Executive Director of the Legal Aid Council (LAC), Hugh Faulkner, says the ability to provide timely and quality legal services to the Jamaican people remains a top priority.
In an interview with JIS News at the agency’s regional office on Union Street, Montego Bay, in St. James, on July 16, Mr. Faulkner said the mission is beginning to gain widespread traction, as many persons have been gaining easy access to legal aid and have been experiencing positive and meaningful results.
He pointed out that this has been achieved through carefully designed community outreach programmes, and a gradual buy-in to the LAC’s vision of providing effective representation in a manner that engenders public trust and confidence.
The Executive Director noted that for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the LAC provided duty counsel to 3,331 persons. “In other words, 3,331 Jamaicans had an attorney present to advise them of their rights during question-and-answer sessions with the police,” he said.
“I have often maintained that justice delayed is justice denied, so we have a rapid response policy to duty counsel,” Mr. Faulkner told JIS News.
“Once we receive a request for duty counsel, an attorney is assigned immediately, so that persons will not have to needlessly spend the night behind bars,” he added.
Mr. Faulkner described duty counsel as a system under the Ministry of Justice, executed by the LAC, which provides free legal representation for detainees at the identification parade, question-and-answer sessions by the police, lockup visits, and for posting application for station or court bail.
The representation is undertaken by an assigned duty counsel drawn from an approved list.
Recently, a new list consisting of more than 500 attorneys was approved by the Council for distribution to police stations islandwide.
“From the moment you are taken into custody, our duty counsel lawyers must respond to you, as we have to treat it as a rapid response matter against a citizen losing his or her liberty,” Mr. Faulkner said.
The Executive Director also noted that for the 2018/2019 period, a total of 3,648 cases were completed, including matters concerning expungement and appeals.
“We were able to help a number of persons who would have had matters from their past which were impeding their ability to gain employment, training or travel,” Mr. Faulkner added.
The Executive Director said the LAC intends to increase its Parish Court output by 20 per cent sometime next year.
Mr. Faulkner pointed out that one of the big takeaways from the community outreach programmes is for Jamaicans to realise that the LAC is a non-political entity, which is there to assist with legal matters, regardless of resources.
In the meantime, the Executive Director said his organisation is also on a mission to help more mentally ill persons facing the justice system.
“We want to remind the family members of detained mentally ill persons that they can contact the LAC for legal advice, as there are several steps which can be taken regarding the mentally ill in the court system,” he added.
The LAC is a statutory entity under the Ministry of Justice. The council’s mandate is to administer an efficient and coordinated legal aid system in Jamaica.
“The LAC is committed to ensuring that all Jamaican citizens have access to quality legal representation, regardless of their financial resources,” Mr. Faulkner reiterated.
He said that the stigma or perception that the legal service offered by the Government is not up to par and is inferior to the hiring of a private attorney, has been waning over time.
“For us at the LAC, it is all about quality service. It is our legal and moral obligation to ensure that the person without the resources get the same quality representation as those who are blessed with financial resources, Mr. Faulkner said.
He pointed out that citizens charged with murder who are expected to stand trial are assigned senior counsel with 10 or more years of experience. They are also, in relevant cases, assigned forensic and expert assistance to support their case.
“To give the ordinary citizen a lawyer may not be enough to secure justice for him. It is also important that persons have access to the supporting entities to facilitate proof of innocence,” the Executive Director said.