Taking the sting out of legal costs
Thursday, 02 August 2012 00:05
Fortious Nhambura Features Writer
THE cheapest law firm in Zimbabwe is charging about US$400 to offer legal representation for an hour. Legal costs then vary depending on the type of case and application to be made or the lawyer’s
experience, name, law firm and the individual that is to be represented.
Though there are some lawyers who are prepared to charge less they can only be found when one has already appeared in court at a fee.
Research has shown that the minimum cost of hiring such lawyers and paralegal individuals is pegged at U$20.
Given our economic circumstances, not many people have US$20 in their pockets when the service of a lawyer is required.
Pro bono (for the public good, i.e free services) representation cannot be counted on.
As such a lot of people have appeared in court without legal representations and ended up in prison, paying damages or serving community service for crimes that they could have come out with no or less penalties had they sought legal representations.
In some instances individuals’ rights have been trampled on because the people lack the paralegal training to present cases or have no legal representation. Being poor thus can be costly.
That is now going to be a thing of the past as Zimbabwe has started to see the emergence of membership-driven legal aid societies.
Members can pay an annual fee to the society or alternatively pay monthly premiums depending on preference.
The premiums will be used to cover for professional legal services from the lawyers that under normal circumstances would be very expensive to get.
The legal aid societies work in the same way as insurance.
Although legal aid societies are common in South Africa, the deeds office says Zimbabwe has less than 10 operational societies.
According to Wikipedia, legal aid is the provision of assistance to people unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system.
The system is central in providing access to justice by ensuring equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial and hence is necessary for developing economies like Zimbabwe.
Law for All Legal Aid Society board of trustees chairperson Mr Misheck Mangwende said they started operations after realising that the majority of people were failing to access representation because of the cost of hiring a lawyer.
He said in some cases individuals have been forced to abandon cases because they could not afford legal representation.
Mr Mangwende said under their scheme that premium would give the individual access to a lawyer, legal representation or advice whenever one needs.
“This is a new concept and I feel people are unaware of it. We are beginning to see people taking an interest in the concept and they want to know more about it.
“What is driving our clientele is the provision of legal insurance in an economy that has seen legal cost skyrocketing.
“The legal fees have been shooting through the roof and hence need for contributory scheme. Our costs are minimal and range from US$5 and US$100.
“We have made the premiums this affordable and varied to provide every individual an opportunity to get legal advice.
“It is open to use after three months of joining. Under the scheme one can have access to legal advice, drafting of will documents and when suing or being sued. A member can get a lawyer wherever in the country,” he said.
Mr Mangwende said they had seen an increase in their membership in the past few months following a publicity blitz.
The schemes that operate in the same manner the medical aid schemes or insurance work and allow a member to seek the services of lawyer of choice within the bracket of members’ contribution.
Divine Legal Aid Society board trustee Mr Frederick Manyangarirwa who said Zimbabweans needed to understand the importance of legal representation in all social matters corroborated this.
“The ordinary people still take the issue of legal advice lightly in the country. Only when they get a brush with the law do they run around but usually the damage would have been done.
“It is time people should insure their legal life like they do with their health as this takes from them the worry of unforeseen legal costs and problems,” he said.
Mr Mangwende said it was critical to bring balance of power in disputes as inequality and disregard for legal rights were becoming akin with the society.
“As a member of the society you get immediate assistance from us for all legal problems and payment if done directly to the attorney. We intend to establish branches in all major centres in Zimbabwe to increase availability of legal aid service.
“One area that is our main concern has been mounting cases of debt defaulting and unfair labour practices. Most people have been stripped of their assets after failing to settle loans or failing to understand the types of agreement they were entering into.
“The main advantage of the legal aid society like Law for All Legal Aid Society is that they bring about fairness, justice and honesty which are marks of all democratic societies like ours. We give our members legal power to enforce and defend their rights through professional legal representation,” he said.
Mr Mangwende said senior citizens were entitled to free representation in maintenance, registration on deceased estates and landlord and tenant disputes.
“A member who has contributed uninterrupted for 36 months without making a claim gets a cash back guarantee of 50 percent of total money contributed,” he added.
Justice for Children Trust Zimbabwe programmes director Caleb Mutandwa said legal aid was more useful to people in formal employment.
Justice for Children Trust offers free legal services for children.
“Well-managed legal aid societies can help to a certain extent and that depends on the policy that one has taken. The only challenge is to match the contributions and benefits to the current legal fees.
“The legal society should thus prepare the contributor of the need for topping up in the event the cost exceeds cover. At one time or another one will be required to pay something to match the legal cost,” he said.
Mr Mutandwa said many people continued to visit his organisation seeking help because “most legal aid societies do not cover for the unemployed who form our clientele”.
People welcomed the increase in legal aid societies saying that Zimbabwe was in need of such institutions to promote equity and fairness in justice delivery.
Ms Ruth Chikomo said: “Once one is assured of legal representation one can demand her rights. This will minimise cases of abuse by those with power in society.”
A lawyer who chose anonymity said that would at least result in improving legal service delivery in the country, as usually the initial stages of legal battle are costly.
“Once you have representation you can negotiate payment or settle the legal costs later,” he said.