By Hafsa Obeng, GNA
Accra, Dec. 14, GNA - The Chief Justice, Mrs Theodora Georgina Wood, has called on the media to verify legal stories before publication in order not to undermine the rule of law.
She tasked media practitioners to be circumspect, especially on reporting the Justice for All programme, as some reports seem to portray the programme as a vehicle for releasing suspected criminals onto the streets.
Chief Justice Wood said such distortion was rather disturbing because the Justice for All programme went through a court of competent jurisdiction that followed due process and the determinations made by those courts must be respected by all.
She entreated the media to educate the public fully on what this programme seeks to achieve so as to enhance public trust and confidence in the justice system, saying “it would help build strong and lasting institutions”.
The Chief Justice made the call at the maiden Justice for All stakeholders forum on the theme: “Justice for All - Strengths, Weaknesses and the Way Forward,” held on Wednesday in Accra.
She said the programme was a special in-prison court sitting on remand prisoners adding that “prisoners whose trials are unreasonably delayed constitutes key component of the programme”.
It ensures that the rule of law, access to justice and the sustained promotion and protection of the human rights of prisoners -both remand prisoners and convicted prisoners - the officials of the Prisons Service and by extension their families are protected.
The workshop, she said, was to provide opportunity for introspection with a view to strengthening the criminal justice system.
“A well-known constitutional legal principle relevant to this workshop is that an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Article 14(4) of the 1992 Constitution indicates that: “Where a person arrested, restricted or detained under paragraph (a) or (b) of clause (3) of this article is not tried within a reasonable time, then, without prejudice to any further proceedings that may be brought against him or her; he or she shall be released either unconditionally or upon reasonable conditions, including in particular, conditions reasonably necessary to ensure that he appears at a later date for trial or for proceedings preliminary to trial.
Understandably, the existing constitutional and other legal texts do not provide a contextual definition of the legal term “reasonable time, and the absence of a statutory definition for the expression “reasonable time”, has contributed to the general inordinate delays in the trial of remand prisoners, the Chief Justice said.
The programme seeks to remedy some of these acts of gross miscarriage of justice but something more fundamental, and more far reaching, needs to be done, she said.
Chief Justice Wood said: “The system is crying for a radical overhaul in terms of the procedural law in particular, and the sanctions to be applied following conviction. One such important statutory intervention would definitely help bring sanity into the criminal justice system and, therefore, ease the congestion in the prisons.”
She said the process through which cases were selected for the special court sittings was quite robust. The process was well-structured and transparent and hence could not be manipulated or compromised to a large extent.
“I would propose that we come out with a manual or handbook on which the programme would operate.
“The official remand list from specific prisons, which is obtained from the Prison Headquarters, is vetted by the Remand Review Task Force made up of the four key institutions; the Attorney General, Judiciary, Police and Prisons in accordance with laid down selection criteria for each category of offence.
“The approved list from the Remand Review Task Force is then submitted to the Defence team for remand prisoners made up of lawyers and paralegals to enable them to interview the selected remand prisoners and draft applications/motions for them,” she said.
The Chief Justice said the programme was beneficial to the vulnerable and poor who found themselves in detention, for one reason or the other, and who were unable to afford the legal fees and so for some of them they self-represent or remain unrepresented. Nonetheless their rights at law must be protected.
She said available statistics indicated that since the inception of the programme in 2007, out of a total of 3,293 inmates who had appeared before the Justice for All courts, 672 were discharged, 985 were granted bail and 135 were convicted.
“Other applicants who have had their applications rejected had their expired warrants renewed to enable them to appear before the various trial courts for the commencement of their trials. Others have also referred to psychiatric hospital for medical examination and treatment,” she said.
She expressed appreciation to stakeholders for ensuring the sustenance of the programme, and encouraged them to use the workshop as a forum to identify the strengths, weaknesses and the way forward, bearing in mind plans for its continuity, sustainability and maximum impact.
Mrs Yvonne Atakora Obuobisa, the Representative of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, said the programme had helped to build synergy among key criminal justice institutions by affording them a wider platform to constructively engage with each other and plan better for the well-being of accused persons.
She, however, said its major shortcoming was that it had mainly survived on donor funding and even though it had come a long way and proved to be very beneficial it must be supported to ensure its sustenance.
“We must discuss ways in which we can improve upon the system to such an extent that persons arrested are dealt with on time. We must have guidelines in place that ensure that investigations are carried out quickly, and the bureaucracy within the criminal justice system must be drastically reduced,” Mrs Obuobisa said.