LAWYERS representing murder-accused soldiers and police officers, who have applied for pro deo assistance, say they continue to appear in court not knowing whether or not they will eventually be paid by the state for their services.
The acting registrar of the High Court’s, Pontšo Phafoli, is yet to determine if the 23 soldiers and police officers who were recently interviewed qualify for the pro deo arrangement.
The suspects applied for the state to take over the payments of their legal fees in terms of the pro deo arrangement, granted to suspects who cannot afford legal fees. The soldiers had argued that they could no longer afford to pay their own fees as the costs had escalated as a result of the long-drawn court processes.
Some of the soldiers include Major Pitso Ramoepane and Captain Litekanyo Nyakane, who face various charges including the 25 June 2015 murder of army commander, Lieutenant General (Lt-Gen) Maaparankoe Mahao.
Major Ramoepana’s lawyer, Advocate Karabo Mohau King’s Counsel (KC), last week told Justice Onkemetse Tshosa that they continue to appear out of courtesy while waiting for the registrar’s decision.
Major Ramoepana was appearing before the Botswana judge in connection with the murder of army commander, Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo on 5 September 2017. However, the charges were dropped last week to make way for an inquiry into the murder of the army commander.
“My client applied to be assisted under the pro deo facility and was interviewed by the High Court’s assistant registrar two weeks ago but to date there has not been any response,” Adv Mohau KC said.
“We are just appearing out of courtesy because at the end of the day, the trials must continue even if we do not know whether or not we will be remunerated for the services by the registrar.
“It has never happened in this jurisdiction that the registrar approves pro deo and then the Attorney General seeks review of such,” Adv Mohau KC said.
The soldiers and police officers initially applied to Adv Phafoli, for assistance in May 2019. Adv Phafoli approved their application and agreed to pay their lawyers M400 each per court appearance. But the soldiers rejected the amount, saying it was too little and they subsequently filed a High Court application to compel the state to pay their lawyers M17 000 per appearance.
Their application was successfully challenged by Attorney General, Haae Phoofolo, who argued that they should not even have been granted the M400 legal aid because they were still receiving their salaries and should therefore foot their own bills.
Justice Charles Hungwe, who presided over the case, concurred with Adv Phoofolo and dismissed the soldiers’ application citing lack of evidence that the accused “soldiers and police officers could not afford to pay legal fees”.
Justice Hungwe, however, said the defendants could reapply to the registrar for pro deo assistance as long as they could justify the need for such aid.
The soldiers subsequently re-applied for state assistance and the office of the registrar in turn interviewed them to determine their eligibility for such.
The High Court’s Assistant Registrar, Advocate Starford Sharite, last week told Sunday Express’ sister publication, the Lesotho Times, that they had completed the assessments and they would soon decide whether or not to provide legal assistance to the applicants.
“Part of Justice Hungwe’s ruling was that we should determine each applicant’s capacity to pay their own legal fees and therefore we visited the Maseru correctional facility on 12 and 18 November 2019 to interview the 23 soldiers and police officers who applied for assistance,” Adv Sharite said.
“We considered the income of each of the accused soldiers and police officer, each’s responsibilities and monthly expenses. We have completed our assessments and we are in the process of determining whether or not to pay the legal costs of the accused.
“The 23 want to keep their lawyers but whether or not that will happen is at the discretion of the registrar. Normally, we randomly choose pro deo lawyers from the pool of lawyers in the country who are willing to take over the cases.
“Under the pro deo facility, a junior lawyer is paid M800 as consultation fees and senior counsels are paid M1500. The lawyers are paid M200 per day if the case is postponed and M400 if it is heard. The fees can go as high as M2000 but that is only upon the recommendation of a sitting judge,” Adv Sharite said.