Pro Bono in West Africa, 'Quo Vadis?' - Ironing Out the Kinks

Monday, 1 June 2015 09:10 GMT

REUTERS/Joe Penney

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The concept of providing legal services for the public good at no or reduced cost has always existed in West Africa albeit on a largely informal basis; from the semi literate member (s) of the village community who solicits the assistance of their illustrious ‘child’ who is a qualified legal practitioner to obtain justice, to the down-on-his-luck former schoolmate or the enthusiastic recent qualified lawyer eager to give back to the society in which he lives and operates. The last few decades have seen a trend in establishing formal structures and systems to improve access to justice on a pro bono basis, for that stratum of society that is most likely to be excluded because of an inability to afford to pay or a lack of understanding of the legal system.

Historically, access to legal redress has not only been considered complex, having regard to the rules, lexicon and syntax of the legal arena, but also expensive makes it even more difficult for the many Ghanaians who cannot afford it. The cost of accessing justice continues to increase. In Ghana for example, at least once every two years, the Ghana Bar Association in its annual meeting increases the rates it prescribes for members to charge their clients. The fees in relation to the filing of court processes for example have been increased under the Civil Proceedings (Fees & Allowances) Amendment Rules, 2014 C.I 86 . Juxtaposing the daily minimum wage of GHS7 with the GHS50.00 (circa 1 weeks wages) cost of filing a writ of summons at the Circuit Court and High Court (in respect of a claim which exceeds GHS5,000.00 but does not exceed GHS7000.00), it goes without saying that the pool of people who can comfortably afford these fees and additionally pay for the services of a lawyer, continues to shrink.

The need for effective pro bono services has never been more acute. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), legal service networks and practitioners acknowledge this and have over the years developed interventions for this purpose.

Legal Aid Scheme

The Legal Aid Scheme in Ghana was established under section 1 of the Legal Aid Scheme Act, 1997 (Act 542) for the purpose of providing legal assistance: (a) to enforce any provision of the Constitution, or any proceeding relating to the Constitution; (b) if (s)he earns the Government minimum wage or less and desires legal representation in any criminal matter; or most civil matters; or if in the opinion of the Legal Aid Board the person requires legal aid.

The Scheme, although well defined and extensive in its footprint having and operating in offices in each regional capital, faces the challenge of inadequate funds and the limited number of lawyers participating in the legal aid programme to supply their professional services.

Organisations in Ghana offering pro bono services

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) offering pro bono services in Ghana include the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), HelpLaw Ghana, the Legal Resource Centre, Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) and Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Ghana.

The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) under its statutory mandate conducts investigations into amongst others complaints in respect of human rights violations without charge.

The focus of these organisations though is usually limited to human rights violations and related issues.

Thomson Reuters Foundations and its TrustLaw Network brings together a broad, exciting and dynamic pool of service providers and target beneficiaries, creating a platform where legal need can match up to the right solution provider.

Recent Trends

A lawyer eligible to practice In Ghana and interested in offering their services free of charge or on a reduced fee basis can elect to participate in any of the above schemes to provide services accordingly. In recent times, though limited, we have seen an increase in the number of law firms and lawyers getting involved in providing pro bono services and formally including this in the services they offer.

Dealing with the kinks

A number of challenges remain. The knowledge and awareness of the existence of access to legal services on a pro bon basis is limited and more needs to be done to increase awareness of available options in this context. To that extent, Trustlaw has effectively and in a structured professional manner, consistently disseminated information with respect to pro bono services linking each problem with the appropriate solution provider.

Generally, the extent of the gratis service is limited to fees in respect of legal services, requiring the beneficiary to be responsible for the payment of filing fees, service of processed and other administrative support. This in itself is not a bad thing and ensures that the person seeking redress remains accountable and participates in the process.

It is not unusual for some legal processes to be lengthy and cumbersome fraught with bureaucratic hurdles; in certain instances, this combined with the fact that no payment is received for the matter may result in a loss of momentum and motivation in pursuing the matter leading to inordinate delays

Pro bono is a key means to increased access to justice for all and must be supported.

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