The Liberia National Bar Association has begun to struggle to operate its pro bono legal services nearly a year after the USAID withdrew its funding.
The LNBA, during the heyday of the legal aid clinic, had it operational in five out of the country's fifteen counties, but now only three are in existence and also struggling to survive. The clinic, which was funded under the USAID Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program, assisted the LNBA to push for the release of hundreds of pre-trial detainees, mediated cases to find out of court settlement, and in some instances, litigated cases.
But in the absence of the USAID funds, the LNBA is struggling to maintain three of the five legal clinics in Montserrado, Grand Bassa, and Margibi Counties while shutting down the Bomi and Bong counties clinic.
“There is no money to fund the clinics in those three counties. But, we are trying with limited funding to sustain them,” sources within the LNBA said. “We are also finding it difficult to pay the caseworkers and to run the offices of those three counties.”
They added that the provision of pro bono legal services to the indigent population is crucial to avoid having defendants sitting in pretrial detention for extended periods without trial, as well as suffering a greater injustice than the state has alleged they committed themselves.
“Through this support, the Bar through the Legal Aid Program was able to provide pro bono legal services for so many Liberians who can not afford to hire a lawyer, but with the difficulty in obtaining funding, I am afraid that pretrial detention will soon be on the rise," sources added.
Meanwhile, the coordinator of the Grand Bassa County legal aid clinic has disclosed that the project is experiencing serious financial constraints in the absence of USAID funding.
“The clinic is but it is dying slowly. Things are not moving as expected, however, we still have some pro bono lawyers and caseworkers that are continuing to perform the tasks assigned to them by the LNBA,” noted Presley Keh of Grand Bassa clinic. “We need rescue or the project will soon collapse.”
Since 2017, USAID-LPAC has provided for the maintenance and salaries of all the caseworkers at the five clinics, transportation for pro bono lawyers, transportation and accommodation for intern scholars (in 2019 and 2020), and also capacity building training for caseworkers and pro bono lawyers.
But now that the fund is gone, the LNBA is struggling to keep the program, which came into existence in 2017 for the sole purpose of enabling indigent people to access justice through pro bono legal representations.
Other goals were the provision of legal representation for pretrial detainees, covering family law, domestic violence law, land-related matters, landlord and tenants’ disputes mediation, and litigation. It also called for the LNBA to provide legal advice for citizens who do not understand the laws of Liberia by telling them what their rights and responsibilities are, and what to do when they come in conflict with the law or when their rights are violated.
It can be recalled that Cllr. Joyce Reeves Woods, Chair of the LNBA Legal Aid Committee (LNBA-LAC), at one of her interviews, made an open call for support to or partner with the LNBA to continue and even expand the legal aid clinics to other counties.
Cllr. Woods then added that because the clinic has strived to deliver citizens’ access to justice through its Legal Aid Program. She then lamented that such support is even critical now, given the success story, the impact made, and the level of awareness already created in the first five counties where the clinics were operational.
“...Most of Liberia’s prison population are pre-trial detainees accused of non-violent criminal offenses who, once confined, frequently remain behind bars well beyond the statutory period allowed under Liberian law," Cllr. Woods added.
Cllr. Woods, likewise, used the occasion, at the time, to inform the US government about the overcrowdedness of prisons mostly with pre-trial detainees, and then, stressed the need for continuation as USAID-LPAC leaves. adding that the prisons are still overcrowded with mostly pre-trial detainees…“
The LNBA is an umbrella organization responsible for serving and regulating the practice of all legal practitioners in Liberia.