In March 2011, commercial litigation solicitor Chris Lane left his City firm to take up a voluntary position with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) based in Accra, Ghana. Chris explains the initiative’s aims highlighting how the CHRI deals with access to justice challenges in Ghana and what UK solicitors can do to help.

Why did you choose a career in law?

It seemed like a good idea at the time! I have always been a bit of an idealist and I came to believe that the law has tremendous potential to redress imbalances and cure injustices. It also seemed a good fit for me personally. By nature I’m a fairly logical, analytical thinker and instinctively look to find ways to solve or get around problems. I am also perhaps a little too sure of myself and my arguments for my own good. That is probably why I found myself in litigation!

You come from a commercial litigation background in the City. What inspired you to leave the City to work in Accra?

I learnt a great deal during my four and a half years at Linklaters LLP, but I felt it was a good time to take stock of the direction my career was heading in. I have been interested in the development agenda, particularly in the African context, for many years and believe that it is only by living and working here for a while that I can develop any insight into what may work and what doesn’t. I strongly felt the need to do something more proactive than the occasional pro bono case, and work at more of a policy and institutional level, rather than simply advise on individual cases (important though they are).

Tell us more about the CHRI.

The CHRI is an independent, non-partisan, international non-governmental organisation mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights across the Commonwealth. CHRI has long been active in analysing and pressing the case for police and prison reforms and broader access to the justice agenda, among other areas such as right to information and human rights advocacy. It works through practical campaigning activities, advocacy and by submitting regular reports to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. CHRI has three offices in India, London and the Africa office here in Ghana.

What are the main challenges to access to justice in Ghana?

In many ways Ghana serves as a beacon to other African countries: it is safe, stable, growing fast and - on the face of it – it has reasonably progressive laws and institutions in place. However, this masks major problems of implementation and access to justice for the poor. There are too few Ghanaian lawyers, only about 2500 for a population of 24 million, and the vast majority of those are concentrated in two or three main cities. Legal aid theoretically exists but, despite good intentions, is drastically under-resourced and lacks geographic reach. Absolute and relative poverty remains rife, particularly outside of the main cities. There is little or no accountability for the police and the judiciary, which are both also poorly managed and under-resourced. All this leads to a gulf between the system and rights in theory and what actually happens for most people ‘on the ground’. To take but one example, people who are arrested have the constitutional right to be brought before a court within 48 hours and charged or released. One of the cases I am working on involves a young man who has been in a police cell for nearly four years, without charge and no discernible evidence against him. We recently applied for a writ of habeas corpus to have him released but the judge failed to show up so the application was adjourned for another month of him languishing in a police cell. Unfortunately this is not an atypical example and the civil justice system also experiences problems with access, inefficiency and delay.

How is the CHRI seeking to address this?

Together with its advocacy work, CHRI has for the past year been sending volunteer representatives to designated police stations in Ghana to interview those held in custody, monitor rights violations and raise issues, by court action with the assistance of pro bono lawyers where necessary. I am now developing a proposal to build on this by rolling out community-based advisers (like the Central Applications Board (CAB) in the UK) in hard-to-reach Ghanaian communities, training local people to work as advisers full time as a first line of assistance in criminal and, in time, basic civil cases. We are currently looking for funding opportunities for this initiative. I am also investigating the feasibility of testing the boundaries of the Ghanaian Constitution and law in specific areas through launching test cases. Additionally, we’ve now started work on a project to survey similar access to justice issues in other Commonwealth Africa countries, in connection with which it looks like I will be taking field trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda later this year, into early 2012.

Is there anything that our members here can do to support the CHRI or similar initiatives?

I know from experience that UK lawyers are among the most active in legal assistance projects in the developing world so we are always keen to hear from people what legal empowerment programmes have worked or not worked elsewhere. I am particularly interested in initiatives to encourage pro bono in the legal professions of developing countries, as it is virtually non-existent here. Beyond that, I know that the Law Society and organisations like A4ID do a lot of good work in this area and I would certainly encourage lawyers to get involved as and when they are ‘recruiting’ for projects.

For more information on the Law Society’s activities with access to justice work in Africa please contact