By Ibrahim Tommy
“I have been charged with manslaughter and other serious offences, but I do not have money to pay for the services of a lawyer. So, I have been remanded at the Pademba Road Prison for nearly two years now,” an accused told a team of Court Monitors from the Centre of Accountability and Rule of Law a few years ago.
His case is not unique: it sums up the experience of many who come in conflict with the law, particularly those facing criminal charges. Help may be on the way for such people, but it’s coming at a rather slow pace.
Sierra Leone needs a full blown legal aid scheme. At the moment, the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly women and girls who live outside Freetown, have limited access to legal advice and representation when they need it, thus undermining their chances of getting justice. Fortunately, a legal aid law has been drafted, and will shortly be introduced in parliament. The bill is clear, practical and achievable and complies with the Government’s human rights obligations. The bill seeks to provide a platform to enhance access to justice for the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans whose legal needs are still unmet due to poverty. It also represents an effort to create a partnership between government and non-state actors in providing justice services to particularly indigent Sierra Leoneans.
More than ten years after the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, it is estimated that at least 70% of the legal needs of poor Sierra Leoneans are unmet. And, in a country where poverty and illiteracy levels are ever so high, it is obvious that providing court and legal fees remains a major barrier to accessing justice. Section 23(1) of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone guarantees every accused a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court. Article 14(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) imposes a duty on states to provide legal assistance to indigent persons “where the interest of justice requires”. Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution or by law”.
For far too long, the Sierra Leone Government has reneged on its national and international obligations to promote an affordable justice system. Poor people have been particularly at risk, and the consequences have sometimes been enormously disastrous. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified lack of access to justice as one of the causes of the civil conflict in Sierra Leone. It recommended, among other things, that the Sierra Leone government take steps at strengthening the justice sector as well as promoting an affordable and credible justice system. The war may have ended, but a lot of effort is still required to consolidate democratic processes. For this reason, the importance of strengthening the justice systems and reducing the burden of accessing justice cannot be overemphasized.
When the justice system becomes a preserve of the rich, as has often been the case in Sierra Leone, poor people lose faith in and shy away from it. The Sierra Leone Government – particularly the current parliament – has a responsibility to enhance access to justice for poor Sierra Leoneans by enacting the Legal Aid bill without delay. It would certainly help strengthen the rule of law, and promote social stability.
In 2010, the Sierra Leone Government in collaboration with the Justice Sector Development Project (JSDP) launched a Pilot National Legal Aid (PNLA) scheme to assist poor and vulnerable people in the country who cannot afford to pay for legal services. The scheme was set up to particularly assist women, children, youths, and the disabled. These categories of Sierra Leoneans are without doubt least likely to afford fees for legal services, but there are many more who need help. Since 2010, the PNLA has been providing legal aid in the formal justice sector in the Western Area of Sierra Leone alone. In just 26 months, the PNLA says it has provided legal advice, assistance and representation to at least 5341 persons, with 20% of them constituting juveniles. This is simply phenomenal, and it obviously shows that there is massive need for legal aid in the country. However, the PNLA scheme only provides support to accused persons. It does not provide legal representation for victims, where police prosecution is either ineffective or inadequate. It does not respond, for example, to the needs of victims of sexual and gender-based violence victims.
Our parliamentarians must now act speedily and sensibly by enacting the Legal Aid bill. The vast majority of Sierra Leoneans, particularly women and girls, cannot wait any longer. Victims of sexual and gender-based violence who suffer in silence on daily basis due to the inaccessible nature of our justice system deserve a well-functioning justice system that provides legal aid. In Bombali District, for example, 967 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence were reported to the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police in 2011. Of these, the Magistrates’ court only convicted 15 persons. Most of the cases were either dropped for lack of evidence or resolved out of court mainly because pressure was put on the victim through the families. Besides, most victims cannot afford the cost of seeking justice through private prosecution. This cannot be allowed to continue. Sierra Leone’s justice system must transform itself from being a ‘warning’ to a glorious example to the rest of West Africa, and the continent as a whole. Victims of sexual and gender-based crimes need justice, but at the moment, Sierra Leone’s inaccessible and ill-affordable justice system has only made life much worse for our mothers and sisters who get hammered and battered by violent men on daily basis.
Once the Legal Aid bill is passed, it will be a matter for the government, its international partners and national human rights organizations to ensure that it is enforced. On its part, CARL will continue to provide public education as well as contribute to achieving the goals of the law. Just as with the free health care scheme, the government must take the lead on this. The free health care scheme, in spite of its numerous challenges, has been largely helpful. It has helped save lives across the country. Today, our mothers and children can now go to bed with a certain degree of confidence that they can get treatment from public hospitals when they need it. We need to replicate that degree of certainty in terms of accessing justice in Sierra Leone. A victim of a sexual and gender-based crime, for example, should feel confident enough to visit a lawyer for legal advice or representation. Accused persons have a right to fair hearing, but in the absence of legal representation, such constitutional right would be no more than an unfulfilled promise.
It defies belief that an accused person can be held in pre-trial detention for two years only because he does not have money to pay for the services of a lawyer. Justice needs to be accessible and affordable by all. I look forward to a Sierra Leone where a man does not have to be held in detention for a long period without trial and where justice is delivered to victims of gender-based crimes in a speedy and fair manner. One step to achieving this is by passing the Legal Aid bill.
Ibrahim Tommy is the Executive Director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL), a civil society organisation committed to promoting justice and accountability in Sierra Leone.