THE office of the Registrar of the High Court says it will soon decide whether or not to pay the legal fees of 23 soldiers and police officers who are currently in detention over murder and attempted charges.
This after 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 to pay for themselves. 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 and the 5 September 2017 murder of army commander, Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo.
The soldiers initially applied to the High Court’s Acting Registrar, Pontšo 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 getting 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 they 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 it was against this background that the office of the registrar recently visited them for interviews and other assessments to determine their eligibility for state assistance.
The High Court’s Assistant Registrar, Advocate Starford Sharite, this week told 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 officers, each’s responsibilities and monthly expenses. We have completed our assessments and we are currently 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.