THE PUBLIC DEFENSE PROGRAM
The judiciary plays an important role in stabilizing the balance of power within government and in enhancing public confidence in the government. The right to a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 10) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14), as well as in regional treaties and conventions. Recognizing the essential role played by a competent, independent, and impartial judiciary in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in 1985, the seventh United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders adopted, and the General Assembly endorsed, the Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary. These principles are to be “taken into account and respected by Governments within the framework of their national legislation and practice and be brought to the attention of judges, lawyers, members of the executive and the legislature, and the public in general.” The Principles cover the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and association, qualifications, selection and training, conditions of service and tenure, and discipline, suspension, and removal. As such, the Guidelines provide a framework which can be used by states to assess the functioning of its judiciary with respect to international standards. An effective court system is an integral part of a functioning criminal justice system.
Additionally, International human rights instruments recognize that when a person’s fundamental rights to life and liberty are put at risk by the State, that person has a right to legal assistance to ensure that the State properly fulfills its obligations imposed by law, without violating the rights of the individual in the process. As a result, the Eighth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted, in 1990, the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers making its first principle the following: “All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings.” The Basic Principles further place responsibility upon the government and the legal profession to ensure that everyone has access to counsel, regardless of means or background, to protect the right to equality before the law.
Consistent with the aforementioned international obligations as imposed by internal Law, the Supreme Court of Liberia in 2009, established the National Public Defense Program administered through the Public Defenders’ Office (PDO) under the direct coordination of a Coordinator for Public Defense. The Program aims at: providing legal representation to indigent criminal defenders; as well as enhancing access to justice to all individuals suspected or accused of crimes, including those arrested or detained”, with the goal of protecting the fundamental rights of the criminal defendant as is enshrined in the following provisions of the Constitution of Liberia (1986) reflected below as follows:
“Article 21(c)– Every person suspected or accused of committing a crime shall immediately upon arrest be informed in detail of the charges, of the right to remain silent and of the fact that any statement made could be used against him in a court of law. Such person shall be entitled to counsel at every stage of the investigation and shall have the right not to be interrogated except in the presence of counsel. Any admission or other statements made by the accused in the absence of such counsel shall be deemed inadmissible as evidence in a court of law.”
“Article 21(f)– Every person arrested or detained shall be formally charged and presented before a court of competent jurisdiction within forty-eight hours. Should the court determine the existence of a prima facie case against the accused, it shall issue a formal writ of arrest setting out the charge or charges and shall provide for a speedy trial. There shall be no preventive detention.”
“Article 21(h)– No person shall be held to answer for a capital or infamous crime except in cases of impeachment, cases arising in the Armed Forces and petty offenses, unless upon indictment by Grand Jury; and in all such cases, the accused shall have the right to a speedy, public and impartial trial by a jury of the vicinity, unless such person shall, with appropriate understanding, expressly waive the right to a jury trial. In all criminal cases, the accused shall have the right to be represented by counsel of his choice, to confront witnesses against him and to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor. He shall not be compelled to furnish evidence against himself and he shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. No person shall be subject to double jeopardy”.
“Article 21(i) – The right to counsel and the rights of counsel shall be inviolable. There shall be no interference with the lawyer-client relationship. In all trials, hearings, interrogatories and other proceedings where a person is accused of a criminal offense, the accused shall have the right to counsel of his choice; and where the accused is unable to secure such representation; the Republic shall make available legal aid services to ensure the protection of his rights.”
The Judiciary’s Public Defense Program thus serves as a guarantee to “access to legal defense and legal aid” which broadly defined includes:
“legal advice, assistance and representation for persons detained, arrested or imprisoned, suspected or accused of, or charged with a criminal offence and for victims and witnesses in the criminal justice process that is provided at no cost for those without sufficient means or when the interests of justice so require. Furthermore, “legal aid” is intended to include the concepts of legal education, access to legal information and other services provided for persons on through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice processes” (General Assembly resolution 67/187, annex, para. 1).
Public Defenders, under the National Public Defenders’ Program; with direct oversight supervision by the Coordinator of the Judiciary Public Defense Program; shall direct all legal aid and access to justice functions of the Courts of assignment, on behalf of indigent party litigants seeking justice through the Judiciary Court system.
The Public Defender’s primary duties and responsibilities include the following. Other duties may be assigned:
- Represents all indigent persons charged with crimes in the County. Defends individuals charged with felonies, misdemeanors and traffic cases for which a sentence of incarceration may be imposed. Provides effective representation to clients who are frequently illiterate, uneducated and uncooperative while managing a large caseload.
- Represents juveniles in juvenile delinquency petitions; and parents and children in child abuse and neglect cases. Represents indigent persons in paternity actions and involuntary commitments to mental health institutions.
- May concentrate in representing juveniles in juvenile delinquency proceedings and children and adults in child abuse and neglect cases. Works closely with the Juvenile Court Services, Ministry of Gender, Development & Child Protection; and county-based family services and other social service agencies in the county, and ensure that children in the county receive the protection and care that is needed.
- Handles court arraignment and court bond for indigent party litigants. Meets with clients when arrested and obtains their history to make bond arguments to the court. Maintains working relationship with clients in person, by phone and by mail contact.
- May be called to represent individuals at investigative proceedings such as line-ups, taking of blood, urine, hair and fingernail scraping samples. May be assigned to handle cases involving post-conviction or appellate relief.
- Interviews and counsel respondents in mental health proceedings in the county or state treatment units where they may be confined; and works closely with psychiatrists and other medical or treatment personnel.
- Investigates alleged crime(s) or offense(s) by meeting with witnesses, police officers; and reviewing the facts. Meets with the client to discuss the appropriate action to be taken and whether pre-trial motions should be filed.
- Establishes close contact with defendants by regular visits to the Correctional facilities or by constant correspondence via personal visits to the Public Defender’s Office, phone contact or by letters to defendants not in custody.
- Performs as trial counsel by representing defendants during courtroom proceeding. Researches case law, communicates with defendant to determine trial strategy such as cross-examination procedures, witness selection, jury selection, testimony decisions and opening and closing arguments.
- Acts as negotiator between the defendant and the County Attorney’s Office to secure acquittals or reach agreement concerning sentence time which would be the most beneficial for the defendant and the County Attorney’s Office.
- Researches case law and witness testimony, conducts investigations and negotiates with the County Attorney’s Office. Analyzes facts, evidence and the strength of case, determines client’s wishes and meets with prosecutor to resolve the matter short of trial.
- Represents defendants during other court proceedings. Prepares pre-trial motions such as Answer to Discovery, Motions to Suppress Evidence, Motions to Dismiss and Motions to Additional Discovery, which are required to be filed and a hearing set to ensure that they are carried out properly. Prepares post-trial matters such as motions to withdraw pleas, motions to reconsider sentence and post-conviction petitions.
- Keeps abreast of developments in the law and attends training sessions offered by the Judicial Training Institute, the Trial Judges’ association of the National Bar Association.
- Serves as librarian between the National Public Defenders’ Program Office and the County Attorney’s Office. Ensures orders of updates of all material and reviews including new publications for possible addition are acquired regularly from the Judiciary Law Library or the Judicial Institute Resource Center. Responsible for circulating “advance sheets” to the other attorneys in the office so that the entire staff has a current knowledge of relevant law.
- Notes and records any mistakes made by the County Attorney’s Office or by the Presiding Judge during the trial which could infringe upon the defendant’s rights in order that a proper motion for a new trial can be prepared, filed and set for a later hearing.
- Works to determine a fair and affordable bond for the defendant through research and discussion about past and present employment, current residence, past histories of mental or medical problems, existence of previous criminal records and information on family status. Prepares the motion for Reduction of Bond and schedules a hearing.
- Maintains close contact with the County Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, staff at the County Correctional facilities, judges, police officials and numerous physicians and psychiatrists who may be called as expert witnesses.
- Trains and advises new attorneys and law student volunteers in the research and preparation of trials, witnesses and assists in trial procedure.
- Identifies legal problem areas, develops policy recommendations to the attention of the Coordinator for the National Public Defenders’ Program; and forwards media inquiries to the Office of the Court Administrator for proper redress by Judiciary Public Information Officer.
- Maintains extensive contact with the County Attorney’s Office, social service agencies, Correctional facilities staff, Police, County medical authorities (Criminal Lab, pathologists and the Coroner’s Office). Maintains frequent contact with the County Health Department of Family Services, and of Mental Health; and agencies regarding the referral of clients for drug treatment, family counseling and other assistance.
- Performs responsible administrative functions as lead Public Defender within the County of assignment, while also handling serious felony caseloads.
A Public Defender must possess a Law degree, as a graduate of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, or a recognized Legal institution; must be certified by the Judiciary Board of Examination as an Attorney-At-Law, to practice law in Liberia; and must be licensed by the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA), and inducted into one of the local Bar Associations as a practicing lawyer. The Public Defenders have now organized themselves into an association named and styled “PUBLIC DEFENDERS ASSOCIATION OF LIBERIA”.