Shocking, only 35 lawyers administering Legal Aid in Ghana

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If justice had a price, the poor would not be able to afford it. This is why justice is a right, not a privilege. Everyone should be able to access it, regardless of their living conditions. It is why the Legal Aid Commission exists, to provide legal representation for those who would ordinarily not be able to pay for legal services.

However, available data from the Legal Aid Commission as of 19th June, 2021 indicates that there are only 35 lawyers working with the Commission that serve the entire Ghanaian population.

An elaboration of data from the United Nations by Worldometer puts Ghana’s population as at the time of this writing (June 28, 2021) at 31,710,602.

Of this number however, a Multidimensional Poverty Index of the country released by the Ghana Statistical Service in 2020 shows that about 14 million Ghanaians are multi-dimensionally poor. By definition, this form of poverty makes such considerations in terms of health and other sectors instead of simply monetary deprivations.

According to the Country Director of GIZ Ghana, Regina Bauerochse, “the Ghana MPI is an important milestone, as it provides disaggregated data that sheds light on the realities of the most vulnerable. This information is key for identifying and tailoring effective interventions that reflect the development needs of all Ghanaians.

The work of the Legal Aid Commission is to serve the justice needs of such persons. The Legal Aid Commission Act, 2019 (Act 977) sets in Article 2(a) that the function of the Legal Aid Commission is to provide legal aid to the “indigent.”

Indigent is a fancy word which means the needy or poor.

It is not unusual that there has been extensive works and reports focusing on poverty in Ghana. While the country continues to strive to maintain positive economic indices, two facts remain; wealth in Ghana is not evenly distributed and secondly, places with low economic growth are hotspots for crime.

The poverty assessment report by the World Bank, published in November 2020 indicated that poor households in Ghana are usually larger in size, with more dependents, are more likely to live in rural areas and had heads who were less educated. The report further indicated that households in the three northern regions, i.e. Northern, Upper East and Upper West, as well as those in the Volta Region “had fewer chances of breaking out of poverty regardless of the sector of employment”. This was because they “live in areas with poor access to public services, electricity and markets and experience droughts.” For instance, the newly created Oti Region has no High Court. It is also true for most of the other new regions, the likes that are concentrated in the areas stated above.

The World Bank further reports that Ghana’s economy experienced recession for the first time in 38 years following a contraction of the economy by 3.2 and 1% in the second and third quarters of 2020. The impacts of these strains on the economy are felt by the people in the remotest parts of the country.

According to Wrigley-Asante et. al. (2016),  “studies have shown poverty can predispose some people to sexual abuses and expose the more vulnerable to abuses of their sexual rights.” The authors cite the example in Lesotho where daughters place in households of wealthier extended families as domestic help goes through various forms of abuses, not excluding rape. “Similar studies in Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire also show that where family members have non-conforming sexual relationships, their families are more likely to reject them if they are not bringing in an income” (Jolly & Hawkins, 2010, cited in Wrigley-Asante et. al, 2016).

These considerations make the work of the Legal Aid Commission even more important. However, the inadequate number of lawyers working in these areas poses difficulty in the ability of the commission to fulfill its mandate.

The Table provided below provides the distribution of lawyers working with the Commission across the various regions.

REGIONNUMBERPERCENTAGE
GREATER ACCRA1029
ASHANTI823
WESTERN | WESTERN NORTH411
BONO | BONO EAST| AHAFO411
CENTRAL26
EASTERN26
UPPER EAST26
NORTHER/NORTH EAST | SAVANNA13
UPPER WEST13
VOLTA | OTI13
TOTAL35100
Source: Legal Aid Commission

It is worrying to observe that the northern regions and the Volta/Oti Regions which have already been shown to be among the poorest regions in Ghana have the least number of Legal Aid lawyers.

In 2015, the Ghana Statistical Service published a poverty map which concluded that “in an effort to reduce poverty in Ghana, households in the most affected districts in the Volta, Brong Ahafo, Northern, Upper West and Upper East regions must be targeted for social intervention programs.” That conclusion is still true for today, especially as the need for legal aid continues to rise.

See fig.1. below for the Ghana Statistical Service report on the percentage of women who had experienced domestic or non-domestic social violence over their lifetime. The research was carried out in 2016.

It is not surprising that women in the Central, Western, Volta, Northern, Upper East and Upper West (as they were previously) have the highest percentages of the various injustices.

fig.1 | Source: Ghana Statistical Service

The need to adequately staff the Legal Aid Commission has become very paramount in today’s world, even though there are various efforts being made to improve the standards of living of Ghanaians. Access to Justice is a matter of right. Staffing the Legal Aid Commission would be the most effective demonstration in our collective belief in that right.