An essential service Ian On Sunday
By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
November 16, 2003

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Money may not bring happiness, but it certainly helps to prevent a lot of misery. A poor man is infinitely more vulnerable than a rich man to twists of fate. What to a rich man is often just an inconvenience - an illness or an injury, a missing money order from abroad, a brush with the law - may be a tragedy for a poor man or a poor woman. As a result, among the precepts that should be observed in any reasonably well-organised society, one surely is that society at large must provide a certain minimum cover for the poor, the solitary old, the weak, the disadvantaged, the disabled and the sick, if any of these have nowhere else to turn.

There is one basic cover for those who cannot afford it which we tend to forget completely. It is the provision of legal help and advice for the poor, the uneducated, the disadvantaged, the helpless old and the much abused. Such people normally find it impossible to seek the assistance of the courts unless they find a private individual with a compassionate heart to help them out.

The work of the people in Legal Aid therefore deserves our heartfelt thanks and praise. Much more than praise, however, they would be the first to say, they need the support of all who can afford it to lend assistance in professional time and monetary contribution to their selfless efforts. The haves in society simply cannot afford not to support legal aid for the have-nots, the poor and helpless.

Legal aid for the poor is not a frill, not a luxury. Nor can the argument hold that such aid only encourages more litigation among an already litigious people. And the suspicion that free legal advice may simply be used as a focus for political disaffection cannot be long sustained in the face of the undoubted, crying need that the ordinary, confused, poor person so often has for some genuine, everyday legal help in going about his business and his life or, more usually, her business and her life.

It is not just that a court case can dissipate the hard-earned savings of a poor person's lifetime. It is not just that without help the poor and less well-educated simply cannot find their way around the law and therefore often cannot claim their rights because they do not know their rights. It is not just that the unknowledgeable poor are often at the mercy of the slipperiest and most avaricious type of lawyer. It is much more fundamental: the fact is that in a modern state the law is so pervasive that some ability to comprehend it, or some guidance through its mysteries, is essential in order to get the most elementary things done - forms filled and statutory declarations made, the ordinary rights of tenancy protected, marital problems settled and child maintenance observed, and even the poorest of estates properly administered. From the cradle to the grave, and well beyond, the law gets in the way or helps us according to the assistance we get to understand and implement it.

It is a sad reflection on those who have much to lose through societal breakdown that Legal Aid has existed for so long on such a precarious basis in Guyana. I understand that this absolutely essential public service may now be put on a sounder footing thanks to the admirable efforts of a few stalwarts in the legal profession and in Government. And the recent effort by the Faculty of Law at UG in opening a legal aid clinic deserves praise and, much more importantly, sustainable funding. There can never be too much of this very good thing and more help and volunteer service are always needed.

Lawyers, who are very prominent in the life of the nation, have to take particular care of the profession's reputation for fair dealing. And businessmen should know that in the end the integrity of the law is their one best protection. It is all too easy for the cynical to echo the words of a downtrodden character in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss when he says: "the law's made only to take care of raskills." It is hard to believe that those who run prosperous businesses and the hundreds of lawyers in the nation cannot do more in giving help to this effort, to confound the sentiment expressed long ago by Oliver Goldsmith in his poem, "The Traveller": "Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law."

As disregard for the law rises it is more important than ever to take steps to secure the future of legal aid for the poor in this country.

The more the have-nots in society feel excluded from justice through lawful means, the more they will simply ignore and break the law. We should recall the trenchant words of Edmund Burke in the famous letter he wrote to Charles James Fox on 8th October, 1772:

"People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to the law; and those, who have much to hope and nothing to lose, will always be dangerous more or less."