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Red-flag over Legal Aid Policy

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Liberia’s Human Rights Commission Chairperson Gladys Johnson says para-legals might go throughout Liberia acting like lawyers and “mess up cases,” if policy-makers are not careful in clearly defining what they are to do.

“… And when they do that, let me tell you some of the problems that will develop: they will mess up cases and so by the time the person’s case gets to the court, it’s already so messed up, nobody can help them. So let’s be careful,” Justice Johnson warned yesterday at the Corina Hotel, 3 February, where a three-day Legal Aid policy stakeholders workshop is ongoing.

The consultative workshop is organized by the Department of Codification at the Justice Ministry, in collaboration with the United Nations Mission in Liberia or UNMIL and Carter Center on 25th Street,

Justice Johnson warned that there were already people in the country who want to impersonate lawyers, therefore urging policy-makers to be careful in any decision in utilizing “paralegals”. The Legal Aid policy is aimed at promoting free or subsidized legal aid services to individuals, as well as promoting and strengthening access to justice throughout Liberia.

But Justice Johnson cautioned that paralegals in other countries are actually legal secretaries found in law firms, making research for lawyers. “So, the paralegal thing we have to define that clearly. Their T.O.R.- what they are supposed to be doing, clearly defined or else, you call somebody paralegal; legal is attached, they might go throughout this country and start acting like lawyers,” she warned.

She said Legal Aid People are Public Defense Lawyers who appear in the Rape Court and some other courts, and represent “indigent people,” with a few of them in some counties because the indigents do not have money to hire their own lawyers.

“So, the one or two you find in some counties are by far very inadequate,” she said, urging the participants not to leave the workshop thinking very soon or next year, they will have access to Legal Aid because it would take time going to law school.

Beside training lawyers, Justice Johnson suggested that Legal Aid needs to be made attractive, suggesting that some lawyers were based in Monrovia due to their own calculation as to what benefits come along with leaving the city for rural places after spending time and resources to acquire elementary education before obtaining law degree.

In agreement with Justice Johnson’s argument, Liberia National Bar Association President Moses Paegar said their fear was how mom-lawyers would be recruited. Cllr. Paegar rather encouraged partners to lend support to institutions involved with training lawyers for competent lawyers to provide services to the leeward counties.

Cllr. Paegar dismissed public perception that there were so many lawyers in Liberia, as he rather argued that “we may have a concentration of lawyers in Monrovia, but untrue that we have so many lawyers in Liberia.”

“If the proper incentives were provided and lawyers were encouraged to disperse over Liberia, you will come to realize that we are in dire need of lawyers,” he concluded. On behalf of Justice Minister Benedict Sannoh, his deputy, Cllr. Emmanuel Tulay said he had promised to work with all Liberians, including the Legislature and Judiciary, to remove the challenges and make [legal aid services] accessible to all within Liberia’s borders.

The Assistant Minister for Legal Services at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Atty. Lusene Bility, said their “understanding was that the purpose of the Legal Aid Policy was to promote and extend free quality and/or subsidized services of deliverable to eligible individuals aimed at promoting and strengthening the access to justice.”

By Winston W. Parley-Edited by George Barpeen

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