Being a lawyer in… Ghana
Mr. Joe Aboagye Debrah
Mr. Debrah, do students in Ghana have access to legal education?
Yes. The law faculty is one of the oldest faculties of the University of Ghana in Accra. Legal education is also provided at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi and in some new private establishments. But there is only one law school: the Ghana Law School, in Accra – and only two ways to become a practicing lawyer: you need to qualify from the law school after two years of professional studies and be called to the Ghana Bar or if you are already qualified as a lawyer in another common law jurisdiction, you will have to do about 6 months course in the law school. Typically, law students do a three year programme in the university before entering the Law School. Recently, there has been an amendment in the admission requirements to the Law School. The Faculty of Law is now offering law as a post-graduate programme. Students will therefore have to have a good first degree in an acceptable discipline before admission to the faculty. The new system, I understand is modelled on the American system. The problem had been that while the premier law faculty was “Americanised”, the other law faculty of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi continued the old system of three years bachelors programme before access to the Law School. This creates problems when too many students graduate together from the faculties and cannot enrol to the law school. The fraternity has information that the Law Faculty of the University of Ghana is reverting to the original system and abandoning the “American experiment”. The General Legal Council which is the statutory body responsible for the maintenance of standards in the legal profession in Ghana has taken cognisance of the problems and has approved the establishment of a new law school in Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city.
Does the legal profession attract many students?
More and more, but not always for the best reasons. A lot of people may mostly be interested in the money they can make out of it. But increasingly, many young people are entering the profession with the objective of using the law as a tool for effective social change in the country. The positive side of it is that the legal profession is much respected. Lawyers have a certain status in the society and it is possible to make a good living from your work. Being a lawyer in Ghana guarantees you a certain security and enhanced social status.
Would you say there are enough lawyers to meet the expectations?
In a developing country like Ghana, there is a need for more and more lawyers! Today it is estimated that there are some 2,500 lawyers in practice in Ghana for a total population of almost 24 million. Most of them are to be found in the main cities like Accra, Kumasi, Cape Coast, Sekondi-Takoradi, Sunyani, Ho, and Tamale. The spread is not equitable. In the smaller cities and in the rural areas there are not enough qualified practising lawyers. The establishment of more courts in the regions will hopefully lead to a greater dispersion of practitioners so that one day the entire country will be effectively covered by the profession, thus permitting the ordinary person to have ready access to trained legal services. The Ghana Bar Association is the umbrella body for lawyers in Ghana. It is a national bar association. All lawyers qualified and called to the Ghana Bar are eligible as members. Ghana is a unitary state but the ten regions of the country all have regional bar associations which are integral parts of the Ghana Bar Association. The Ghana Bar Association has a National President who is elected at an annual conference of lawyers to serve a defined term under the GBA Constitution with other Executive members.
How would you describe the operation of the legal system in your country?
We encounter the same problems as in many developing countries but I must say that we are not doing too badly. There are some issues of corruption but they are not as widespread and a programme has been initiated by the Chief Justice to deal with it. The General Legal Council is the statutory body regulating the profession and maintaining standards from within. It also responsible for organising the training of aspiring lawyers, of regulating the functioning of chambers, and of dealing with complaints against lawyers, among many other things.
Do you feel you can exercise in full independence?
Yes, like most of my colleagues. There is no discernible interference from government in the performance of our functions. Lawyers are also well equipped to defend their independence and the Ghana Bar Association has a rich history of defending its independence and the rights of citizens. Legal practice in Ghana is without any fetters from any other quarters, except with recourse to the law.
On a more personal level, what attracted you to the legal profession?
I have always wanted to be a lawyer, since I was a little boy – all my friends from my childhood could tell you. I am actually realising my dream every day! I only wish I could do more for the people without resources. Most of the country’s population is quite poor. The majority of our people are illiterates or with little education and are not always aware of their rights and need to be protected. The Ghana Bar Association and the Ghana government have set up legal aid programmes but many of our people are unaware of its existence. The Ghana Bar Association is encouraging lawyers and law firms to do pro-bono work with little success. Most lawyers work for money and the legal fraternity must do a lot more to encourage more pro bono work by lawyers in Ghana. These and other concerns of mine explain why in 2005, I founded an organisation called ThinkGhana, with the objective of developing the corporate governance principles in Ghana and the protection of the rights of indigenous Ghanaian shareholders and citizens. We try to educate people about their rights and take up some sensitive cases. We also publish statements on matters of public concern. We are currently working on developing a pool of young, dedicated lawyers who can serve as the backbone of a corps of pro bono lawyers, ready, willing and able to stand up for the defence and rights of less-endowed members of the community.
- Mr. Debrah was called to the Ghana Bar in 1994. He is Senior Partner of the firm 1stLaw: http://www.1stlaw.org/team.html
- He also has a blog where he comments on Ghanaian issues: http://www.osimidiaries.blogspot.com/
- Ghana Bar Association: www.ghanabar.org
- Capital: Accra
- Official language: English
- Population: 23 832 495
- Life expectancy at birth: 59,85 years
- GDP per capita (PPP): 1500 USD
- Adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above): 35 %
- Classification HDI*: 0,526 (152nd of 182)
- Government: Republic
- Number of lawyers: 2500
- Number of bars: One (Ghana Bar Association)
- Courts of Appeal: One but located in Accra and Kumasi. 3-member panel for each sitting.
- Supreme Court: Highest Court/Constitutional Court. Accra
* HDI = Human Development Index, used to rank countries, composed from three dimensions: health/long-lived (life expectancy at birth), knowledge and education (adult literacy rate), and standard of living (GDP per capita in PPP).