By Vina Frederick
Finally the highly-anticipated Legal Aid Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday. The intention of this bill is to do and fulfill a requirement that many individuals in society have been speaking about, that is, to provide legal representation in areas where persons do not have the economic or social capacity to fund their own legal representatives.
Acting Prime Minister Stephenson King said this Bill fulfills one of the fundamental requirements of St Lucia’s constitution: equality before the law. Said King: “This piece of legislation provides for the establishment of an authority that would govern the administration of the legislation and in that authority there shall be a board comprising of a chairperson, a deputy chairperson and five other members appointed by the minister responsible. It also provides for the functions and power of the authority that is to provide legal aid in criminal and civil cases to persons who satisfied the requirements of the Act. There are many people who are unable to afford and retain a lawyer in instances where they find themselves before the law.”
The Bill provides for the establishment of committees, mainly for the purpose of carrying out the functions pursuant to the Act. The authority will be responsible for its own regulatory mechanism in order to fulfill the word of the board and to ensure that the authority functions properly there is provision for the appointment of an executive director.But before the Bill was passed there were a few concerns raised by Housing Minister Richard Frederick.
He highlighted that the Bill stated that a lawyer who would practice legal aid would need at least four years experience, which he disagreed with. Said Frederick: “In four years a lawyer who is doing well will see himself as someone who can go out there in the battlefield and fight any legal battle. He will not do legal aid. So I am proposing we must make the criteria such that it attracts persons who are willing and who are less than four years of service. It should at least be reduced to one year, because no four year practicing barrister will be willing to give legal aid and the whole objective of the act will be defeated.”
Frederick proposed at least one year experience but after MP for Soufriere Harold Dalson suggested that no years of experience was needed Frederick reconsidered and agreed and the rest of the House supported the two. Frederick’s second objection was that the lawyer had to be a member of the bar association to practice legal aid. Castries East MP Philip J Pierre after announcing his support for the Bill suggested that consideration should be given to the list of offenses that require legal aid.
The Acting Prime Minister said the legal aid authority will make its own regulation and would state the offenses that would be considered for legal aid. Attorney-at-law Mary Francis who for years has been calling on government to establish legal aid said the St Lucian government has finally realized what most democracies already know, that it is necessary to provide some sort of legal aid to those who are unable to afford legal representation. She said she is now looking forward to its full implementation.
“What needs to be done now is to actually take the necessary measures to make the program become operational as soon as possible,” said Francis. “St Lucians can begin to enjoy their right to equality before the law and ensuring that everyone has access to justice irrespective of their economic and social status.” Francis said a few issues need to be addressed if the initiative is to be successful. She said legal professionals need to be mindful of potential abuse of the system. She said government must ensure that lawyers buy into the legal aid initiative. She said attorneys need to volunteer their time and expertise.
Another attorney, Marcus Foster said this would not be a problem. Foster said many lawyers are enthusiastic about the system. “It is a popular belief that lawyers are after their 30 pieces of silver but a lot of lawyers in particular young lawyers fresh out of school had been making enquiries,” said Foster. “A lot of lawyers who came out of the West Indies situation were actually trained in dealing with legal aid situations.” Although no fees will be paid to attorneys taking part in the legal aid initiative litigants will have to meet minor legal fees.
Caption: Lawyer Mary Francis has been pushing for legal aid for a long time, finally the dream is a reality