(JollofNews) – As efforts are being made by Gambia government and some members of the BAR Association for access to justice for all to become a reality, the issue of public interest litigation took centre stage during a just concluded lawyers’ confab.
Gambia’s new democratic dispensation is graduallly taking its shape, and expectations are high for the new regime to radically close the dark chapter of Yahya Jammeh’s 22-years of dictatorship, and pave the way for democracy and rule of law to prevail in the country.
“Legal aid was established in September 2010 with the mandate to provide pro bono services for those who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” the acting executive secretary for the National Agency for Legal Aid, Charles Sarr Thomas, told JollofNews in an exclusive interview.
He added that section 24 of the country’s fundamental law guarantees that everyone has a right to a lawyer, including those facing capital punishement including rape charges.
He further stated that the agency has four lawyers on its payroll and has handled about 150 cases this year. He added that 50 cases have been concluded while 100 cases are still ongoing.
“These four lawyers are also tasked with the responsibility to cover the entire country,” he added.
Although the scarcity of qualified and competent staff raises serious concerns and poses a serious threat to government’s commitment to make access to justice a reality, the Legal Aid boss said Gambia should emulate Ghana in order to remedy the situation.
“In Ghana they have a scheme whereby after completing your BAR exam, you are committed to do a one-year pro bono services. This would help to maintain the momentum ,” he added.
The executive director of the Banjul-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), Gaye Sowe, who spoke to JollofNews, described public interest litigation as a very important topic.
“We are talking about a country with high illiteracy rate and a lot of issues to deal with. When we talk about rights, hundreds of people affected will not know where to go to seek redress,” he said.
“It should be the responsility of the few who know to really take up such matters. It is a challenge in this country because it is not very common. In pushing for change, the issue of pro bono service is something we should put at the forefront. If the matter is left unattended, it will affect hundreds of people.”
Asked whether public interest litigation could help legal practictioners to contribute their quota in promoting social justice, Mr Sowe decried the fact that Gambia’s current constitution does not say much about social justice.
“If you look at some social issues, a lot of them are not classified as rights. We hope our new constitution will take care of that. Public interest litigation should really be encouragée,” he said.
However, veteran lawyer Antoumane Gaye took the opportunity to set the records straight about what many lawyers are doing without seeking publicity.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know that a good number of lawyers do pro bono work,” he revealed.
He went further to say he even took up a murder case, and the accused person was subsequently acquitted. “I was never paid a single penny.We do it all the time,” he added.
He welcomed any initiative that would help to formalise pro bono services in the country.
Written by Abdoulie JOHN