01.09.2008 Feature Article

The legal aid scheme: Help for the poor

The legal aid scheme: Help for the poor
01.09.2008 LISTEN

ANY PERSON who has been forced into litigation will tell you what the cost is in terms of time, physical exertion, mental stress and, even more crucial, money.

A legal maxim states that a person who tries to defend himself has a fool for a client. The law is a minefield, even for very experienced lawyers. For any number of reasons, a case may be thrown out by the presiding judge.

The law under which a particular case has been brought before the court may have been amended without the lawyer being aware of that fact. Again, the reliefs sought may have been applied for under the wrong procedure, in which case, a preliminary objection by the other side may result in a dismissal.

They say the law is in the bosom of the judge so he may rule in a certain way that can go against one of the parties. An appeal may fail too. A lawyer, no matter how learned and experienced, would normally retain another lawyer to handle his case if he is the accused or the litigant.

How can a lay person be foolish enough to attempt to handle a case when he does not even known what the relevant law is?

Of course, going to a lawyer means spending money: the lawyer's professional fees, fees for filing the relevant documents, fares for the client himself and his lawyer, fees for investigation, money for the fares and necessary expenses of witnesses, bribes which the client and his lawyer might want to pay to an unethical judge, etc.

For a person who cannot meet the financial cost, the only alternative may be to give up altogether and “give it to God”. Fortunately, help exists for people who must, of necessity, go to the law. There is the Ghana Legal Aid Scheme.

Such a scheme exists, thanks to a Law issued by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) and later reissued under constitutional rule. The law is the Legal Aid Scheme Act, or Act 524.

It is worth noting that the idea of a legal aid scheme for the poor litigant had been mooted before the PNDC regime and the NDC Government 'legalized' it. The credit goes to the Ghana Bar Association.

Still, the PNDC and the NDC Administrations also deserve credit for making the scheme possible. The legal backing was necessary.

A person who wants to benefit from the scheme has to apply to the nearest office of the Ghana Legal Aid Scheme Board. He is given a form to fill out, giving such details as his full name, age and his postal and residential addresses. In addition, he should state his occupation, income and property owned. The applicant must state if he is married, has children and other dependents.

If he is married, he should state the name of the spouse, the occupation and income. If there are children their occupations and incomes must be stated.

If the applicant has ever applied for legal aid under the scheme, he should state so. Finally, he must also obviously state the nature of the case for which the legal aid is required.

Of course, he must certify that the information supplied on the form is correct. He writes the date and his signature. The applicant can be a man or a woman.

The information is required to ensure that the applicant truly does not have the financial means to go to court for the redress or reliefs he or she may want to seek. If preliminary questioning and further investigations prove beyond reasonable doubt that the applicant genuinely needs aid, the necessary process is set in motion.

Where the officials feel that litigation is not necessary, they advice the applicant to have the matter settled out of court. The other party to the case may be invited, if necessary, for this purpose. Arbitration or any other form of amicable settlement will be resorted to. Where arbitration fails, the case may go to the courts.

There are at the moment lawyers who have volunteered to take up the cases of those requiring legal aid. Cases are referred to them with the necessary documents supplied to them.

When these volunteer lawyers prepare their own documents regarding the case the official stamp from the Legal Aid Board ensures that the documents are exempt from the payment of filing and other fees. The applicant does not pay any fees to the lawyer even if the case is pursued all the way to the Supreme Court.

After the final determination of the case the lawyer submits his bills to the Regional Director of the Legal Aid Board who, in turn, submits the bills to the National headquarters in Accra for payment.

The current Ashanti Regional Director of the Ghana Legal Aid Board is Mr. Kwaku Frimpong, a 49-year old Barrister-at-Law and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Ghana.

Mr. Frimpong attended Tema Secondary School and had his Ordinary Level Certificate in 1978 and successfully obtained his Advanced Level Certificate at Abuakwa State College in 1980.

He later proceeded to the University of Ghana where he studied for his bachelor of Law (LL.B.) from 1981 to 1985. To qualify as a practicing lawyer, he also attended the Ghana Law School from 1985-1987. He proudly told me in an interview for this article that he is an Old Vandal (Commonwealth Hall) and was a member of the Vandal Choir.

In addition to his mother tongue, Twi, Mr. Frimpong speaks fluent English and Ga. He says he also has a smattering of Ewe, Fante and Akuapem. He has been at post as the Regional Director since 1995.

At the time he took over as the Regional Director, the Regional office was a one-room affair that had been partitioned. The space was cramped. Applicants sat waiting on a bench outside.

Today, a newly-constructed, tree-story building painted in white testifies to the persistence and hard work of this quiet looking Director. If he dropped dead today (God forbid) he would die in the knowledge that this tall magnificent building would be a standing tribute to his memory.

Mr. Frimpong hopes that more permanent lawyers will be recruited to join the Regional Board to cope with the increasing load, especially now that the Board also has to deal with community mediation. Sometimes, he has to go to court himself.

A new, double cabin pick-up has replaced the old Land cruiser. Still, the Regional Board needs more vehicles for educational campaigns to get more people to know about the Scheme and also about community mediation which the Board is carrying out with the aid of the United Nations Development Programme ( UNDP).

The Regional Board would also welcome assistance in the form of furniture for the new office building and computers. Given its good work in helping the poor who are forced to go into litigation, Mr. Frimpong hopes that the assistance the Board seeks will be forthcoming.

The Ghana Legal Aid Scheme must succeed. It needs more volunteer lawyers, more permanent lawyers and logistics The State should not bear the burden alone.