By N.Dickson R.Tamba (USAID-LPAC Scholar, LNBA-LAC Intern)
Monrovia– The Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) through its National Executive Committee has lauded the USAID’s Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program (USAID-LPAC) for its partnership and support which provided legal services and relief to hundreds of indigent Liberians through its Legal Aid Program currently operating clinics in five of Liberia’s fifteen counties including Montserrado, Margibi, Bomi, Grand Bassa, and Bong.
In an exclusive interview, Cllr. Joyce Reeves Woods, Chair of the LNBA Legal Aid Committee (LNBA-LAC), on behalf of the President and Executive Committee of the LNBA, lauded the USAID-LPAC for the financial, material and technical support in capacity building, which made possible the provision of pro bono legal services to hundreds of Liberian indigents in the five counties operating the LNBA Legal Aid Clinics. “On behalf of the President, National Executive Committee, and the entire membership of the Bar, I want to thank USAID-LPAC for the support and partnership since 2017 to present, as they are leaving. Since 2017, LNBA/LAC staffs have been advocating for the immediate release of PTDs (Pre Trial Detainees), mediating cases to find out-of-court settlement, and in some instances, litigating cases.
Cllr. Woods stressed that the provision of pro bono legal services to indigent persons is crucial because, without it, these defendants would sit in pretrial detention for extended periods without trial, often suffering a greater injustice than the State has alleged they committed themselves. “Through this support and partnership, the Bar through the Legal Aid Program (Clinics) was able to provide pro bono legal services for so many Liberians who cannot afford to hire lawyers.”
The LNBA-LAC Chair particularly thanked the USAID-LPAC for the additional support in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which enhanced the LNBA’s COVID-19 response capacity to secure the release of a record number of pre-trial detainees who were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) including hand sanitizers, nose masks and COVID-19 personal safety instructions published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for them and their families as well as transporting them home onboard USAID-LPAC vehicles under the GOL’s strict COVID-19 travel guidelines and also USAID-LPAC safety protocols, since prisoners leaving prison do not have means of safe transport home.
But when the State of Emergency (SoE) was announced by the government in April, the LAC leveraged USAID-LPAC’s support and LNBA’s resources to rapidly expand its (LNBA) Legal Aid services to decongest Liberia’s overcrowded prisons in order to prevent the virus’ spread and avert a possible deadly disaster that could result from a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the prison population.
According to Cllr. Woods, 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 case workers and pro bono lawyers. She also praised the hard work of pro bono lawyers, LAC caseworkers, and USAID-LPAC-sponsored law students from the University of Liberia’s Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law who support LAC on a pro bono basis.
Meanwhile, Cllr. Woods has made an open call for support to or partnership with the LNBA to continue and even expand the Legal Aid Clinics to other counties as it strives to deliver citizens’ access to justice through its Legal Aid Program. She indicated that such support is even critical now, given the success story, impact made before and during the COVID-19, and the level of awareness already created in the first five counties where the clinics are 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. With the current state of the global health crisis, and given the rising number of cases in Liberia which has a weak health system, the prison population is still unsafe due to overcrowdedness which makes it impossible for health protocols like social distancing and regular washing of hands to be enforced.
The LNBA Legal Aid Committee Chair who decried the overcrowdedness of Liberian prisons mostly with pre-trial detainees stressed the need for continuation of the program 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.