Legal Aid Board engages Parliamentarians


Winifred Hannah Koroma

July 10, 2015 

The Executive Director of the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board, Ms. Claire Carlton-Hanciles told Parliamentarians on Wednesday, July 8, that the Legal Aid Board will assign paralegals to chiefdoms across the country to monitor Local Courts.  ‘The importance of these Courts cannot be over-emphasized. They service eighty percent of cases in the country.
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The reason for this is simple, they are conducted in the community and use the local language,’ she noted.

She further told MPs that she will be assigning paralegals to all the thirty-six police stations in Freetown to ensure rights of suspects are protected.  ‘Once Paralegals are assigned to police stations, suspects will have the right to demand they speak with them before they are detained’ she stressed.

In addition, she outlined plans to establish human rights clinics across the country and to also work with the Sierra Leone Bar Association to have its members provide legal services to indigent clients. ‘Each lawyer will be given ten cases to handle at any given time,’ she said.

Ms. Carlton-Hanciles was responding to questions from MPs following a power-point presentation entitled ‘Introducing Legal Aid to Sierra Leone.’ She had this to say in her opening remarks at the presentation to the MPs: ‘Legal aid is a pivotal element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law. It is an indispensable cornerstone for the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a fair trial.’

She again reminded MPs that the vast majority of those affected by the criminal justice system are the poor and marginalised who possess no resources to protect themselves and a huge percentage do not have access to legal aid.  She drew attention to the fact that access to a lawyer is the single most important precondition for suspects, detainees and accused persons to be able to exercise their rights. She added that paralegals also perform significant roles in attaining the objectives of access to legal aid.

She reminded the MPs of their obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates minimum guarantees in the determination of any criminal charge against a person. This includes the right to be defended by a lawyer of ones choosing. Ms. Carlton-Hanciles drew attention to the obligation of government as espoused in pillar 7 of the Agenda for Prosperity which underscores the need for reform in the justice sector, which includes making justice accessible locally.

In response, the MPs underlined the need for robust outreach so that their people will understand the work of the Board and therefore benefit from it fully. ‘We are ready to assist you with outreach partly because we stand to benefit from it. When our constituents have a case in court they ask us to help with legal fees. This is a huge burden on us,’ the Majority Leader of the House, Ibrahim Bundu said.

Another, MP wanted to know how the Board will benefit women in particular since they make up the majority of the poorest in the society. What’s more most of them are in the rural areas. She said a lot of these women are taken advantage of by their husbands and male counterparts. ‘What plans are in place to have these women become aware of the work of the Board so they can take advantage of the opportunity it is offering’ she said.

Ms. Carlton-Hanciles took time to allay fears of MPs that people upcountry might not benefit as much as those in the capital despite making up the bulk of the population needing the services of the Board. She promised a robust presence across the country over time. She however cautioned MPs that this will be determined largely by the amount of funding from Government and other donor agencies. She therefore called on the Government to continue to provide funding for the programme to go nationwide as provided for in 2012 legal Aid Act.

The Chair of the Board of Directors, Justice Showers in her remark underscored the importance of the institution. She underlined the fact that the secretariat started operations in May 2015 following the setting up of the Board of Directors in November 2014.  ‘This is a new institution and therefore engaged in a lot of learning,’ she noted. She called on MPs to help the institutions with funds to do its work. ‘The Board will be providing legal assistance to the very poor, a lot of who are in your constituencies’ she reminded the MPs.