LAWYERING UNDER LOCKDOWN: THE CHRONICLES OF A JUNIOR FEMALE LAWYER IN GHANA
The year 2020 was supposed to be a very promising year. Many resolutions had been made, challenges to be surmounted and goals to be met. It took the world by surprise when the “Invisible Enemy” struck at the Achilles heels of nation-states, bringing the “great” and “not-so-great” nations to their knees. Ghana was no exception, when in March 2020, the country recorded its first two cases of COVID-19. The worst was yet to be seen, yet business went on as usual, and with a few individuals taking precautionary measures when the reported cases started growing.
As a lawyer who goes to court often, I took the decision to avoid taking the elevators in the High Court Complex in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Call it an obsession, but I was armed daily with sanitizers and embarked on the “boosting immunity” journey. Not missing my daily dose of Vitamin C, drinking warm fluids and experimenting with breathing exercises. Under the direction of Justice Kwasi Anin-Yeboah, the Chief Justice of the Republic, the judiciary put in place some protocols to curtail the rising levels of infection. These measures were definitely not enough.
My firm put measures in place to prevent its lawyers from being exposed to infection, by installing an automatic sanitizer dispenser, encouraging effective and constant hand washing for both staff and clients and reducing court attendance. Additional measures were taken to reduce staffing by implementing a shift system to enhance the effective practice of social distancing, and reducing work hours at the firm so that staff could get home early.
On 27th March 2020, in the President Akufo-Addo’s 4th update to the country, the capital city, Accra, Kasoa, Kumasi and its environs were put on lockdown. President Akufo-Addo, by Executive Instrument 65, Imposition of Restrictions Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (No 2) Instrument 2020, defined certain categories as essential services for the areas under lockdown. Lawyers did not fall within the “essential” category. Bottom line was that lawyers should stay home and stay indoors.
The Ghana Bar Association (GBA), as part of its Continuous Legal Education (CLE), hosted a webinar on 9th April 2020, to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on legal practice. It was commendable of the GBA, as they managed to use technology to reach a vast majority of its members. However, I expected the webinar to deal with certain pressing legal issues and challenges. The webinar in my candid opinion should have directed its speakers to expand on pressing legal issues such as the rights of employees of law firms, what happens to the concept of time, as it is an essential element in legal practice, and the labor rights of administrative staff of firms. At the macro level, discussions could have focused on what the law regards as “urgent” or “crucial” cases to be heard by the Courts that the Chief Justice had designated to be working courts during the lockdown.
These are hard times without a doubt, and being a lawyer is no exception. For a lawyer who engages in active litigation, going to represent clients in courts is a daily and crucial part of my life. My work now has been limited to essentially writing briefs from home. The coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented and a novel situation for all. Every day is a new learning experience as I stay indoors, while we hope for this global infectious wind to blow away quickly. The lockdown has shown the major technological gaps in legal practice in Ghana, where most lawyers were not set up to work from home. For lawyers in active litigation and engaging with the judiciary on a daily basis, these new developments bring to the fore the need for digitalization of court processes to allow remote work that is secure, reliable and accessible. These times should be a catalyst for law firms to learn from the opportunities granted by the current condition on the urgency of adopting technological tools that will provide innovative ways of working and engaging with clients.
In Ghana, despite the growing number of women lawyers, not many of them engage in litigation. The current COVID-19 situation poses a higher challenge for many female lawyers striving to make a mark in the field of litigation. If this current wave does not subside, many may turn to the field of corporate practice or other in-house counsel positions. The lockdown has been lifted, but Ghana’s case count increases by the day. I am still working from home and so are other lawyers, as firms have put in more stringent measures to reduce rates of infections. One cannot tell when it will be safe for legal life to return to normalcy. What the legal landscape in Ghana will look like in a post COVID-19 environment will depend largely on measures put in place now to increase the use of technology in law firms, and innovative ways of handling cases by the judicial system.
*The views expressed in this entry belong entirely to the author.