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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

First, but not final, impressions

Elliott Dionisio; Accra, Ghana

Brian Freano and I arrived in Accra, Ghana earlier this June and have been working for the Supreme Court since shortly after arrival.  My observations of Ghanaian culture on the whole and specifically the court system have been, in short, overwhelmingly revealing.

My very first impressions were ones that give me pause: impoverished vendors selling wares on street corners and hawking in traffic; lack of appropriate infrastructure (our commute to the court, under ten miles, has taken between 40 minutes and 2 hours); and ineffective law enforcement by police.  For my first 10 nights at a hostel on the University of Ghana campus, I lived without air conditioning, a refrigerator, and running water.  Two five-gallon buckets were what I had for washing my clothing and myself.  By extension, it is impossible not to reflect on comparisons to America, which has allowed me to appreciate the prosperity our country enjoys.

As I've adjusted to the environment through getting to know the locals and traversing the community, I nestled into place as a typical foreigner here only for the summer, one ready and willing to immerse himself into the beauties of city (and, this being my first trip to Africa, the continent).  I'm steadily working down the checklist of delicacies to explore.  Brian and I have thrown around ideas for landmarks to visit.  The best part, unquestionably, has been the people.  Ghanaians are friendly and love to teach foreigners about their language and customs; although a language barrier still exists, even with their English, we are all able to communicate well enough to appreciate each other. 

Our work in the court has been insightful on a number of levels.  To be frank, the workload is far from strenuous, even understanding the Ghanaian culture's lack of emphasis on using one's time diligently.  We've been trying to pry work from our judges' hands, but a combination of the judges' old-lion work habits and, perhaps to a small degree, this being a first-time program for Pepperdine, has created workdays with plenty of downtime.  I have been given a volume of 2010 Court decisions to become familiar with appellate procedure and Ghanaian legal vernacular (which is nearly identical to America, also being based on the English common law system).  After working through this volume, my judge will be assigning me case records from the docket to brief prior to court sittings. 

 It's also worth noting that Brian and I are in the company of three judicial interns hailing from Florida A&M University Law School, something we did not expect, but providing us welcome companionship.

The most glaring observation has been how the lack of technology affects the behind-the-scenes court procedures.  Most judges conduct research through books and printed briefs.  Our office does provide internet capability, but as far as I can tell, the internet is not commonly utilized among the interns, the legal assistant, nor the judges themselves.  Although our building is nice (only three years old), it nonetheless has its own lighting and plumbing problems.  Security guards and police accompany the judges everywhere, but there are no metal detectors at the entrance to the administrative building (where the judges' offices exists and where Brian and I work), nor at the building housing the courtrooms. 

To what extent these differences affect the actual administration of justice, however, is an open question.  My surface-level observations have been that the work pace stays in tandem with the workflow, and that cases on the dockets are given timely treatment (though the daily absence of a number of judges is reason enough to postpone a sitting).  Deeper still is the question of whether the archaic technology is hampering the development of Ghanaian law.  The decisions I have read mostly revolve around procedural issues – cases that hark to interpretive precedent are scant, and when, say, chieftan law is mentioned in court opinions, it seems the judge writes about it based on his knowledge and not through extensive cross-citation to veritable sources. 

At the end of our foray, we will have much more to report on (we have a bit more than one month of work remaining), including advice on how the path Pepperdine's relationship with the Supreme Court of Ghana ought to unfold.  For now, my experience has been plenty enriching.