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Opinions of Saturday, 17 October 2015

Columnist: Karimu, Anastacia

The Underutilized Tool in Ghana’s Criminal Justice System

Paralegals: The Underutilized Tool in Ghana’s Criminal Justice System
By Anastacia Karimu

A paralegal is a person trained to assist a lawyer. A paralegal’s work and duties consist of a wide range of administrative tasks, researching, taking testimonies, interviewing witnesses, helping to interpret and explain legal documents and preparing clients for meetings with attorneys. He/she carries out the work of a lawyer, short of appearing before a judge. The UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems recognizes the important roles paralegals play in facilitating access to justice for the poor and marginalized in the society. It is seen by many as the only feasible way of delivering prompt and effective legal services to the maximum number of persons in conflict with the law.
Kweku (name of suspect has been changed) and a friend were picked up by a police upon a tip off and charged with robbery contrary to Sections 149 and 150 of the Criminal and Other Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29). During his arrest, he was informed of the reason for his arrest but was not informed of his right to a lawyer nor did he have any contact with a lawyer contrary to article 14 of the 1992 Constitution.
Upon arrest, Kweku’s friend confessed to the crime and was given a 50 year sentence. Kweku however, pleaded not guilty. His plea was supported by his friend who, during their trial testified that his friend was not involved in the crime. After his friend was sentenced, he was placed on remand pending advice from the Attorney-General’s office. He was placed on remand for one year before he was discharged by the court due to lack of evidence, his friend’s testimony and delay of the Attorney-General advice. This is not surprising looking at the number of lawyers in advocacy here in Ghana.
According to the General Legal Council’s records, there are 1,899 licensed lawyers in Ghana, most of whom are not in advocacy. Those in advocacy reside and work only in the regional capitals, which hold roughly 10% of the population. This means the remaining 90% have limited or no access to lawyers.
Even where there is access to a lawyer, high cost of lawyer fees make it impossible for the majority of persons in conflict with the law to contract the services of a lawyer. This is the situation Kweku found himself in. Even if he had been placed in touch with a lawyer, he could not have been able to pay the fees. His salary as a “mate” could not have paid for the services of a lawyer.
The result is that suspects who are detained are vulnerable to all manner of human rights and procedural abuses and deprivation. They are also more likely to be neglected and forgotten.
After he was discharged, Kweku was taken back to Nsawam prison. He questioned the prison officials as to why he was brought back to the prison, and he was told that it was part of prison procedure to take a discharged suspect back to prison, then transfer him to the police station where his case was first reported and then be allowed to go. He obliged the prison officials and went back with them. He was later transferred to the Achimota Mile 7 Police station. Instead of being released, he was re-arrested at the police station on the orders of the prosecutor. He was detained until February, 2015 when a paralegal from CHRI on a routine police station visit encountered him. After talking with Kweku, the paralegal agreed to take on his case. He (the paralegal) was able to secure him a lawyer to take his case pro bono.
Unfortunately for Kweku, his friend (the co-accused) who had agreed to testify at the trial died on the day he was supposed to appear in court to testify. To make matters worse, his statement which was supposed to be an exhibit on the docket got lost a few days to when the investigator was to tender it as evidence. Nevertheless, he was acquitted and discharged on Wednesday, 15th July, 2015, five months after his case was taken up by a paralegal from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative-Africa Office (CHRI).
Paralegals must be formally incorporated into the criminal justice system to compliment the work of legal practitioners. The participation of non-legal practitioners into the criminal justice system is not a foreign concept. Non-lawyer judges (now called career judges) and non-legal persons have been a part of Ghana’s legal system since its inception. Presently most criminal cases are handled by police prosecutors, most of whom have no legal training.
Formal incorporation of paralegals will benefit not only suspects but will also be an avenue for employment for many of the youth, especially for LLB holders who are unable to get into the Ghana School of law.
It is the writer’s wish that stakeholders should, as soon as possible, draw a plan for to formally integrate paralegals into the justice system to make the fundamental right to a fair trial a reality for suspects.
Anastacia Karimu
Intern-CHRI Africa Office