Editor's Comment

Legal fees must be affordable

IT IS a bare fact that in Zambia, access to legal representation and justice still remains a preserve of the elite and wealthy.
This is because legal fees are very high and way beyond the reach of many citizens.
Given the high poverty levels in the country, where over 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty datum line, access to legal representation and justice is a far-fetched dream.
More than half the population is preoccupied with putting food on their table as the most immediate basic need.
Under such circumstances, some of those who find themselves in conflict with the law end up rotting in jail because they cannot afford legal representation.
It is no wonder our prisons are highly congested because some people are in incarceration not because they are guilty, but simply because they could not afford proper legal representation.
According to Statutory Instrument 6 of 2017 [Legal Practitioners (Costs) Order], a lawyer of less than five years 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.
This is not the kind of fee that a man or woman struggling to put three square meals on the table can afford.
This is why Government under the watch of President Edgar Lungu is working to ensure access to and provision of effective legal assistance at no cost where resources are genuinely lacking to pay for legal services.
Speaking during the Commonwealth Law Conference in Livingstone, President Lungu assured that Government wants all citizens to have access to a lawyer of experience and competence in accordance with the offence assigned to them.
President Lungu, as a lawyer, is aware that in cases where an individual is granted free legal representation through the Legal Aid Board, the practice is that it is inexperienced lawyers who are assigned regardless of the magnitude of the case.
The Head of State is right in saying all citizens deserve access to good and experienced lawyers capable of delivering justice whether they have money or not.
We cannot agree more with President Lungu because access to justice is one of the fundamental human rights which should be enjoyed by all citizens regardless of status.
It is, however, sad that as things are, only those who are wealthy have access to legal representation and justice.
Many poor citizens who find themselves in conflict with the law are relegated to prisons without a chance to be defended.
Lawyers, therefore, need to reach out to the nobility of their profession to find ways they can serve the less privileged in society.
It is indisputable that one of the major reasons the legal fees are high is the low numbers of legal practitioners in comparison with the population.
According to statistics, the current lawyer-to-citizen ratio stands at 1 to 20,000.
This is why Zambia Institute of Advanced Legal Education (ZIALE) has been at the centre of controversy and criticism for producing very low numbers of graduates annually.
Many stakeholders, including Government, have questioned ZIALE on the continued low pass rates, in some instances as low as two percent.
Many have suspected that a cartel of legal practitioners are behind the low ZIALE pass rate as a way of restricting entry into the profession to keep the demand high.
As we seek more lawyers qualifying, however, standards should never be compromised because having half-baked lawyers could be as bad as having no legal representatives at all.
The worry though is that it is only common sense that if 20,000 citizens are 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.
While ZIALE is not expected to churn out half-baked lawyers for the sake of providing the required numbers it must find an amicable solution that will ensure that more and well-equipped lawyers are offloaded on the market.
This is the only way to ensure that all Zambians, regardless of status, have access to legal representation.
While it is appreciated that LAZ, through the National Legal Aid Clinic for Women in collaboration with the Legal Aid Department, provides legal services on pro bono basis, there is still much more that needs to be done to increase access to these services.
As legal practitioners meet at their annual general meeting to discuss various issues pertaining to their profession, it is hoped that they will heed President Lungu’s call to make legal fees affordable for all Zambians regardless of one’s status.

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