Roundtable brings access to justice on agenda

Participants of a Legal Aid Roundtable reached consensus on potential partnerships in developing legal aid in Samoa. 

According to a press release, the consensus looks at how Samoa can ensure an accessible, sustainable, accountable, credible system, while ensuring sufficient awareness is raised in the community on the right to legal aid. However this consensus will be further developed in the weeks and months ahead. 

The recent Legal Aid Roundtable was an initiative of the Ministry of Justice and Court Administration (M.J.C.A.) and the United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.). 

Members of the Law and Justice Sector, the Law Society, advocates and civil society were present to discuss “Future Directions for Legal Aid in Samoa”.

The meeting was joined by U.N.D.P. Access to Justice Expert, Andrew Harrington who presented on the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems and on the lessons learned from his experience working in partnership with the Fiji Legal Aid Commission. 

Addressing the large number of self-represented litigants in criminal cases, the Attorney General Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff suggested that additional resources allocated to the legal aid sector would likely save the justice system money. 

Lemalu suggested that perhaps the cost of not having effective lawyers to represent members of the community, could in fact be more costly than committing resources to it. 

“If you calculated the cost of taking them through the justice system and place it next to the cost of legal aid and the Community Law Centre, the inefficiencies cost more than how much legal aid costs,”said Lemalu, who also emphasised in a statement the Government’s “constitutional responsibility” to provide legal aid to those in need.

According to the statement, Mr. Harrington shared his expertise with the roundtable on regional and international best practice on access to justice; and the need to have a legal aid system that ensures “equality of arms” between defendants and the State. 

Reflecting on the current state of access to justice coupled with the need for fiscal prudence, Associate Minister for Justice and Court Administration, Afioga Sooalo Mene in the statement commented that although “legal aid might sound like an expensive endeavour, particularly in this current period of fiscal belt-tightening, every Tala spent on [it] is an investment that pays dividends”. 

Sector stakeholders highlighted not only the need for increased support to the accused, but also for support to victims, many of whom also suffer unmet legal needs. The Pacific Island Law Officers’ Network (P.I.L.O.N.) also presented their work across the region ensuring that vulnerable witnesses are protected through their General Principles as part of their work through the P.I.L.O.N. Sexual and Gender Based Violence Working Group, the statement said. 

Particular emphasis was placed on the need to build on the work already undertaken in legislating the Community Law Centre Act and ensuring that its implementation meets regional and international best practice. 

U.N. Resident Coordinator and U.N.D.P. Resident Representative, Dr. Simona Marinescu emphasised the importance of legal aid for a cohesive society.

“We are throughout our lives on a quest as human beings for fairness, safety and justice. We are working towards ensuring the people of Samoa have free, unobstructed access to justice and ensuring the cost of the system is lower. No matter the cost, however, we do have an obligation as part of the social contract to have legal aid. The U.N. stands ready to work with you on this in order to achieve a safe, fair and just Samoa in line with the 2030 Agenda,” said Dr. Marinescu in the statement.    

According to the United Nations General Assembly, “Legal aid is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law. Legal aid is a foundation for the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a fair trial”. 

This means representing the common global understanding, emphasising the fundamental need for legal aid reflected in international human rights documents and national laws, including the Samoan Constitution, which guarantees equal access to justice.  

The Legal Aid Roundtable was made possible with support from the U.N.D.P. Pacific Regional Programme, funded by the Government of Australia. Funding and logistical support was also provided by the M.J.C.A.

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