- The term ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ speaks volumes, not only about the speed at which this service ought to be delivered, but also the priceless value of people being able to access it.
- This is why Justice of the Peace (JP), George Young, describes the work of the Legal Aid Council (LAC), in empowering Jamaicans to access critical justice services, as important.
- The Legal Aid Council is a statutory entity mandated to administer an effective legal aid system in Jamaica.
The term ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ speaks volumes, not only about the speed at which this service ought to be delivered, but also the priceless value of people being able to access it.
This is why Justice of the Peace (JP), George Young, describes the work of the Legal Aid Council (LAC), in empowering Jamaicans to access critical justice services, as important.
The Legal Aid Council is a statutory entity mandated to administer an effective legal aid system in Jamaica.
“I would definitely tell persons that if you are in need of legal services, to contact the LAC duty counsel. I find their office to be very efficient and effective. Even the attorneys themselves, who are a part of the roster, are very open and really go above and beyond to assist persons as best as possible,” he tells JIS News
Mr. Young, who uses a wheelchair, says the Council has made it a part of their duty to encourage and facilitate persons living with disabilities to access justice services where sought.
“Inclusion goes beyond the built environment at the Council. It actually goes as far as how the workers and staff interact with me, where respect is given and human dignity is guaranteed,” he notes.
Mr. Young points out that while he has not had to personally utilise the services of the duty counsel, he has made representation on behalf of persons who have been remanded and who are in the lock-ups.
“Whenever I seek legal representatives or persons just to give information, I find the duty counsel service to be very affable, open and respectful,” he tells JIS News.
Another key area where inclusion is being facilitated by the Legal Aid Council is through their Mobile Justice Units, two of which are brand new and boast a wheelchair lift.
Executive Director, Hugh Faulkner, tells JIS News that in addition to providing physical infrastructure, the Council team works to facilitate persons living with mental disabilities who have to interface with the courts.
Additionally, he says in cases where persons suffer from mental illnesses, the Council can request evaluations for psychiatric and other impairments.
“So whatever is necessary, we provide help because when you speak [about] access to justice… we have to assist [all] persons, and whatever we can do, we give that commitment,” the Executive Director further indicates.
Mr. Faulkner says legal aid is particularly important in criminal matters where the Council provides free advice on issues, generally to persons of small or moderate means.
“A criminal matter might cause you to be removed from the comfort of your home and you spend time in a police lock up; therefore, it infringes on your civil liberties. So it’s prudent that you have legal representation. There are also times when a person may need help with a criminal appeal matter. So for the citizen who finds it difficult to privately retain a lawyer, the State stands up and assists,” he explains.
Criminal matters also leave criminal records that can hurt a person’s chances of getting job and training opportunities as well as negatively affect travel prospects.
Delma Doreen Brown, who has used the Legal Aid Council to facilitate her record expungement process, describes the service delivery as excellent.
“I was really satisfied [and] comfortable … because the lawyer I spoke with knew how to interact with her clients. She was really nice [and] when we talked, she gave me a better understanding of expungement and told me what to do and how to go about it. So the service was really good,” Ms. Brown states.
The LAC provides legal advice in a significant number of criminal matters, except certain drug offences, including exportation or importation of marijuana and other narcotics.
The lawyers working with the Council are private attorneys who are paid a predetermined rate based on recommendations from the Jamaican Bar Association and the Advocates Association of Jamaica.
The first aspect of legal aid is the duty counsel stage, which goes from the moment a person is detained to the first court date. There is no application form for persons to fill out and no payment requested. Persons are only required to make a request for legal aid.
Individuals should also be informed by the police whether they are detained or family members of the detained, and to contact the Council for representation.
Mr. Faulkner says if the persons are to proceed to trial, then they are given an application form with a means test.
“The means test inquires [into] the person’s financial circumstances. If the person can make a small contribution, then we give them a bank voucher. If we find that the person cannot pay anything, they are still given counsel.
Senior counsel is provided for major anti-gang matters, murder or manslaughter, for example, and other counsel, including senior counsel for other matters. For that, there is a form that is completed and any contribution would be what the client agreed to, as that is what the law requires”.
The Legal Aid Council also provides additional services, such as expert and technical help, during trials to help prove their clients’ innocence.
“We provide psychiatric reports, pay private psychiatrists to do these reports, pay private labs to do DNA testing, and pay private handwriting experts to assist clients challenged with a charge of forgery, who denied it. We have also paid for a surveyor in one case and a photographer to photograph the alleged area of the crime scene and the topography. We have got a lot of success by providing not just the lawyer but the expert or technical or forensic assistance that our client needs,” Mr. Faulkner outlines.
He emphasises that legal aid must also be responsive to time, noting that the process begins from the moment someone is detained.
“When you are detained, you are a suspect; when you are charged, you are accused. So at the stage of detention, when you are a suspect, if we are requested to assist a citizen, for example, the person is to be questioned by the police today, we send counsel the same day. This is because the person may be questioned and released or the person may face an identification parade and be released after that. So if you send the lawyer the next day, then you would have caused a citizen to spend an extra night in custody; so we treat that as a rapid response process,” the Executive Director informs.
In the case of children, Mr. Faulkner says they should not be detained at a lock-up for adults, citing this as a breach of the Child Care and Protection Act.
“So we readily send attorneys. Even at nights we have gone to the lock-ups to ensure that a child is either returned to the custody of the parents or not held at a lock-up where adults are,” he adds.
In addition to representing persons in criminal matters, the Council also provides advice on some civil matters and legal document interpretation.
For more information on the work of the Legal Aid Council, visit its website at www.legalaidcouncil.moj.gov.jm, or call 876-948-6999.