THE ACTING COMMISSIONER, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Ms. Anna Bossman, has noted that there could be no justice in the country when individuals who needed justice could not access it in time of trouble.
To her, it was the responsibility of lawyers to give back to the society what they had learnt by assisting not only the rich but the vulnerable who needed their services.
Ms. Bossman who was speaking at a two-day conference on “Legal Aid and Access to Justice in West Africa” organised by the Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA), noted that most cases that came to the commission were those that did not make “headlines” for the lawyers, so the commission found it difficult getting counsel for those in distress. Cases that were sometimes rejected, she said, were matters of life and death for the people involved.
She said it was not enough to have constitutional provisions assuring the vulnerable of justice whereas in actual fact, their rights were marginalised in society. The law, she asserted, must enforce the right of the individual.
“For CHRAJ, so many people come to us because our services are free, speedy and devoid of mumbo- jumbo. In fact, petitioners don't need to be represented by counsels; sometimes our advice to them is to go to court but we do not always get lawyers to assist them go to court.”
However, she expressed profound appreciation to lawyers who had given the commission a helping hand all this while in dealing with this situation.
The conference on legal aid and access to Justice in West Africa is aimed at supporting the efforts of government and non governmental legal aid practitioners through sharing of best practices and comparative experiences in the sub-region and internationally.
The conference brought together government officials, including lawyers, judges, and academics who discussed the crucial role legal aid would play in the development and maintenance of a just and fair system.
The main issues to be discussed include, how legal aid could best be used to help people improve their lives and prevent social exclusion, how to assess and share current best practices in the provision of legal aid (Criminal and civil matters) in West Africa and how to increase their knowledge and build broader awareness of access to justice among stakeholders.
The stakeholders by the end of the conference would have fashioned out a coordinated strategy and forged partnerships among governments, non-governmental organisations and civil society in developing legal aid programmes for ordinary people.
This she said would enable increasing numbers of peoples in West Africa, especially those in rural areas, have access to justice.
The board chairman of OSIWA, Abdul Tejan Cole, noted that the phrase 'legal aid' was only nominal in most countries of West Africa, indicating that throughout the sub-region, most people charged with crimes could not afford private counsel although legal assistance for indigent criminal defendants was a right enshrined in international law and numerous constitutions.
One of the greatest sources of injustice in the sub region, he observed, was the long period some prisoners spent in miserable pre-trial detention conditions.
For him, the only solution was to provide the disadvantaged with lawyers and information “to ensure parity between litigants.
“Lawyers must increasingly come to the assistance of people whom economic development has left behind,” he urged.
Mrs. Felicia Gbesemete, from the Ghana Bar Association, on her part, said the association, in collaboration with the legal aid board and CHRAJ, had ensured that those entitled to legal aid were given the requisite legal representation and assured the nation that the association would continue to assist the legal aid board by providing information and expertise to enhance the Board's programme and policy for the nation.