Local prisons are populated by many people who never committed the crimes they were accused of and subsequently sentenced for, just because they never had access to legal representations that could have been to them like some life-saving vapour.
As ordinary people respond to the call of daily living, chances are high that they can unconsciously commit transgressions that put them on a collision course with the law.
Unfortunately, these people end up being hauled before the courts while at the same time their pockets are not deep enough to afford lawyers, most of whose services cost an arm and a leg.
In recent years, legal aid societies have surfaced with the aim of providing almost similar services, but dealing with legal issues.
Although a number of people who spoke to NewsDay said there were not aware or more familiar with medical, rather than legal, aid, the latter was a good idea.
Cephas Chipenda of Chitungwiza said given that it was expensive to access a lawyer, it would be good to have a legal aid system to hedge the poor when they get into trouble with the law.
“I think that is a noble idea because it helps the poor access lawyers when they need legal assistance.
“But given that salaries of most people are very low, they are disadvantaged and something like legal aid will be of great help under such circumstances,” he said.
Legal aid operates in almost similar fashion as medical aid, which most Zimbabweans are familiar with.
The likelihood or reality of sickness has seen many people subscribing to medical aid schemes which allow them to access medical services at affordable cost with their contributions to the schemes acting as a cushioning hedge.
Miriam Chiware of Mandara said although legal aid was a good concept, she was not sure of the credibility of some of the people providing the service in Zimbabwe.
She said given the background of economic turmoil from which the country is slowly emerging, many fly-by-night entrepreneurs offering all kind of services had surfaced in the country.
“I know in South Africa such a system has been in place for years and is viable. It is a good programme, but the people offering the services have to be credible,” she said.
Liberty Murendo, the marketing manager at Legal Rights Trust of Zimbabwe, told NewsDay that the concept of legal rights insurance was still fairly new in the country, but acceptance was burgeoning.
For most people in the low-income bracket, seeking the services of a lawyer is regarded as a luxury that only a few could afford thus little appreciation of the concept.
Murendo said legal cover was meant to offer assistance to such people in the event they had a nasty brush with the law.
“Many prisoners are in jail because they could not afford legal representation,” he said.
Their target market includes civil servants, gardeners, farmers and professionals, too.
Their clients contribute amounts from $10 to $50 per month with a limit of between $300 and $2 000 covering schemes that include unfair dismissal from work, civil and criminal cases as well as fraud and advisory services.
“Basically people contribute towards legal insurance from as little as $10 per month depending on their level of earnings, entitling them to representation by lawyers in their cases and also get advice on different issues pertaining to law,” said Murendo.
The organisation’s membership is now over 4 200.
It only takes three months for one to start accessing the services after subscribing to the scheme, but if one had a pre-existing case, they have to pay an initial deposit.
Murendo said the lawyers they work with would be on call upon receiving a client case.
He said: “Slowly Zimbabweans are appreciating the concept. Just like medical insurance, it started on a slow note, but is now widely accepted.”
A Harare-based lawyer, who preferred not to be named on professional grounds, said there were basically two formats of legal aid.
The first, which is provided for under the Legal Aid Act (1996), was designed to cater for people who could not afford the services of a lawyer and recommendations were made by the Attorney-General’s Office.
“We already have statutory provision for legal aid to persons who cannot afford the services of a lawyer through the Legal Aid Directorate. For instance, Section 10 of the Legal Aid Act provides for the provision of legal aid in certain criminal cases,” he said.
He added: “Where a judge or magistrate or the Attorney-General believes that it is in the interests of justice that an accused person be provided with legal aid and that person may have insufficient financial means to engage his own lawyer, they can recommend to the director of the Legal Aid Directorate that the person should be provided with legal aid. He will decide whether to provide legal aid to such person after assessing that person’s financial means.”