Editor's Comment

Make justice reality for all

THAT Cabinet has approved the National Legal Aid Policy to enhance the provision of legal services to vulnerable citizens is certainly welcome and long overdue.
The policy will no doubt augment provision of equal access to justice by both the haves and have-nots.
Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya said the policy provides a framework for broadening and increasing accessibility to legal assistance by the poor while enhancing the capacity and accountability of legal aid service providers.
Ms Siliya said access to legal services and representation by the poor and vulnerable citizens is a human rights concern which should be addressed quickly.
Certainly access to justice is a fundamental right that generally guarantees every person access to an independent and impartial process and the opportunity to receive a fair and just trial when that individual’s liberty or property is at stake.
This right is recognised under the major international and regional human rights instruments, including the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), among others.
However, access to justice does not always involve judicial recourse but the availability of accessible, affordable, timely and effective means of redress or remedies.
In Zambia we know that for decades, justice has been perceived to be a preserve of the rich because of the prohibitive legal fees.
According to Statutory Instrument number 6 of 2017, a lawyer of less than five years at the Bar charges K444.30 per hour.
Depending on the number of years served at the Bar, the legal fees go up to K1,998.30 per hour.
Needless to say in a country where over 60 percent of the population live below the poverty datum line, such figures are way too high.
This inevitably makes equal access to justice unattainable and a luxury for many citizens who can hardly put three square meals on the table.
Some people behind bars could be innocent but failed to defend themselves well enough because they could not afford proper legal representation.
Even for those who can afford, we have seen how some of them have been rendered destitute after going through ‘expensive’ legal battles for years.
By the time the court cases close many would have emptied their bank accounts to foot the legal bills. In some instances, the defendants have sold their properties to raise money asked for by the learned advisors.
Government is mindful of the fact that legal fees are beyond the reach of many poor Zambians, hence the approval of the National Legal Aid Policy.
While the Law Association of Zambia, through the National Legal Aid Clinic for Women, in collaboration with the Legal Aid Department, provides legal services pro bono, many are still excluded from accessing legal services due to limited capacity.
It is therefore heartening that the newly approved policy will help enhance capacity and accountability of legal aid providers.
In building capacity, Zambia should also increase the number of lawyers being offloaded into the industry.
One of the reasons for exorbitant legal fees is the high lawyer-to-citizen ratio which stands at 1 to 20,000.
With 20,000 citizens chasing after one lawyer’s services, the law of demand and supply comes into play. This could explain the exorbitant legal fees. Unfortunately, this excludes many poor Zambians from accessing justice.
As rightly noted by the minister, the policy is cardinal to ensure efficient and effective delivery of legal aid services.
It is also envisaged that with the National Legal Aid Policy in place, many poor Zambians will be spared from unjustified incarceration, thereby decongesting prisons.
Ultimately it is expected the right to access justice will become a reality for all Zambians regardless of social status.

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