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Transformation of Ghana’s legal profession. A return to Kwame Nkrumah’s vision?

There have been major demographic shifts in the profile of Ghana’s lawyers. Shutterstock

Late last year the University of Ghana School of Law at Legon held a conference to discuss the future of legal education in Ghana. The keynote speaker, President Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo called for a reform to meet the current and future needs of the country. His remarks came at a time when law students held several protests requesting changes in the current selection process for entry to the law school.

The legal profession in Ghana has come a long way. In 1887, John Mensah Sarbah was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in England, making him the first Ghanaian lawyer. 58 years later, Essi Matilda Forster made history as the first woman from the British Gold Coast and the third woman in British West Africa to be called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in London in 1945. She was later called to the Ghana Bar in 1947.

The profession has grown since the first nine lawyers trained on Ghanaian soil were called to the Ghana Bar in 1963.

In a recent article, I traced the developments in Ghana’s legal profession over the past 30 years, through three phases: indigenisation, professionalisation and globalisation.

I examined the ongoing demographic shifts in the profession – the number of lawyers, the gender composition of the Bar and the intersection of ethnicity, age and class.

Among my findings were two that stand out. First, more people are pursuing a legal degree and career. Secondly, more women are becoming lawyers, accounting for over 30% of those called to the bar in recent years. The increase in the number of women lawyers mirrors the general gender demographic shifts taking place globally. Across Africa, gender transformation is happening within the legal profession though women still face gender-based professional biases.

The increase in the number of lawyers could signal increasing opportunities for Ghanaians to access the services of lawyers. This expands opportunity for access to justice and legal services.

But the positive changes we hope to see from an increase in the number of lawyers, cannot happen without a strong foundation for a legal education structure that meets the needs of the country.

Three eras

Indigenisation: I trace the indigenisation phase from the mid 19th century to the late 1970s, gaining roots in 1962 with the establishment of the first law faculty and law school in Ghana. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah played a central role in establishing legal education in Ghana. His vision of a united Africa found expression when he noted

Our lawyers therefore, if they are to understand the spirit of our laws, must understand the basic principles upon which the state is directed and why certain laws are enacted, repealed or amended by Parliament. The teaching of law is totally incomplete if it is not accompanied by a background of economic, social and political science, and even politics, science and technology.

Three points are worth highlighting about the indigenisation phase.

First, Ghanaian lawyers who trained abroad had to develop their understanding of the legal systems in Ghana since they had not received any training in customary law.

Second, these lawyers were later to serve as a check on the political, legal, and economic excesses of the colonial administration. Not surprising, some of the early independence leaders were lawyers.

Third, many lawyers concentrated in land litigation given the colonial economy’s dependence on agricultural production.

Professionalisation: Professionalisation marks the period from the 1980s to the early 2000s. It was during this phase that the profession sought to institutionalise and contextualise its professional ethos. This period occurred during the political turbulence of the 1980s, during prolonged periods of dictatorships. Lawyers played important roles, opposing the military junta’s policies, such as the institutionalisation of kangaroo courts and the imposition of detention laws.

Lawyers played insider-outsider roles, as some lawyers worked for the government, while others served as opposition through civil society organisations and emerging political parties. This phase also witnessed an increase in the number of law firms, the introduction of continuing legal education, the use of technology and expansion in the areas of legal practice and specialisation.

Globalisation: This begins from the 2000s to the present. In this phase, legal education expanded through the privatisation of law school education. Private universities were allowed to establish law faculties. With the increase in the supply of lawyers, law firms began growing in scale and size.

Legal practice continues to change as lawyers expand their areas of specialisation. Regulatory bodies such as the General Legal Council are enforcing professional regulation and ethics. Opportunities are expanding for professional affiliations at the domestic and international levels.

The last three decades have seen the profession expand, and become increasingly globalised. The peaceful transition to democratic government in 1992 and the alternation of political power between political parties and leaders has created new opportunities for lawyers. Democratic governance has led to an increase in public interest litigation due to constitutional freedoms and the guarantee of rights.

Given these changes in the profession, legal education has to change to meet these seismic developments in the legal profession.

Future directions

Lawyers in Ghana continue to occupy an elite status in society. Since 1992 three lawyers have held the position of president of Ghana, including the current president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. Several members of parliament are lawyers.

To keep abreast with global and international developments, the legal profession in Ghana will have to undergo internal occupational and organisational transformation. Some of these changes are happening through increased specialisation, use of digital tools, and connections with foreign law firms via partnerships and best friend agreements.

However, more needs to be done to position the legal profession at a competitive advantage as global law firms and corporate practices around the world grow.

The changes needed to position the profession as a strong global competitor starts with an overhaul of the current legal education system.

Ghana has become a frontier for corporate legal services as global corporations take advantage of the economic growth happening across Africa. The teaching and practice of corporate law needs attention, but should not be prioritised to the disadvantage of other areas such as environmental law, human rights, and women’s rights. Maybe it is time to reconsider the foundational ideology for Kwame Nkrumah’s establishment of legal education in Ghana – a legal education that is holistic and meets the needs of the country.

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