually been discarded under the present system.
Under the Legal Profession Act of 1960, statutory authority was given to the lawyer as a legal practitioner, a term which embraces both the barrister and the solicitor.
At its nascent stages, the GBA was not a very formalised institution of lawyers.
Generally, the number of lawyers was small, and activities were largely social in nature with no record keeping of meetings.
The most senior lawyer was naturally considered as the leader and there was no structure to house a secretariat for the Association.
Today, the Association has a very formalised organisational structure with a permanent Secretariat in Accra and other regional offices.
Additionally, apart from national executives, there are regional executives who handle and coordinate affairs of the Association at the regional levels.
Over time, the GBA has evolved from being just being an association of lawyers, to becoming an organisation that also has an active voice on national discourse, contributing to important national discussions and influencing important national decisions and policies.
The GBA also plays key roles in shaping national policies through its statutory representations on agencies/institutions such as the National Media Commission, Lands Commission, Judicial Service Commission, Minerals Commission, Forestry Commission, among others.
Annual conferences, leaders
Since it formalized its activities, the GBA has organised about 27 National Conferences and has been led by a total of 27 National Presidents.
The first recorded President of the Association was Robert Samuel Blay who led the organisation from 1957 to 1959 although as indicated earlier, prior to him there were other leaders of the Association.
At the initial stages, executives were elected to serve terms of one-year but currently executives are elected to serve three-year terms.
Other notable personalities who have held the position of National President of the Association include JB Danquah (1962-1963), Victor Owusu (1963-1965), William Ofori Attah (1966-1967), Peter Ala Adjetey (1985-1989), Nutifafa Kuenyehia (1992 – 1995) and Sam Okudjeto (1995-1998).
2021 Conference, key issues
This year’s conference is expected to witness one of the most keenly contested elections of the Association with strong competitions at the positions for National President, Vice President and Treasurer.
The stand-out contest, perhaps, is the contest between Mr. Yaw Boafo, currently the National Secretary and former Ashanti Regional President and Mrs. Efua Ghartey, currently the Greater Accra Regional President, who are both vying for the position of National President.
The last Bar conference in Koforidua fielded three contestants for the position of National President: Mr. Tony Forson Jnr., Mrs. Efua Ghartey and Mr. Peter Zwennes with Mr. Tony Forson Jnr winning the national presidency of the Bar with his ICT message.
The key issues for this year’s election include the role of ICT in managing the affairs of the GBA, adaptability to COVID-19 continuing legal education for lawyers and remuneration for lawyers, particularly, newly enrolled lawyers.
Already, the current administration has laid a solid ICT foundation with the introduction of a customised IT platform that has simplified payment of relevant fees and remarkably improved renewal time of license for lawyers and chamber registration.
The virtual platform which was developed prior to the covid has simplified processes and lawyers can join continuing legal education seminars from the comfort of their homes or offices and abroad.
For the first time in the history of the GBA, the Annual General Conference is going to be held both physically and virtually.
The integration of virtual participation for this year’s Bar conference is also a testament of progress made in this area and a strong indication of the quick adaptability of the Association to the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going forward, members are expected to seek assurances from contenders as to how well these gains can be consolidated and enhanced to make the Association more efficient.
The issue of remuneration, particularly, for newly enrolled lawyers is also turning out to be a key election issue with concerns of many young lawyers that systems must be instituted to ensure some enhanced compensations for them.
This is an issue that strikes at the very heart of the practice. It is, perhaps, an issue that has persisted for several years and both candidates for the position of National President are paying the necessary attention to it.
Linked to this, is the quest for greater engagement of young lawyers and it is worthy to note that the current administration facilitated an amendment of the Constitution of the Bar to grant the Young Lawyers Forum, Women’s Forum and Corporate Lawyers representation on the General Council of the Bar.
Continuing Legal Education (CLE) for lawyers is also attracting considerable interest in this election as over the years, the high cost of legal education has limited the ability of the Association to provide free CLE to large numbers of lawyers.
Already, this current administration has chalked some successes in expanding access to CLE for lawyers but there is clearly clamour for more opportunities. How candidates convince their voters that this issue can be urgently addressed in the short term remains a challenge considering the huge cost involved in providing CLE for free or at highly subsidized fees to members of the Association.
This year’s GBA Annual General Conference is being held on the theme, ‘Ensuring an increase in revenue mobilization through taxation for the purpose of accelerated national development The role of the lawyer’.
The conference commences on Sunday, September 12 through to Friday, 17 in Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region.
The conference can be attended either in-person or virtually. The closing date for the registration is September 5, 2021 and it is expected that as many as 600 lawyers would register and participate in the conference as is the norm in the Bar ‘election year’.