The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) with support from UN Women has held a one-day briefing session with the Women Legislative Caucus and other legislators on the implementation of the National legal Aid Policy of Liberia.
The one-day briefing session was facilitated by two prominent lawyers who are members of AFELL, Cllr. Frances Johnson Allison, a former Chief Justice of the Republic of Liberia and Cllr. Abla Gadegbeku-Williams former head of the (LRRRC). In their presentations, the two astute lawyers espoused that the objective of the Policy is to enhance access to justice to allow all citizens to have equal access to justice – which they said is the obligation of the government.
The lawyers, in their presentation, said legal aid (or free legal advice/assistance) is not structured and sustained in Liberia. As such, when the policy is being drafting into legislation, the relevant agency will be established to promote the dispensation of legal aid. The lawyers said the drafting of the policy was prompted by Article 11(c) of the Constitution of Liberia: “All persons are equal before the law and are therefore entitled to the equal protection of the law;” and the Chapter 2.2(1) of the Criminal Procedure Law: “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to be represented by legal counsel at every stage of the proceedings from the time of arrest or, where no arrest has been made, from the initial appearance and submission of the accused to the jurisdiction of the court. This right continues through appeal and post conviction proceedings, if any.” They also said the drafting of the Policy is in compliance with relevant international instruments that Liberia ratifies and enjoined state parties to provide equal access to justice to everyone within its territorial borders.
However, the lawyers intimated that most indigents have little knowledge of protection under the law; at the same time, public defenders are inadequate to provide legal services for citizens. Linking the Policy to the National Agenda, the two facilitators also said the National Legal Aid Policy is in fulfillment of Pillar One of the Government’s PAPD – Power to the People.
The policy supports that in addition to other criteria that will be set under the law, indigents should be the primary beneficiaries of legal aid services.
On the overall, the lawyers extolled the efforts of the crafters of the Policy and hoped that AFELL would do everything to fast track the process to a draft legal aid bill to be presented on the floor for hearing. Some provided example of the huge problems that exist in the rural areas in which the burden is on the courts to resolve all cases including the petty ones. In the absence of public defenders, legal aid would serve as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism.
Some lawmakers asked about the difference between current legal assistance available to citizen and the one being proffered by AFELL, whether there would be no conflict. In response, the presenters reiterated that the Policy is aimed at harnessing the effort of the current justice system in providing legal aid services on a broader scale to all citizens especially those who cannot afford. Another lawmaker said the women legislative caucus has few members. Therefore, there would be a need to work closely with their male counterparts especially, ‘He-for-She champions,’ to help pass gender-related bills.
The lawmakers however proposed that AFELL should draft a Bill by end of May 2019 or early June 2019 to be presented to the legislature;
Upon presentation of draft bill to the legislature, AFELL will begin lobbying with the House and the Senate to ensure passage of the bill.
The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) with support from UN Women is also implementing a project on Gender Responsive Peace building and Rule of Law. The goal of the project is to enhance the capacities of, and public confidence in, the different justice and security institutions, and to sustainably improve access to justice, security and protection services, especially for women and girls.
The project is closely aligned with the relevant national development goals (Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development – PAPD) and priorities set out in the Liberia Peace building Plan.
Output 2:1 of the project calls for the drafting, adoption, and popularization of a gender-responsive legal aid policy/ legislation. In collaboration with the Ministries of Justice, Carter Center, AFELL and a host of stakeholders, drafted and validated the draft National Legal Aid Policy. AFELL created nationwide awareness on the National Legal Aid Policy of Liberia. The nationwide awareness of the National Legal Aid Policy culminated in a one-day briefing/awareness with members of the Women Legislative Caucus and other legislators held in the Representatives Conference Hall, at the Capitol Building, Monrovia.
The goal of the briefing was to give awareness on the National Legal Aid Policy of Liberia and to secure a buy-in of the lawmakers on the next step of a Draft National Legal Aid Bill to be presented on the floor for hearing and subsequently passed into law.