‘Legal aid lawyers not incompetent’
One major complication in accessing justice in Namibia is the high cost of legal representation. To ensure equal access to justice and a fair trial, the Namibian government has a free legal aid programme for people who cannot afford private legal representation.
The Directorate of Legal Aid in the Ministry of Justice has an army of state lawyers stationed in all the regions with the mandate to ensure and provide free legal advice and representation.
The government provides free legal representation to ensure the majority of the poor are not deprived of a fair hearing.
Leon Kabajani is one of such legal aid counsel who is stationed at the Rundu Magistrate’s Court in the Kavango East region.
He joined the Directorate of Legal Aid in 2012 after completing his law degree in 2011 at the University of Namibia (UNAM).
His roles and responsibilities as a chief legal officer “entail advising clients, consulting and taking instructions from clients as well as representing clients in criminal and civil matters in all courts in Namibia.
“I also compile legal opinions for clients and management, as well as compile monthly and quarterly statistics to assist management in planning for the organisation’s goals and objectives.”
As any legal professional, his schedule is always full. “A typical day for me is walking into the office at 07:30, then sit in my spinney chair and open my diary to familiarise myself with the court roll for the day. I make one or two calls to clients who have matters coming on the day, and I walk into the criminal office to peruse the Namcis system (Namibia Courts Information System), get a printout of the day’s court roll and any orders, return to my office, consult briefly, and be in court by 9:00, after which I am in court until 13:00.
“From lunch, I am back in court until court adjourns, after which I spend an hour in the office, making notes and preparing for the next day’s work. The rest of the work is carried home. Needless to say, no lawyer works from 8 to 5. As one wise man once said ‘when it comes to lawyers, sleep is a luxury. We work all the time”, he narrated.
Kabajani initially studied sociology and psychology at Unam, but his calling has always been law, in part due to his father’s persistence.
“I was always passionate about the legal profession. However, since I did sciences, I wanted to be a marine biologist. But my dad knew better; it’s what he wanted for me. And growing up being naughty, it was easy for me to take to it, and I never looked back.”
Kabajani, who hails from the Zambezi region, came from a family of public servants.
His late father, Kamwi Kabajani, was a former education director in the Kunene region, while his mother is a former school principal.
On top of that, he is a nephew of the liberation struggle icon and national hero – the late Richard Kapelwa Kabajani.
“Having grown up around a lot of civil servants, of whom there have been many in my family, it was indeed a dream of mine to join the ranks of the civil service. We, the Kabajanis, are patriotic people, who like serving the masses, and there is no greater platform than the public service,” he beamed.
“The public service is unique in the sense that you are constantly exposed to different personalities and work environments. The experiences are enriching, and on top of that, job security is of the utmost importance.”
Providing legal advice and representation to destitute litigants is what makes Kabajani’s job most satisfying.
“The most satisfying thing about my job is sending fathers, mothers and children back to their families. To walk in town and just have people walk up to you and say thank you Mr Kabajani, even many years after having helped them, is just a blessing. To know I positively impacted so many lives is indeed satisfying,” he continued.
Kabajani stressed that “no two days are the same, no two cases are alike, and there is no uniformity when it comes to cases. Also, being a state lawyer, I have no say over which cases to take, and which ones to forego. The constant travelling is also somewhat of a challenge, but justice needs to be served.”
He is strongly against the notion that characterises legal aid lawyers as incompetent.
“That is a false narrative. Many legal aid clients now ask for in-house legal counsel as opposed to private counsel. I once had a case where two minor boys were charged with murder. The private counsel was more concerned with the finalisation of the matter than the actual result. He advised his client to plead guilty, the boy was 15, and has been serving a 20-year sentence since 2018. My client and I went to trial, and he got discharged. Not even acquitted, but discharged for lack of evidence. How private counsel did not see this, I don’t understand.”
As for now, Kabajani is satisfied with his contribution to the public service. “My role is of great importance to the public, and quite frankly, my conditions of service warrant that I stay on for a very long time to come.”