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City of Banjul
Sunday, November 29, 2020

Letters: Advice to lawyers and magistrates in The Gambia

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Dear editor,
The courts are traditionally places where decent and cultured people go to settle their differences that cannot otherwise be settled through mediation. However, increasingly, the courts, at least those in Gambia are actually places where clueless individuals go, seeking justice and compensation just to waste more precious time that could be better spent on something more productive or waste more money than one is actually hoping to recover.
If you file a case at a typical magistrate court in Banjul or Kanifing, you are likely to have the following experiences:

1st appearance: Magistrate is sick, case adjourned till next month
2nd appearance: The counsel for the defendant needs more to study the case; asks for adjournment; case adjourned to the following month
3rd appearance: Magistrate on a workshop; case adjourned till next month
4th appearance: Counsel for the defendant absent; case adjourned till next month
5th appearance: A different counsel appeared for the defendant; counsel to apply for representation. Case adjourned till next month
6th appearance: Magistrate travelled; case adjourned till next month
7th appearance: All parties present, however, counsel for the defendant has a case at the high court same time; negotiates for an adjournment; case adjourned till next month
8th appearance: Counsel for defendant absent, case adjourned till next month
9th appearance: Magistrate on leave; case adjourned till next month
The story goes on and on. It will take several months of going to and from the courts before a case is even mentioned let alone start giving evidence. By the time you are half-way into your case, the clock is ticking in years.
Why should a court case that can be decided in one appearance take ages to come to a conclusion in the Gambia?
In fact, the reality on the ground is that, you have some magistrates on one hand who are hugely insensitive to the plight of the ordinary people. They do not value the time, energy, money and emotion that ordinary citizens invest in a case they file in court.

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This explains why a magistrate is not bothered the least whether a case is concluded in one week or in one year. On the other hand, you have some hungry lawyers who are bent on getting rich overnight; taking more cases at a time than they can handle; deliberately dragging cases in the courts because somehow, the longer a case drags in court, the more money they earn since many lawyers get paid according to the number of court appearances.

To add more ridicule to the picture is to have an Attorney General and Justice Minister busy making names abroad by fearlessly taking an entire country to the ICC for war crimes when a justice department that he presides over is best at doing nothing but dragging court cases. Charity should begin at home!

The implications of such a legal system are hugely consequential.
However, since the lawyers are most interested in getting more money, we can start with that. Hopefully, a little bit of Common-Sense Economics can bail everybody out.

Instead of lawyers dragging court cases, taking on more cases at a time than they can actually handle, a better alternative is to fast-track court cases, reach judgment early and make court experiences for the general public more positive. The economics of this alternative is that, it will heighten public trust and confidence in the justice system and will encourage more people to resort to the courts – hence making lawyers have more clients; thus more money. A person who drags in court for 2 years for a case that could have been concluded in a week will not only come back to the courts again, but will likely discourage anyone from having faith in our legal system. That is bad Economics.

In addition to fast-tracking court cases, another aspect that lawyers in this country should invest into is regular public sensitization on vital law with the aim of making clients. For instance, if a group of three to four lawyers were to conduct a weekly radio program to sensitize the public on one legal matter or the other – for example: land ownership, labour/employment law, immigration etc and encourage members of the public who need such service to contact them for free or a highly subsidized legal consultation. It is highly probable that two out of ten people listening to such a program are either in (or knows someone who is) in a land dispute, an employment row or something similar and could come forth for legal consultation and subsequently, could become potential clients that as lawyer, you can represent in court.

By doing this, you kill two birds with one stone. On one side, it is Good Economics in that lawyers will have a high client inflow rate and subsequently will earn more money (and wouldn’t need to drag court cases as a tactic for income generation). However, on the other hand, such venture is good for the nation at large because it educates the citizenry and increases their legal enlightenment. Hopefully, a legally enlightened society is a more responsible and peaceful society.

Recovering the trust and confidence in the legal system is a responsibility that lies first and foremost on the lawyers, the magistrates and importantly, the Attorney General.
It is not a crime wanting to make more money. In fact, prosperity is a good thing. However, it becomes a violation of not only the oath you took, but of the natural conscience to delay and deny justice for the sake of wanting to become prosperous.
Thou shalt be redeemed
A concerned citizen

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