PUBLIC AWARENESS OF THE AVAILABILITY AND ACCESS TO LEGAL AID SERVICES IN GHANA

1. Introduction

Accessing justice has been challenging, particularly for the poor and marginalised due to the cost involved in seeking legal services.  This has resulted in the recognition of the need for legal aid in improving access to justice for marginalised, excluded and impoverished groups.  Legal aid services may include: legal advice, legal counselling, legal representation, access to information about legal rights and responsibilities, mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution and other legal advocacy services.  Legal aid is therefore essential to guaranteeing equal access to justice for all.

In Ghana, legal aid provisions are highlighted in Article 294 (2) of the 1992 Constitution.  Parliament further enacted the Legal Aid Scheme Act 1997 (Act 542) and subsequently the Legal Aid Scheme was turned into Legal Aid Commission through the passage of the Legal Aid Commission Act, 2018 (Act 977).

There is no gainsaying that people awareness of the availability of legal aid services and how to access them is critical in the delivery of legal aid services, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable populations.  Public education and outreach are integral part of legal aid delivery.  However, during the Ghana Results Fair which came off from 14th to 16th January, 2020, most visitors to the Ministry’s stand were unaware of the existence of legal aid scheme in Ghana.  This situation raises questions about the effectiveness of the Ministry’s supervisory and coordination role over the Legal Aid Commission’s programmes and activities concerning awareness creation on the existence of legal aid and how to access to it.  This is in spite of the continued expansion of the Commission’s nationwide coverage.

Consequently, the Research, Statistics and Information Management Directorate of the Office of the Attorney-General and Ministry of Justice undertook a research to assess public awareness of Legal Aid Commission’s legal aid services and how it is enhancing access to justice among the vulnerable in Ghana.  The purpose is to provide the Ministry with accurate and current data to inform the development of legal aid delivery strategies such as public education and sensitisation, advocacy and policy engagement, training and capacity building.  This would also facilitate the Ministry’s supervisory and coordination role over the Legal Aid Commission’s programmes and activities for enhanced public awareness of the existence of legal aid and how to access it.

2. Methodology

The study employed a cross-sectional survey approach and data were generated using structured questionnaires.  The key units of analysis were community members, particularly the marginalised, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged aged 18 years and above.  The study sample was determined using convenience sampling due to accessibility.  Two-hundred and twenty (220) respondents constitute the study sample.  The results are presented using descriptive statistical techniques such as tables, charts, graphs, percentages and frequencies.  The research was undertaken between October and November of 2020.

3. Findings

From the study, there is limited awareness of the public on their constitutional right to legal aid.  Regarding respondents’ knowledge or experience of legal aid in Ghana, it turned out a large majority of the respondents practically had no knowledge or experience of legal aid.  Of respondents who had some knowledge or experience of legal aid, an absolute majority had a fair idea of the criteria one has to meet in order to access legal Aid.

The findings show that a vast majority of the respondents have never accessed legal aid.  However, more than two-thirds (77.5%) had knowledge of the existence and operation of the Legal Aid Commission, a little above one-fifth (22.5%) of the respondents were unaware of the existence and operation of the Commission.  In effect, 22.5% of Ghanaians are not aware that if they are unable to afford legal services, the State will not only provide it but also has a mandated institution with professional staff that provides free legal services to the poor and vulnerable.  The findings however suggest an improvement in the public knowledge of the existence and operation of the Legal Aid Commission.  In the 2012 baseline survey of the justice sector, 79% of Ghanaians did not know of the existence of the Legal Aid Commission or the services it provides.  This improvement in public knowledge of the existence and operation of the Commission could be attributed to key reforms undertaken after the baseline survey.

Highest on the list of barriers to the accessibility of legal aid services provided by the Legal Aid Commission included lack of acknowledge on the operations of the Commission, delay in proceedings, lack of awareness of the existence of the Commission and location.

4. Conclusion and Recommendation

Generally, legal aid services help beneficiaries to access justice and although the Legal Aid Commission is making efforts to providing legal aid services, the public awareness of their constitutional right to legal aid services is limited.  This is a matter of concern that needs to be addressed because some wealthy and rich people who are aware of this constitutional right to legal aid can take advantage of it in litigation, thus depriving the poor of the opportunity to seek justice and legal assistance.  Overall, the findings can assist legislators, policymakers and other national and international stakeholders working in the area of access to legal aid by identifying priorities for technical assistance and making evidence-based recommendations on how to strengthen the provision of legal aid services as a means to empower people to seek out justice and protect their rights.

In light of the survey’s findings, it is recommended that public education of the availability of legal aid services and how to access it is critical in delivering legal aid services, particularly for marginalised and vulnerable populations.  Hence, public education and outreach must be an integral part of legal aid delivery strategy.