How LSF Access to Justice Programme reduces congestion in prisons

How LSF Access to Justice Programme reduces congestion in prisons

  • 35,297 in custody have accessed legal aid services

AS a universal right, justice is expected to be accessible to all regardless of prevailing circumstances. In an ideal situation probably no one would want to find oneself pressed by the need to use legal aid services, however in many instances ideal situations remain but distant dreams.

Across the breadth of the country people from all walks of civilian life encounter legal challenges of varying magnitudes, many of which are resolved successfully within reasonable amounts of time, while others may experience protracted procedures with diverse outcomes.

For some, these procedures can lead one to police custody and in advanced situations incarceration. When the Legal Services Facility (LSF) rolled out its Access to Justice Programme a decade ago, it had understood and taken on board the harsh reality that in a population of some 60 million people most of whom live in rural locations, a very small number had ready access to legal aid services.

In other words most Tanzanians didn’t routinely have easily-accessible opportunities through which disputes could be addressed through legal channels neither did they have places from which they could absorb legal awareness.

someone who hasn’t worn the shoes of these unfortunate ordinary people this situation may not make much of an impression however it is a fact that has for a long time defined the welfare of countless Tanzanians.

As basket fund LSF avails grants to numerous nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) both on the mainland and Zanzibar to facilitate the availability of legal aid services to the lowest levels of communities with the ultimate intent of having a society built of equality and equity in respect of justice.

In essence, this goal establishes the universality of the very concept of justice by establishing a foundation upon which every individual can have access to justice with minimum if not zero hindrance.

Most of the work done by organizations that are supported by LSF is easily visible due to the fact that beneficiaries are women, men and children we see around our communities everyday – at the office, the market place, school, places of worship, hospitals and many others.

There is one group, however, that many don’t often come into interaction with under ordinary circumstances; these are women and men, and children as well, who are in detention facilities.

In all honesty these people can even be considered as “forgotten”. This may have been the case in years past, but LSF’s Access to Justice Program does provide them also with another chance at justice and fairness, implying that being behind bars isn’t necessarily the end of one’s story.

Among organizations that work with support from LSF is Envirocare, a non-profit organization first registered in 1993 and working to address environmental conservation, human rights, gender equality and good governance.

Envirocare began engaging in the provision of legal aid services in the years that followed after meeting the legal requirements for doing so, and proceeded to reach out to children, men and women who couldn’t afford the services, and also to those held in custody in police cells and prisons around the country.

The drive to concentrate the organization’s focus on people held in such institutions started early in 2000 catalyzed by the state of prisons which was predominantly characterized by congestion, a problem that has defined prisons around the cdecades.

A survey conducted jointly by Envirocare and the Prisons Service in 2012, the year that the organization also received its first round of funding from LSF, revealed that there were 4,737 remands in custody which was twice the capacity of surveyed facilities.

In essence the aim of the organization’s first project under LSF funding which was conducted from 2012 – 2015 was to reduce congestion in 20 remand prisons and 4 juvenile retention facilities along with ensuring all persons held in remand around the country have access to justice.

Regarding this project, Envirocare’s Deputy Director Catherine Jerome says, “This undertaking allowed us to identify and train 88 paralegals based in prisons; we helped enhance the work capacities of 25 police officers, 25 magistrates and 50 prison wardens in respect of pertinent laws, human rights and investigation.

Just as importantly we reached out to 3,961 adult remands, of whom 546 were women, 3,415 men, and 145 children. Out of these 3,961 cases 1,284 were bailed, 510 were released, 484 remained in custody and 1,683 cases remained on-going.

“We are delighted that to date amongst other accomplishments there has been effective and beneficial work relations we cultivated with other stakeholders in the realm of criminal justice, the establishment of legal aid desks inside prisons, reduction in prison congestion, improved relations between paralegals, the police and magistrates in areas we carried out the project and the establishment of a database that aids these functions.

It is further vital to note that this initiative also increased the number of police posts in project regions”. These results make a unique and direct contribution to LSF’s Access to Justice Program by including people that most other initiatives don’t expressly target but still need functional access to legal aid services.

Very often it is perceived that this program is mostly intended to help ordinary citizens, however access to justice is a wholesome concept and it is designed to bring into its fold those charged with discharging justice just as much as those expected to benefit from it regardless of their circumstances.

In the second phase which began in 2017 and is expected to end late in 2021, Envirocare has been working to decongest urban remand prisons through the provision of more intensive legal aid.

Additionally, its work within this period also includes ensuring justice is provided timely, and that there’s improved coordination and cooperation among relevant stakeholders in the criminal justice system. In implementing this grant cycle the organization has disseminated legal education publications, trained 272 paralegals of whom 160 are police officers and 112 prison wardens, and trained 27 liaison officers.

To date, 21,841 remands have accessed legal aid as well as 292 juveniles. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a review of outreach methods enabled the organization to establish a hotline through which 3,292 people continued to benefit from legal aid services.

Targeting remands and inmates serving sentences in prisons, legal education was extended with the collaboration of the Ministry of Constitutional and Legal Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Police and Prisons Service to reach a total of 8,881 adults and 197 juveniles.

Envirocare also utilizes radio programs and other platforms for effective outreach around the country and as the second funding phase of its mandate draws to its close already 35,297 people in custody have accessed legal aid services.

LSF’s Senior Program Manager, Deo Bwire says, “The dedication and creativity that Envirocare has shown in addressing justice deficits in our custody system have helped to alleviate the suffering of thousands of people around the country who find themselves in the wrong end of the law.

Justice is a universal value and we continue to support every noble initiative that aims to ensure there is sufficient access to legal aid services anywhere in the country regardless of the beneficiary’s situation.

The enormous contribution Envirocare in close partnership with other stakeholders has been making throughout these years means that our program is very effective and that a significant number of Tanzanians are seeing the light of day in regard to their human rights”.

As LSF reaches its 10- year milestone, the impact of its Access to Justice Program can be attested to in the results that its partners including Envirocare continue to record.

The extensive work to decongest prisons allows more and more men, women and children in custody to have increasingly unimpeded access to justice while also helping to strengthen the criminal justice system as a whole.

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Author: DAILY NEWS Reporter

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