ASJP-funded workshop on Legal Aid Guide ends

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July 31, 2015

The Legal Aid Board concluded a two-day ASJP (Access to Security and Justice Programme) funded workshop on the finalization of the Legal Aid Guide. The Guide sets out procedures under which the scheme would operate to be able to provide legal aid.

The workshop, which was hosted at the Cube Restaurant, Marine House in Freetown from the 28 to 29 July, attracted representatives from diverse spectra of society including Civil Society Movement, Local Councils, Sierra Leone Parliament, University of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Sierra Leone Police, Sierra Leone Correctional Services, Council of Paramount Chiefs, Sierra Leone Bar Association, UN Women and DFID.

Various speakers underscored the importance of the scheme in ensuring the justice system serves the interest of all Sierra Leoneans. The Chairman of the workshop, Hon. Ajibola Manley-Spaine, who doubles as Chair of the Legislative Committee in Parliament, said he is no stranger to Legal Aid scheme. He recalled being involved with one implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Sierra Leone Bar Association in the past.

He further noted that he has also been involved with the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board right from the outset, working on the bill and ensuring it is passed into law. “I am therefore very much interested in seeing it succeed,” he stressed.

He called on lawyers to copy the shining example of three late legal luminaries – D.B. Quee, Osho-Williams and Claude Campbell – whowere very popular for providing free legal services to the poor. He encouraged experienced lawyers not to leave the scheme to young and inexperienced lawyers.

The Chairperson for the Legal Aid Board, Hon. Justice Adelize Showers of the Court of Appeal, underlined the fact that the vast majority of people affected by the criminal justice system are the poor and marginalized who hardly possess sufficient resources to protect themselves, and a large number of whom do not have access to legal representation.

She argued that the cost of legal services may be prohibitive and may prove difficult to provide at the early stages.However, the social benefits and economic savings such services may bring in addition to their positive impacts on the rights of individuals and their families may far outweigh any financial consideration. She therefore called on government and donors to provide the necessary financial support the scheme needs to perform a task she described as enormous.

The Deputy Team Leader of Access to Security and Justice Programme (ASJP), Ms. Amie Kandeh, underlined her organization’s commitment to supporting government to ensure increased access to justice especially for the poor and vulnerable. She lauded the initiative to set up the Legal Aid Board and pledged her organization’s continued support to it.

In his presentation on the Legal Aid Act, distinguished senior legal luminary, Mr. FrancisGabbidon, described the Legal Aid Act as ‘a game changer’ which he argued will revolutionize criminal and civil justice in the country. “The scheme will make justice accessible, affordable, credible and sustainable,” he noted and further underscored the role of actors – accredited civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, paralegals, law clinics – in the scheme.

Mr. Gabbidon talked participants through the seven parts and forty sections of the Act. He particularly underlined the difficulty participants will face in determining qualification for legal aid, which he noted is not unique to Sierra Leone.

The head of UN Women in Sierra Leone, Dr. Mary Okumu, said women are still disadvantaged in enjoying protection of the rule of law on the basis of equality with men. “The gender gap between the legal provisions and practice in the administration of justice is profound and outstanding,” she noted.

She added that access to justice for women is still fraught with challenges and noted that her agency will provide support in ensuring a transformative agenda to ensure equality for women. “We will support legislation of progressive gender equality laws and their implementation through Access to Justice Programme,” she noted. “These processes must guarantee that women, men, boys and girls receive fairness and justice in redress to any violation of their rights.”

She emphasized that the guide must be inclusive to signal a justice system that is pro-poor and responsive to the rights and concerns of different categories of women and men, boys and girls. In addition, she noted that it must define access to justice system, processes and services that are gender responsive and accessible to all women, men, boys and girls particularly those who are marginalized and excluded.

The workshop was climaxed by discussions on the suggestions on the draft Legal Aid guide from the three working groups. The qualification for legal aid attracted the most scrutiny. The consensus among participants was that the maximum net monthly income of five hundred thousand leones (Le500,000) for qualification for legal representation is too low. One group suggested that it should be increased to one million, five hundred thousand leones (Le1,500,000).

It was also suggested that rather than stipulate an amount, the Guide should speak of the minimum wage at the time of applying for the legal aid.
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In addition, other factors should be taken into consideration in assessing eligibility for applicants. This includes unemployment in the formal sector, engaging in subsistent farming, lack of asset or property, dependants and vulnerable groups and the person should not be engaged in income generating activities.

It was also suggested that termination of representation as stipulated in the Guide is harsh. It was therefore suggested that it should be based on the decision of a review panel. Provision of legal aid to asylum seekers and capital offences also came under scrutiny with some suggesting that the former should be left with the UNHCR to handle for now while the latter is already catered for by the judiciary.

In her reply, the Executive Director maintained that legal aid the world over is available to asylum seekers and there is no reason why Sierra Leone should be an exception although the Board will prioritize in respect of the immediate categories of people who need legal aid.

The workshop ended with the setting up of a committee to finalize the Guide, which will take on board suggestions and decisions reached by participants.