Friday, 20 May 2016

Taking It To The Chief

Taking It To The Chief

En-route to the CHRAJ
Last week as part of our Group Reflection, Matthew and Raphael chose to focus on human rights and organised for us to visit the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), where we were very kindly given half an hour to ask any questions we felt were important. What came to light when discussing the usual procedure for resolving issues, particularly domestic violence, is that in Ghana the courts were not necessarily the only option for legal recourse, as traditional meetings with local chiefs being popular choice because it is both quicker and allows those involved to have the problem solved within the community.

As a volunteer from the UK, I found this surprising.  The British court system which I am accustomed to has developed over the course of centuries and through its long history has become ingrained in British culture, replacing any pre-existing customary law. In contrast to Ghana the courts developed over time rather than being established by a few specific acts of parliament, and so the judicial system varies throughout the UK.  In addition, the courts diverge depending on whether the case is a civil case - dealing with contracts, property, and family law - or a criminal one  which will involve individuals who have violated one of the laws set out by the government.  As such, when consider how the courts in the UK are the only option to remedy a legal dispute, it was very surprising to hear that in Ghana there are non-judicial remedies and that they are very popular.

With this in mind Rich and I decided to look into legal recourse here in Ghana to see how it affects the work which WOSAG does.

The Courts
The modern Ghanaian legal system was created by an Act of Parliament in Westminster, London in 1876 which established the Supreme Court of Judicature for the Gold Coast colony.  Upon independence Ghana established a common law legal system similar to that of England and Wales. There are two categories of courts - Superior and Lower - and within these categories there are a variety of types of courts.  They do not distinguish between civil and criminal law.  Due to this, taking a case to court is a complicated process and, like most judicial systems, is extremely time consuming.

The Chiefs
In Ghana, chieftaincy is very important. Chiefs are looked up to as the father of their communities, and their status is recognised in law.  According to Article 277 of the Constitution (1992) a chief is:

“...a person hailing from the appropriate family and lineage, has been elected or enstooled/enskinned (where they are seated on stools or the skins of animals such as deer, cows or lions) or installed as a chief or queen mother in accordance with the relevant  law.”

Where possible people prefer to take their cases or disputes to the chiefs to get them settled. However the laws of Ghana do not give the chiefs the mandate to handle criminal cases, so the type of cases they handle are land disputes, marriages and family disputes. Their remedies are not legally binding, but are generally followed to the letter.

Why do people prefer the chiefs to the court? Firstly, the people feel the chief is in charge and anything that happens in his community must go through him. The procedure is much simpler than that of the judiciary; the chief listens to both parties and makes a judgment on the case with his council of elders. From there he imposes sanctions or judgments as he sees fit. This is a much shorter process, which can be wrapped up in a day or two.  It is also much cheaper, as there are no legal representatives to pay.

So why is this important for WOSAG?
Because the Chiefs have jurisdiction over marital issues, people experiencing domestic violence are more likely to ask for help from their chief than undertake the long and arduous process of going through the courts. As the Chief is seen as the father of the community, he generally looks to keeping families (and marriages) together, meaning that he could recommend a wife return to her husband who is abusing her for the sake of family unity.

As an organisation we have been working alongside the Domestic Violence Victims’ Support Unit (DOVVSU) who are spreading the message that reporting to the police or going to court does not necessarily mean jail time, and therefore won't break up the family.

However, as an organisation looking to help victims of domestic violence, contact with the Chiefs makes it easier to target at risk families in the communities. We would never discourage anyone from taking their issues to the chief if that is what they are most comfortable doing, but we are keen to spread awareness of the other options available.

Writers: Musah Nwenyi Richard and Georgia Strachan
Editor: Grace Dokurugu

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