Two of the eight men on trial for attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and topple the government in 2009 are now without legal representation.
Together with six others, Solomon Mabasa and Antonio Lopez are facing 31 charges that include murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, robbery and illegal entry into Lesotho.
If convicted for murder they could be hanged.
Attorney Molefi Ntlhoki, their lawyer, told the Lesotho Times he had to withdraw from the case because authorities at the High Court wanted him to reduce his legal fees to “unacceptable” levels.
The High Court hired Ntlhoki to represent Mabasa, a South African, and Lopez, a Mozambican, because they face murder charges and they could not afford a lawyer.
We understand Ntlhoki’s concerns and empathise with his clients who now have to look for another lawyer.
There is no doubt that Ntlhoki has been reasonable in his demands.
He initially wanted to charge M18 000 a day but eventually settled for a modest M3 000 and then M2 500 after negotiations with the High Court.
The High Court then reneged on this agreement, insisting that it could not pay more than M350 per day.
The Registrar of the High Court, ’Mathato Sekoai, is right to say she was merely using the stipulated rates the court pays for lawyers hired to deal with such cases.
Ntlhoki is correct to point out that those rates, last reviewed in 1999, have become unacceptable.
No serious lawyer will take M350 per day for such a serious case unless they are doing it on humanitarian grounds.
We fear that many senior lawyers like Ntlhoki will start rejecting such pro deo cases if the fees are not reviewed.
The end result is that such cases, which in most instances are the most serious, will be handled by inexperienced or incompetent lawyers.
There is a real danger that many murder suspects will not get decent legal presentation.
The poor people of this country rely on pro deo lawyers for legal representation if they are facing murder charges.
By keeping the lid on the fees the High Court is therefore denying suspects the best legal representation there is in the country.
The High Court is indirectly denying justice to those who cannot afford legal representation.
Mabasa and Lopez are such people.
We are not saying the High Court should match the commercial rates.
Lawyers in this country understand that they have an obligation to handle such cases but it’s just that they are against the High Court exploiting them.
At the moment the High Court is exploiting local lawyers.
It is sad that this is happening at a time when foreign lawyers hired by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) are charging “huge” fees.
The DPP doesn’t seem to have problems paying such fees.
It is also important to note that the government hires South Africa lawyers whom it pays handsome fees.
We cannot understand why local lawyers should be expected to accept peanuts.
It is the responsibility of Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla to urgently review those fees.
Surely the chief justice must know that M350 is neither reasonable nor acceptable especially in such a case.