Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Law Society, gov’t standoff could paralyze legal system

 Thousands of Batswana who are unable to pay for legal representation and depend on legal aid, pro bono and pro deo services could find themselves in the lurch if the war of words between government and the Law Society of Botswana (LSB) continues unabated.


Sunday Standard is informed that the LSB has dared government to deliver on its threat not to work with it in any official capacity. The threat was delivered by Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defense, Justice and Security Augustine Makgonatsotlhe in protest against statements made by LSB Chairman Lawrence Lecha at the opening of the legal year in February. At the time, Lecha announced that the LSB will challenge the appointment of Jacobus Brand to the Court of Appeal (CoA) in response to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC)’s continued appointment of judges using a system that is already being challenged before the courts.


“The JSC continues to use a process that is being challenged. We would have thought that it would be prudent to allow the courts to pronounce on the proper process to follow first,” said Lecha at the time.


The LSB Chairman also irked government when he opined that the constitution of the High Court and CoA were not representative of the gender, race and age demographics of Botswana. Government later condemned Lecha’s statements as inappropriate, insensitive, xenophobic and laced with racial undertones. Government then delivered an ultimatum, demanding an unreserved written public apology, failing which the Ministry will not interact with the LSB in any official capacity. Unperturbed, the LSB dismissed government’s threat to sideline it as “irrational and abuse of authority”.


“Any suggestion that the statement was racial, xenophobic and discriminatory is mischievous and indicative of a serious dearth of knowledge on social issues. The LSB sees no disrespect in mentioning its intention to challenge the appointments of Justice Brand in his presence because the challenge is not about him but against the process of his appointment,” said the LSB.


Lecha once again dismissed government’s threat in an interview with Sunday Standard on Friday.


“We wonder what the Permanent Secretary meant when he said they will sideline us. We have sought an explanation from government and they have not yet responded to clarify their statement,” he said.


However, Sunday Standard is informed that some lawyers are agitating for the LSB to flex its muscle and impose sanctions on government. Some lawyers are reportedly lobbying for the LSB to call government’s bluff as they believe the threat not to deal with them in any official capacity until an apology was made was unfounded and disrespectful.


LSB insiders have revealed that an impromptu meeting was convened on Friday, at which lawyers were to discuss possibilities of boycotting all pro bono and pro deo cases in response to government’s apparent hostility. As part of efforts aimed at improving access to legal services, lawyers take on cases on a pro deo bases for indigent persons at a nominal fee from government. Such cases, predominantly murder cases, involve people who are accused of committing crimes but are unable to pay legal fees. Private attorneys also take on cases on a pro bono through legal aid. The right to legal representation is guaranteed by the constitution of Botswana. If successful, the campaign to abandon pro deo cases could paralyze the entire legal system.


However, Lecha said he is not aware of any such lobby, but however cautioned that any attempts by government to sideline the LSB will have grave consequences for ordinary Batswana who cannot afford legal fees.


“They will be selling out on many Batswana who depend on lawyers for pro deo representation. We are not saying we will abandon those services, we are simply asking them to explain what they meant when they said they will not deal with us in any official capacity,” said Lecha.


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