By Yankuba Jallow
Lawyer Salieu Taal, the President of the Gambia Bar Association on Sunday called on Gambia Government to overhaul the draconian and undemocratic laws conceived, designed and used to perpetuate dictatorship in the country.
Senior Counsel Taal stated this before a gathering at the Official Opening of the 2022 Legal Year in the presence of President Adama Barrow and Chief Justice Hassan B. Jallow.
The Legal Year is an annual event in the calendar of the Judiciary to review and take stock of the state of the legal sector, their achievements, challenges and to chart a way forward for the year ahead to achieve their overarching objective of strengthening the rule of law and enhancing access to justice in an effective and efficient manner.
“It is disheartening to say the least that we still have the same constitution that was amended more than 50 times and the same draconian laws used to persecute the citizenry under a brutal dictatorship. As a rule of law institution, the Bar is calling for the expeditious introduction of a new constitution and the repeal of all the repugnant/undemocratic laws that don’t conform to international human rights norms and values as democracy,” he said.
Taal stressed that the rule of law is the bedrock of a democratic society. The rule of law is not only about the fair application and respect for the law of the land, it goes further than that. He maintained that the Rule of Law presupposes the laws of the land are just and equitable.
“The cornerstone of the Rule of Law is the equality and fairness of the laws. The laws of the land in a democracy must reflect the republican values of the state and empower the citizens to exercise their constitutional and statutory rights without any undue hindrance,” he said.
He reiterated saying “the Laws of the land in a democracy must not be oppressive and against democratic values or offend human right principles.
On the independence of the Judiciary, Lawyer Taal said an independent and well respected Judiciary is a requirement for a democracy to thrive. He added that the members of the bar acknowledge the great improvements in the justice delivery system and increased confidence in the fairness and independence of the Judiciary. He mentioned that they have utmost confidence in the Judiciary and the judicial system in The Gambia. He stated that the bar also recognise and acknowledge the role of the Executive for respecting the independence of the Judiciary.
He remarked that there have been judgments against the Executive and other arms of Government in line with the laws of the land and unlike the past, these decisions have been respected.
He stressed that in today’s Gambia, Executive overreach or interference in the judiciary is no longer an acceptable practice or norm and importantly, Judicial Decisions are sacrosanct. He urged all stakeholders to jealously guard the independence of the judiciary.
He said the glass is half full’, but we still have a long way to go and there is still room for improvement.
“Despite ad hoc efforts to clear case back log, court cases take too long to be completed and Judges/Magistrates still record proceedings by hand in 2022! The delays in criminal cases are caused by many factors and this is a great concern as it impinges on the fundamental rights of defendants.
“We still have many defendants languishing in remand for years and some in detention for years without being arraigned before a competent court.
“The road to justice, especially those without means is very long, uncertain and despondent one. There is an urgent need to overhaul the entire criminal justice system to address these challenges. All of us as stakeholders have very important roles to play in this regard,” Taal said.
He said while the number of courts and personnel (judges) has increased, access to justice particularly beyond the Greater Banjul Area is still a challenge.
“This is a collective responsibility for all us to strive to ensure all citizens of this country have access to the same quality of legal services and justice. We call on the Government to continue to fund and increase funding for the Judiciary,” he said.
He said the Bar would continue to fearlessly advocate, safeguard and protect the independence of the Judiciary.
Lawyer Taal preached against bully of judges by people, adding a judge’s role is to adjudicate disputes and interpret the law in a myriad of cases. Taal said it is important for the public and the media in particular to have a better understanding of the role of judges and refrain from casting aspersions on members of the bench especially on social media when they are unhappy with a decision or when a decision is deemed unpopular. We must shield the Judges from such unfair and unwarranted attacks to ensure the integrity of the bench is protected.
“Their rulings have political, economic and social repercussions. It is important to understand that Judges decide cases strictly in accordance with the laws based on facts and evidence presented without being influenced by extraneous considerations. Their duty is to determine cases by reference to law and supporting legal principles,” he said.
He said sometimes lawyers are unfairly criticized by the court of public opinion for representing clients deemed unpopular or condemned by the public without the benefit of a trial. He said every person is entitled to a fair trial and this also entails unhindered access to legal advice and representation. He said lawyers represent clients accused of rape, or persons unlawfully detained or unlawfully dismissed or even unlawful denied of their property.
“The lawyer you accuse of defending a rapist today may well be the lawyer that you seek to instruct to defend you when you are wrongfully arrested and detained by the police or even prosecuted,” Taal said.
He said in the discharge of their role and responsibilities, lawyers are bound by strict professional and ethical code of conduct.
“As we grow as a Bar, it is increasing challenging to maintain the professional and ethical standards in the profession. The numbers of complaints against lawyers are on the rise and we must do more to ensure our members comport themselves in accordance with the ethical and professional standards. Secondly, we must ensure the members of our profession who violate the code of professional conduct are appropriately reprimanded,” he said.
He explained that the General Legal Council, which is the regulatory body that handles disciplinary matters of lawyers, has proposed legislative changes to the Legal Practitioners Act to enable the Council to handle and resolve complaints against lawyers more efficiently and expeditiously. He said the Bar Association will be reviewing and strengthening their constitution to enable them to better regulate the conduct of their members.
On the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, he said the power to implement the TRRC recommendations is vested in the President as the head of the Executive through the White Paper.
“As a Bar, we strongly advise the Government to ensure that those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious human rights violations and abuses during the 22 years of the previous regime are held accountable and prosecuted preferably, in The Gambia,” he said.
He told President Barrow that the TRRC has unearthed the truth and now the next step is to ensure that justice is achieved for the victims and the entire Gambian population. He stated that the implementation of the TRRC recommendations will finally close the chapter on the era of impunity. He said it is our collective duty to ensure that ‘NEVER AGAIN’ is not merely a slogan but a reality in a new Gambia.
The Role of the Bar in upholding the Rule of Law
Taal said it is important to emphasize the importance of a strong and independent Bar in upholding the Rule of Law.
“A strong and independent bar exists to serve the public interest and further the administration of Justice. Our role does not just stop as advocates in the court helping litigants uphold their rights and defend their interests, or drawing conveyances for our clients. The role of the Bar goes beyond providing professional legal services for our paid clients. As a Bar, we have a unique societal role to serve and protect the public interest. This is what makes the Bar unique,” he said.
He said The Gambia Bar Association has recognized its role as the defender of the public interest and the need to reposition itself to better serve the public interest. He mentioned that they recently completed their 5-year Strategic Plan titled – EQUITY IN LAW AND JUSTICE which was developed in consultation with all our stakeholders including but not limited to the Judiciary, Ministry of Justice, the Police and civil society.