African Women Lawyers (AWLA), a Non-governmental Organisation, has held a stakeholder engagement with the aim to reach workable solutions on key challenges affecting access to justice for many citizens.
Ms. Edna Kuma, the Executive Director of the African Women Lawyers, in her opening statement, said the findings to be discussed at the meeting, were part of the implementation of an Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)-funded Project on “Enhancing Justice Delivery through Innovative Participatory Approaches” project.
She said under the project, AWLA monitored justice delivery under the “Justice for All Programme” (JFAP) in eight prisons where JFAP court sittings were mounted, and these included the Ho, Koforidua, Akuse, Sekondi, Tamale, Bawku, Sunyani, Kumasi, and Ankaful Prisons.
These issues, she said, were identified and compiled based on observations made by AWLA during JFAP court proceedings, interviews with prisoners, prison officers, State Attorneys and other stakeholders in justice delivery under the project.
The participants, who were drawn from the Eastern, Volta, Greater Accra and the Central regions, included officers and personnel from the Ghana Police Service, the Domestic Violence and Victims Supports of Unit, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice and the Legal Aid Scheme.
Various issues that affected the constitutional rights of prisoners in remand, an overview of the Criminal Justice System and presentations on the provisions enshrined in the Manual for
Sensitisation and Training on the Rights of Accused Persons under the law were made by presenters from AWLA.
Ms Kuma said it was not right for people who break the law or are alleged to have broken the law to be remanded in prison for long periods, unless they have actually been convicted of the offence, unfortunately, many poor people in Ghana suffer this fate and are sometimes forgotten in prisons adding to the teeming numbers of people in the prisons.
She said when accused persons are remanded in custody by the courts, the Police are required to process their cases for hearing and in instances where the accused did not have a lawyer defending them and ensuring that their cases are fixed for hearing, they could be forgotten and left in remand prison for months or years.
Access to the judicial system, she said, was difficult due to the long and tiring legal processes at the courts, ignorance of the law and procedures of the criminal justice system generally.
She said other barriers are: the low level of incomes of accused person, failure of families failure to meet bail conditions, adjournment of cases for long periods, perceived acts of
impropriety at the courts, fear of the judicial system due to low level of education and information, fear borne out of intimidation and provocation from some court officials and the Police.
Ms Kuma said the JFAP has since 2007, collaborated with the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General’s Department, the Judicial Service, the Police Service, the Prison Service and some NGOs to decongest prisons.
She said the Programme has over the past 10 years touched 3,812 inmates, reached out to prisoners in eight out of the previously 10 regions, leading to the setting up of a High Court in the Nsawam Medium Security Prisons to help improve the human rights ratings of the country.
Ms Effiba Amihere, the Executive Secretary of AWLA, mentioned other successes as the rolled out a paperless court system by the Judicial Service called the e-justice Programme, which has had been adapted by the JFAP as a virtual prison special court sitting, known as the e-Court, which was piloted in the Koforidua Prisons on December 15, 2017.
The system, she said, creates an opportunity for multi-stakeholder collaboration between the Judicial Service, the British High Commission, the Danish International Development Agency, the Centre for Human Rights and Civil Liberties (CHURCIL), POS Foundation, HelpLaw Ghana, the Ghana Bar Association, the Media, lawyers who offer pro-bono services and other development partners to work together to protect the rights of vulnerable prisoners.
Ms Amihere said the e-Court system was aimed at implementing a paperless Justice for All sitting in 2018 and beyond and would aid all actors in the court process to access applications online, archive all JFAP records and rulings and verdicts, and give a summary report and statistics to the Programme in various prisons across the country.
The presenters, however, cited some key implementation challenges of the JFAP as the attempt being made by some citizens including some Policemen to denigrate the Programme.
They criticized the fact that more often than not when the Police arrest an individual, a recidivist, they quickly run to the media to say that the person was a beneficiary of the JFAP, but in many cases subsequent follow-ups revealed something to the contrary.
They said there has been minimum citizen’s participation in the process leading to the limited public appreciation of the Programme, while getting lawyers to provide pro-bono services around the prisons has been challenging.
Ms Kuma urged accused persons and their families and friends to seek help from the JFAP, Legal Aid Board, and other NGOs that offer services to accused persons.