The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), 1948, places an obligation on every state to strengthen its justice system by ensuring that the fundamental human rights of people are not violated.
Article 11 of the Declaration requires that any person charged with a penal offence (connected with punishment given by law) has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, according to law, in a public trial at which he/she has had all the guarantees necessary for his/her defence.
These facilities include the provision of legal aid.
Legal aid is defined as free or inexpensive legal services provided to those who, for financial reasons, cannot afford to pay for the services of a lawyer.
According to the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Commission, Mr Yahaya Alhassan Seini, legal aid in the layman’s understanding is refered to as assistance given to persons in need and who deserve legal services.
Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, like its predecessor constitutions, makes provision for legal aid and the scheme falls under the concept of justice delivery and managed under the auspices of the Attorney General.
As the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, under Article 17, guarantees equality before the law.
It presupposes that every person under the Constitution should have equal access to the courts of law anytime that person’s rights are infringed, and needs to seek the assistance of the courts to obtain certain remedies or reliefs.
Available information on the history of legal aid in Ghana indicates that the scheme dates back to the colonial times and it explains that the practice of assigning private counsel to defend persons unable to afford their own lawyer began around the early 1940s.
Before the coming into force of the 1992 Constitution and all other enactments given raise to the provision of legal aid, the PNDC Government had enacted the Legal Aid Scheme Law 1987, (PNDCL 184).
This law was later repealed with the passage of the Legal Aid Scheme Act 1997 (Act 542).
In 2018 Parliament passed the Legal Aid Commission Act 2018 (Act 977), converting the Legal Aid Scheme into the Legal Aid Commission (LAC).
The provision of legal aid services in Ghana is a combined effort of several actors, namely public and private institutions, private legal practitioners and civil society organisations, among others.
The passage of Act 977 is in support of Ghana's effort at ensuring that constitutional democracy, rule of law and access to justice extends to the poor and vulnerable, who would otherwise be excluded from the formal justice delivery system.
It provides legal assistance for all who seek to defend or enforce the Constitution in accordance with Article 294 of the Constitution.
The commission also ensures legal representation for persons facing criminal proceedings which could result in a death penalty or life imprisonment such as murder, treason and manslaughter.
On juvenile justice issues, all children facing criminal proceedings are entitled to legal aid under the Juvenile Justice Act.
Availability of services
Explaining the level of accessibility of legal aid services in the country, Mr Seini in an interview with the Daily Graphic explained that the service was largely accessible to those at the national and regional level, but was more limited to those outside these places, as a result of some factors.
He mentioned some of the factors as financial and human resource constraints, huge demand for legal aid and inadequate infrastructure to enable the commission to operate from all the 260 districts in the country, adding that the absence of a comprehensive National Legal Aid Policy also contributed to the problem.
He said even with the limited resources, patronage of legal aid services was very high and could be higher, with the needed resources, pointing out that “on the average, the commission attends to 10,000 people in a year.”
In addition to the commission’s office in Accra, it also has offices in Sekondi/Takoradi, Kumasi, Sunyani and Tamale, and is in the process of setting up an office in Ho, with work on the project which started in 2007 yet to be completed.
He, however, indicated that the commission had been given the clearance to recruit 50 people and under that clearance, they were in the process of getting lawyers, ADR and administrative personnel.
Some innovative measures have been taken to advance the provision of legal aid services and these include the introduction of the Justice for All Programme under which special courts set-up in the various prisons to bring justice closer to the prisoners and to ensure that the poor and vulnerable in the prisons have access to justice, the Court-Annexed Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) system under which a judge or magistrate with the consent of the parties may, at any stage of proceedings, refer the case to ADR or any of the parties to the case may request for the case to be referred to ADR and the e-justice system.
According to Mr Seini, as part of efforts to develop a National Legal Aid Policy document for the operationalisation of legal aid in Ghana, the Law and Development Associates (LADA) Group and the Legal Aid Commission (LAC) Ghana have organised a stakeholder consultation meeting in Accra.
As part of the programme, the government’s Accountability, Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Programme (ARAP)-Ghana, sponsored by the EU, helped with the recruitment on the consultant, LADA, to assist the commission to prepare a comprehensive policy under the Legal Aid Commission Act
Stakeholder consultation meetings
The commission, he said, held two stakeholder consultation meetings in Accra and Tamale last month as part of efforts to develop a National Legal Aid Policy document for the operationalisation of legal aid in Ghana.
According to the director, the policy would help expand legal aid services, engage more legal aid personnel, develop a partnership with state and non-state legal aid providers to provide legal aid services.
He said the commission was seriously in need of an office space that would offer it the conducive environment to operate to ensure that what was envisaged with the passage of Act 977 would be achieved without leaving anybody behind in the access to justice.