Legal Aid Scheme in Ghana Underfunded – Justice Atuguba Decries

By Kofi Ayim, New York

Majority of Ghanaians are practically denied access to the justice system because of dire economic needs, and may suspects languish in cells and jails, some as long as 10 years for lack of legal representation.  This gloomy picture was painted by Supreme Court Justice William Atuguba, Chair of Ghana’s Legal Aid Scheme in “A Conversation of Access to Justice in Africa: The experience of the Legal Aid Scheme in Ghana” February 21 at the Fordham University School of Law, Manhattan, New York. He conceded that he knew very little of the Legal Aid Scheme until he assumed its chairmanship in 2010. Justice Atuguba was appointed to Ghana’s Supreme Court in 1996 and is currently the head of the nine-member panel of justices deliberating the landmark electoral lawsuit brought by the main opposition New Patriotic Party against the Electoral Commission.

According to Justice Atuguba the Legal Aid Scheme, constitutionally created in 1987 to benefit citizens without resources to the legal system, has been woefully funded by government. He added that the cost to contract an attorney is prohibitive and beyond the reach of a majority of Ghanaians. Corporate Ghana, he observed, has not been generous in kind and international donors point to Ghana’s claim of middle income status that should enable it provide its citizens with reasonable access to justice.

The judge opined that the middle income level status accorded Ghana is a mere statistical configuration that does not reflect reality on the ground as far as access to justice is concerned. He cited as disturbing the daunting task for suspects in jail – especially the have-nots – to come before a judge because of the lackadaisical attitude of the police toward such suspects.

Justice Atuguba said the Legal Aid Scheme currently has fourteen attorneys (three at the regional offices and national headquarters), and the rest in other regions except the two upper regions which have none. He added that the attorneys who had previously done work for the scheme are threatening lawsuits  because they are yet to be remunerated. He insinuated that the noble goal of the scheme is being threatened because of funding and the needy may pay the ultimate price.

Justice Atuguba was, however, hopeful to bring awareness and raise funds to sustain the scheme. He announced that the Legal Aid Scheme has been able to disentangle itself from under the Attorney General’s Office and now operates as an independent body.

Earlier, Justice Atuguba had enumerated access to justice in pre-colonial,  colonial and post-colonial era in the Gold Coast/Ghana, highlighting salient similarities and differences in customary and common law courts and functions of the various courts of Ghana. He said access to justice in Ghana has been expanded since 1993 and the Supreme Court can be accessed through various means of redress. Private citizens have rights and power to challenge any part of the constitution at the Supreme Court because the interpretation and enforcement of the constitution is the exclusive preserve of the Court. In exceptional circumstances the Supreme Court as the highest court of the land may review its own decision within restrictive parameters. He emphasized that anyone can go to the appropriate court to seek redress for perceived wrongdoing. The system, however, has its drawbacks because “some losers would rather appeal a (lost) case no matter how frivolous  and there is nothing anyone can do about it,” he added.

Justice Atuguba thanked Fordham University School of Law for keeping the Scheme afloat with 12 computers, money and other donations. The event was co-sponsored by the Leitner Center for International Law

Posted by on Mar 24 2013. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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