The Legal Aid Forum (LAF) has called on the justice sector to work more closely with civil society groups that provide legal aid to vulnerable suspects.
In particular, the body wants to offer free legal services to juvenile and disadvantaged inmates facing criminal charges.
The president of LAF, Clement Nkera, said that legal aid would help reduce pre-trial detention cases. He was speaking, yesterday, during a conference that brought together officials from the justice system and law firms.
“In situations where there are few lawyers, paralegals can come in to help prisoners understand the law, how it affects them and how to apply it in their own cases,” Nkera said in an interview. Paralegals or legal assistants help lawyers in their work by, for instance, investigating cases and providing reports that enable lawyers better understand the case in question.
Nkera added: “Paralegals can offer a linkage between legal aid NGOs, lawyers and police authorities to help vulnerable groups to have equitable access to justice, not only in civil cases, but criminal cases as well.”
The Executive Secretary of the Youth Association for Human Rights Promotion and Development (AJPRODHO), John Mudakikwa, noted that a survey, conducted in 2007, showed that many suspects on remand needed special legal aid, but that there were few legal service providers at the time. “We look forward to a more coherent policy on legal aid, specifically on guaranteeing the rights to legal aid for vulnerable youths convicted on criminal charges.”
Claire Wilkinson, the Programme Coordinator of Lawyers of Hope, a local NGO, said that, due to the high costs involved in acquiring legal services, most suspects have no legal representation. “The government needs to partner with legal aid NGOs that provide free services to the accused.”
It was also pointed out that paralegals should expand their legal aid to criminal matters as well.
According to a 2009 survey majority of cases handled by paralegals were related to land, inheritance and other family disputes.