By CHRISTINE KUNDA-
“OUR administration will enhance access to justice, ensure strict adherence to the rule of law and upholding of human rights.”
This is one of the many commitments President Hakainde Hichilema has made as his new administration begins the daunting task of restoring confidence in the justice system.
Mr Hichilema made this statement at the opening of the first session of the 13th National Assembly in Lusaka recently.
This commitment comes at a time when it is not a secret that the justice system in Zambia suffers from numerous challenges that prevent people from accessing justice.
Justice is a fundamental human right which entails that any accused person be subjected to a court process that guarantees a speedy and fair outcome because justice delayed is justice denied.
While justice is an important aspect of safeguarding human rights, its delivery has not been without challenges in Zambia, just as is the case in many other developing countries.
In Zambia, timely disposal of cases and lack of access to legal aid has been one of the major challenges.
Many cases have taken years to be disposed of due to inadequate legal manpower, among other factors.
Recognising the challenges in administering justice in the country, President Hichilema declared that his administration will enhance access to justice and uphold human rights.
The head of State categorically emphasised the need to strengthen institutions of governance to guarantee fundamental human rights and quick dispensation of justice.
“We will strengthen and modernise our institutions of governance to guarantee security, fundamental human rights, civil liberties and quick dispensation of justice,” Mr Hichilema said.
The President further said the separation of powers among the three arms of Government was essential to the upholding of the Constitution and the rule of law.
He said the fact that the State will safeguard the rights of the people and protect private property.
Some of the problems affecting the justice system are well known.
They include the high cost of legal services, uneven distribution of lawyers in the country, inadequate legal aid services, among others.
People have been denied justice on account of delays.
Further, innocent people have been confined to remand facilities for years without their cases being taken to court.
Similarly, some people have, in the process of waiting for justice, died without being accorded a court hearing.
Needless to say, apart from congesting remand facilities, delayed justice negates the tenets of democracy and abrogates human rights.
In some instance, access to justice is seen as a preserve of the well-to-do despite it being a fundamental human right and a catalyst to enhanced legal empowerment of the poor and vulnerable groups.
When people have a legal claim to resolve, they look towards lawyers to help them wade through the legal process in a quest to vindicate their claim.
Some of the setbacks that have also continued to pose a challenge to access to justice in Zambia include accumulated demand of cases at courts, overcrowding of correctional facilities, over-detention at police stations and slow institutional reforms.
This entails that the people’s rights to legal assistance, legal representation and equality before the law are not attained.
A number of detainees do not have access to legal assistance, leaving them unaware of their rights and vulnerable to injustice.
According to the Zambia’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), close to 50 per cent of accused persons spend at least six months in remand.
More than 13 per cent spend over two years before their cases are concluded in court.
It is for this reason that the recent declaration by President
Hichilema, that his Government would enhance access to justice, ensure strict adherence to the rule of law and uphold human rights, is a welcome development which will enhance access to justice system in the country.
In addition, pieces of law, like the proposed Legal Aid Bill of 2021, provides for the granting of legal aid in civil and criminal cases to persons whose means are insufficient to enable them pay for legal services.
The Bill also provides for the regulation of law clinics in the provision of Legal Aid Board and provide for its functions.
Moreover, the introduction of the Legal Aid Bill creates the foundation for the establishment of a comprehensive legal aid system in
Zambia that is accessible, effective, credible and sustainable to persons whose means are insufficient in civil and criminal matters.
It will also provide for the registration of practitioners, legal assistant and paralegals; continuing the existence of the Legal Aid Fund and provide for its administration and management.
Legal education, legal advice and mechanism of alternative dispute resolution in addition to legal assistance and representation in court will help to empower people to claim their rights and receive remedies.
The Bill promotes the establishment of comprehensive pro-bono framework for increased number of legal practitioners to provide legal aid services.
It is important to note that for justice to be attained, the legal aid should become accessible at all stages of the justices system, enabling individuals to claim their rights as provided for in the Constitution.
Germany Development Cooperation (GIZ) is among institutions that have noted some of the important legal services that are in the Legal Aid Bill.
Among them is the provision of pro-bono legal and paralegal services
This is to ensure that people in Zambia have access to justice even when they have insufficient funds.
GIZ has programmes for Legal Empowerment and Enhanced Justice Delivery (PLEED) that is making positive strides in working on a number of interventions with the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary to improve access to justice delivery.
GIZ PLEED Manager Christine Roth said the programme, which started in 2015, has provided financial and technical support to improve justice service delivery in Zambia.
Ms Roth said one of the ways that justice service delivery is being attained is through the training of paralegals that are registered with the Legal Aid Board to provide legal aid services.
“A paralegal service is key in filling the gap of limited legal service provision as well as offer legal assistance that creates equal access to legal aid for people that have limited access to legal services,” she said.
She said since 2019, different universities and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been credited as training providers together with the Technical Authority, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority (TEVETA), to offer paralegal training courses.
Before 2018, paralegals were trained by various learning institutions and organisations.
The content and duration of the training programmes varied as well as the qualification of the trained person.
This caused lack of confidence in competence of paralegals to provide legal services.
As a result, PLEED provides assistance in the development of a standardised national training for paralegals to support the geography expansion of the legal aid system.
Ms Roth said the provision of these paralegal services is supervised by the Legal Aid Board through the legal services units, prison and police desks.
She described the Zambia Correction Services Bill as a very important piece of law that would enhance the need for correctional facilities to move from sentence and retribution based to rehabilitation and correctional facility based.
“People maybe wrongfully convicted because of not knowing the right ways of answering to their charges,” she said.
Justice plays an important role in the development of any country, including Zambia, especially when it comes to the creation of an inclusive society where efficiency and fair justice delivery is at the core of national aspirations.
Moreover, Justice Minister Mulambo Haimbe said ensuring access to justice is an important ingredient to national development, which is anchored on human rights.
He said the rule of law is the principle of equality and access to justice before the law for all citizens.