Authorities at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on Thursday, April 18, 2019, formally authorized paralegal institutions, through a Legal Aid System to help “marginalized women, widows, children, pretrial detainees and indigent Liberians” to resolve their legal problems by ensuring that the accused persons, who are unable to pay for legal fees are not denied justice.
The Daily Observer has gathered, through a female lawyer who preferred to remain anonymous, that almost a quarter of detainees, including women and children, are awaiting trial or are being tried but are yet to be sentenced.
She said many pretrial detainees spend months, even years in jail enduring hardships. “A root cause of the large number of pretrial detainees is the dearth of professionally trained lawyers, and lack of Legal Aid Schemes,” she said. “This problem can be significantly mitigated through the use of paralegals to assist the accused persons while awaiting trial.
The female lawyer wishes the MoJ would submit to the legislature the Legal Aid policy for enactment to be absolutely binding, rather than to only adopt it as government’s policy.
Deputy Justice Minister for Codification, Cllr. Nyenati Tuan, on behalf the government, signed the National Legal Aid Policy on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, at a resort in Monrovia after the one-day validation exercise. In 2004, the MoJ developed the policy in partnership with UN Women, the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFLEL) and The Carter Center (TCC).
According to the 37-page National Legal Aid Policy, access to justice is a fundamental human right as set out in Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and also in Article 11 (c) of the 1986 Constitution; persons are equal before the law, and are entitled to the equal protection of the law; and article 21 (i) guarantees the right to counsel in criminal proceedings, and obligates the Republic to prove legal aid services to accused persons, who are unable to afford the services of counsel to ensure the protection of their rights.
Legal Aid is defined as free or subsidized services rendered to persons in order to promote and strengthen access to justice, involving criminal and civil, as well as administrative disputes in both formal (court) and traditional justice systems.
Among the speakers was Attorney Vivian D. Neal, president of the AFELL, who described the policy as being gender-sensitive, “because Legal Aid relies on the Constitution, which guarantees equal justice for all persons before the law, irrespective of being rich and poor.”
“Statistics has shown that women in Liberia are poorer than their male counterparts, therefore in order to ensure equality of both sexes, there must be system put in place through which all persons in every sector can access justice regardless of status,” Atty. Neal said.
Traditional Chief Zanzan Karwor thanked the government, The Carter Center (TCC), and others for the Policy, but expressed fear as to whether it will be materialized by focusing on the “marginalized women, widows, children and other Liberians.”
Cllr. Tuan said the policy is to protect both the accused persons, and complainants in a competent court of jurisdiction.
He the urged the paralegals not to violate the laws so that peace can prevail all over the country.
Institutions Providing Legal Aid
Legal Aid providers comprised both state and non-state actors to include the MoJ, the Judiciary and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as students attending various universities.
Some of the prominent non-state institutions are the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), TCC, the Center for Law and Human Rights Education, the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND), Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy (FOHRD), Prison Fellowship Liberia, etc. Also, the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) provides legal aid to indigents through their pro-bono services.
Legal Aid Governance
There will be an establishment of a governance structure with an autonomous board of directors to supervise, monitor, accredit and mobilize and manage the legal aid funds.
Legal Aid Funds
There will be a Legal Aid Fund established in the budget and donors will also be encouraged to support and the fund will hold all monies allocated by the government and received from donors, as well as any contributions received from beneficiaries of government funded legal aid.