A CONSORTIUM of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have called on government to withdraw the Legal Aid Bill, which is currently at Second Reading stage in Parliament, in order to conduct further consultations over its contents.
The Legal Aid Bill (N.A.B. 1/2021) came up for a Second Reading, Friday morning.
However, the consortium of CSOs argued that the Bill would have detrimental effects on the rights to legal representation, freedom of expression and access to information.
This is according to a joint statement issued by Chapter One Foundation; ActionAid Zambia; Alliance for Community Action; Caritas Zambia; the Centre for Trade Policy and Development; Council of Christian Churches in Zambia; Gears Zambia; Peoples’ Action for Accountability and Good Governance in Zambia; Transparency International Zambia and Zambia Council for Social Development, Friday.
Chapter One Foundation executive director Linda Kasonde, on behalf of the other CSOS, noted that the intention behind legal aid was to provide for legal services in civil and criminal cases to those with insufficient means, adding that it was, therefore, imperative that any legislation regulating the provision of legal aid be specific, comprehensive, equitable and have far reaching benefits.
The consortium opposed the Legal Aid Bill of 2021, arguing that the Bill represented a threat to the provision of pro bono legal services by legal practitioners and the dissemination of legal information by civil society and any member of the public.
“We, the undersigned civil society organisations, believe that legal aid is an essential element of any legal system as it provides for the enjoyment of rights guaranteed by law as well as the Constitution regardless of one’s economic or social background. The intention behind legal aid is to provide for legal services in civil and criminal cases to those with insufficient means, thus, it is imperative that any legislation regulating the provision of legal aid be specific, comprehensive, equitable and have far reaching benefits. We, nonetheless, oppose the Legal Aid Bill of 2021 as we believe it represents a threat to the provision of pro bono legal services by legal practitioners and the dissemination of legal information by civil society and any member of the public,” Kasonde stated.
She stated that although the Bill was well intended, it was in need of refinement as it had far-reaching consequences in its current state.
“The Legal Aid Bill is currently at the Second Reading stage in the National Assembly. Though well intended, the Bill is in need of refinement as it has far-reaching consequences. The Bill in its current form centralises the provision of legal aid bringing it under the regulation of the Legal Aid Board, which is largely made up of government officials rather than independent persons. This may be a problem for persons who may be critical of the State, who seek legal aid from a civil society organisation or any other legal aid service provider. It provides for the licencing and regulation of legal practitioners providing legal aid in addition to the already existent regulation and licencing under the Legal Practitioners’ Act. This will have the effect of discouraging legal practitioners, who wish to take up pro bono cases and may also have an effect on the constitutional right to choose legal counsel of one’s choice. In addition, the scope of the definition of ‘legal aid’ in the Bill extends to the sharing of ‘legal information’ and ‘legal education’ by any person,” Kasonde added.
“That will have a particularly detrimental effect on human rights defenders and Civil Society Organisations whose advocacy on governance and rule of law matters includes the sharing of information on various laws, including the Constitution, by engaging the public through public forums, media campaigns and sensitisation exercises. The Bill also provides stiff criminal penalties for CSOs or any individuals who provide any legal advice, information, education, and presentation, without prior registration with the Legal Aid Board. This would be in violation of Article 20 of the Constitution, which provides for the right to freedom of expression; and Article 2 of the Constitution, which provides the right for any citizen to defend the Constitution.”
The CSOs added that they firmly believed the Bill would have detrimental effects on the rights to legal representation, freedom of expression and access to information.
They, therefore, urged government to withdraw it and conduct further consultations.
“We firmly believe that the Bill will have detrimental effects on the rights to legal representation, freedom of expression and access to information. We also believe that the provision of pro bono legal services and the sharing of legal information allow the public, human rights defenders and civil society to freely engage in public discourse on governance and rule of law issues without the fear of criminal liability,” stated Kasonde, a former Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) president.
“We urge government to withdraw the Bill and conduct further consultations with CSOs and the public over the contents of the Bill. Specifically, we recommend that the expanded definition ‘legal aid’ and the criminalisation of unregistered persons providing legal aid be revisited as to not discourage individuals and organisations whose mandate is to increase legal awareness as a means to promote human rights. Additionally, we recommend that members of the public take an interest in bills such as the Legal Aid Bill in order to ensure public engagement and participation concerning the enactment of legislation in the country.”