By Ameh Ochojila
Justice is arguably the bedrock of peace in every human society. Peace, however, cannot be guaranteed when there is no respect for the fundamental rights or the lack of fair hearing and access to courts as a result of financial constraints on citizens, especially the indigents.
For oneness of purpose, all over the world, citizens entrust their powers to their governments to secure their rights and interests. Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to strive to enthrone equity, fairness and equality of all persons before the law. The government is expected, therefore, to secure access to justice for the indigent through free legal aid and services for those who cannot afford it.
For instance in Nigeria, the Legal Aid Council (LAC) was established to serve needy and indigent Nigerians whose rights are breached and who have no financial power to seek the services of legal practitioners.
Initially established by the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of 1976, the LAC Decree was then incorporated into section 42 (40)(b) of the 1979 Constitution.
However, since its establishment, the law has gone through several amendments such as the Legal Aid (Amendment) Decree No. 10 of 1986, which included civil matters for the first time in the jurisdiction of the Council; the Legal Aid (Amendment) Decree No.22 of 1994, which included damages for breach of fundamental human rights as guaranteed under the 1979 Constitution; The Decree was later codified into the Legal Aid Council Act Cap L9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and the Legal Aid Act Cap L9, 2004 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN), which was replaced by the Legal Aid Act, 2011.
The enabling law expanded the scope of the mandate of LAC to provide free legal assistance and representation, provide free legal advice and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to indigent Nigerians to enhance access to justice for all.
The amendments, according to experts were aimed at giving better legal services to indigent Nigerians for the interest of justice and the demands that the Council secures, defends, enforces, protects or otherwise exercise such rights for poor Nigerians. In giving greater strength to the council, the amendment reinforces the mandate of the body in providing the needed legal services to that hapless class of citizens.
Apart from the Federal Government’s efforts at properly positioning the legal framework for the enhancement of the Council’s functionality, LAC has since its inception been struggling to overcome its challenges and to deliver on its core mandates.
One of such challenges, according to a lawyer, Onoja Abel, had been the lack of proper funding, which inhibited it from efficiently and effectively discharging its duties. The poor funding according to him has unfortunately led to the situation where some unscrupulous lawyers in the service of the Council transferred the burden of funding cases to indigent Nigerians, thereby defeating the essence of the Council.
The lawyer also pointed out that one of the setbacks was that those who should benefit from LAC’s services are not aware of its existence in the first place. He lamented the low visibility of the Council, especially among rural communities as part of its undoing.
“Most citizens don’t know about its services. The Council is poorly funded and some of its unscrupulous staff also compounds the problems by charging or making heavy monetary demands on those who require its services. Lawyers working for the Council are also not well taken care of in terms of welfare packages,” Abel explained.
Associate professor of law in the department of public law, University of Ilorin, Dr. Abdulfatai Oladapo Sambo, in his own opinion, stated that one of the challenges of the LAC lies in the institutional bottleneck of being under the Ministry of Justice. For him, there is on way the Council can flourish under the Ministry of Justice that defends the actions of the Federal Government that controls security institutions, which are notorious for human rights violations.
Dr. Sambo stated that while the core mandate of the Council is to provide legal services to the indigents, it would be difficult to achieve such in a country like Nigeria where 90 per cent of the violations of indigent rights come from government agencies, particularly security agencies.
The lawyer explained that the reason the Council would continue to flounder hinges on the fact that the Ministry of Justice defends most cases against government agencies. “Yet, we expect the indigents to get justice for the violations of their rights from the same government that violates such rights. In other words, the Ministry of Justice defends government cases from the indigents and defends the indigents at the same time through the LAC. What a paradox! It is not the way to achieve justice. Even in terms of prosecution, the office of the Attorney General prosecutes; yet, an agency under the office like LAC defends. It doesn’t add up.
“I have seen a situation where a husband and wife (both working in the Ministry of Justice, one seconded to the Legal Aid Council) were prosecuting and defending some defendants (indigents accused persons) respectively fall within the laps of both couples. This will not lead to fairness and true Justice,” he lamented.
According to him, access to court may not necessarily mean access to Justice, particularly in situations where the government seems to be the accuser and the defender at the same time. Thus, the Legal Aid Council, he stated, needs some level of independence to be able to operate effectively. “One other challenge is the quality of staff and funding of the Council. The Council is poorly funded and this affects the quality of staff, particularly lawyers that they can attract,” he pointed out.
Another lawyer, Omale Ajonye, said since the establishment of the Council by Decree 56 of 1976, which was enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and subsequently amended, it has not lived up to expectations in terms of providing legal services to the poor.
“The Council was established basically to cater for legal challenges of indigent members of the society. But, the Council has not lived up to its mandate due to a number of factors such as dearth of funds, inadequate staff, office accommodation shortage, staff training and retraining as well as lack of working facilities. For the way forward, the Council needs to be funded adequately to meet the objectives of its establishment,” he declared.
But the Director-General of LAC, Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar disagrees. According to him, since the creation of the Council, it has made a remarkable impact on providing legal services to the poor and has been repositioned to do more.
Abubakar said one of such efforts border on staff training. He revealed that the Council organises yearly lectures and seminars that touch on topics that expose the all-important functions of the Council and its usefulness.
The DG, additionally, said the Council had embarked on several programmes in collaboration with the Bar to make pro bono work attractive to lawyers, besides ensuring that it becomes one of the set targets for qualification for the award of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
According to him, the Council partners law firms in the area of assisting the Council with pro bono works. “Being a Legal Aid Council partner firm is to be like a badge of honour for any law firm or establishment. They are allowed to use our crest in their offices and even on their stationery. This is in line with international best practices.
“In compliance with Section 17 of the Legal Aid Act, which empowers the Council to supervise and partner with other legal aid providers in Nigeria, the Council is collating a list of volunteer lawyers who are/would assist the Council with delivering pro bono services to over 100 million Nigerians, who cannot afford the services of paid lawyers,” he stated, adding that a directory titled “Nigeria Legal Aid Service Pro Bono Providers” was published and is updated regularly.
According to the Council chief, it would be a great advantage for any law firm or organisation to have a relationship with the Council. Local and international clients, he claimed, hold such firms in very high esteem because of such status.
Abubakar recalled that the Council grew from a couple of office rooms in the Federal Ministry of Justice at the commencement of operations in 1977, to a modern organisation with offices in the 36 states of the federation, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), six geo-political zones, Local Government and municipal Legal Aid Centres and a headquarters building in Abuja.
His words: “The Legal Aid Council Nigeria also has an average of at least three legal personnel per state nationwide and an up and running website. Notwithstanding and considering the population of Nigeria, which stands at approximately 200 million, the potential for improvement in quality of services, volume of services and expansion of legal aid infrastructure are boundless.
“The Council would need 10,000 lawyers directly employed or registered with the Council to begin to scratch the surface of access to justice. This would be at a ratio of one lawyer to 10,000 indigent persons in Nigeria. Despite this inadequacy, it would be a great improvement in the present situation.
“In addition, the critical advances being made by the Council in paralegalism would complement this number of legal personnel and bridge the gaps in most rural areas.”
He stated that with the support of the British Council under its Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption (RoLAC) programme and Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a roundtable on enhancing access to legal aid for pretrial detainees through Public/Private Sector partnerships was ongoing for a group of legal aid providers. This, according to the Council’s statutory report dated October 2021, was to actualise the Council’s mandate in Section 17 (1) and (2) of the Legal Aid Act.
The Act states: “The Council shall maintain a register of non-governmental organisations and law clinics that are engaged in the provision of legal aid or assistance to persons who are entitled to legal aid under this Act; The Council may partner with or otherwise engage the services of such organisations in a manner consistent with the mandate of the Council.”
Abubakar, however, noted that the innovation needs to be properly or adequately captured in a national strategy. This innovation and many others, he said, needs to be institutionalised. “For continuity, pro-bono works must be regulated so it is not abused. The Legal Aid Council is well placed to do this, but it must be backed up by deliberate political support. It must also be supported by stakeholders outside,” he suggested.
He argued that it is very important for the regulation and monitoring of pro-bono works, adding that constant review and improvement of the system are equally important.
He, however, admitted that the Council has varied challenges in the area of training and retraining of staff for efficiency; statutory funding of the Legal Aid (Access to Justice) fund; recruitment of additional personnel; improved emoluments; financial implementation of the Legal Aid Council staff conditions of service and improved funding of operational overhead.
For Bar Emeka Albert, Nigeria needs solid and dependable public institutions to respond appropriately to the sort of challenges that the LAC was set up to handle. According to him, the big question is how well is the Federal Government funding and building infrastructure to empower the Council?
“How well is government meeting their manpower requirements? How many lawyers from NYSC are sent there yearly to mitigate the manpower shortage? How well are they equipped and trained to leverage technology for their work? Is there provision for logistics to make their work more result-oriented? How about modern tools of work?
“Now the significance of the Council’s work should be seen against the backdrop of the fact that Nigeria has a massive population of poor people. One Nigerian newspaper recently reported that Nigeria has maintained the infamous position as the poverty capital of the world, with 93.9 per cent of people currently living below the poverty line. What is more, extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by six people every minute. This is enough for those involved in National Planning to set aside sufficient resources and infrastructure to empower the Council towards attracting and sustaining enough manpower to deal with the ever-increasing cases of indigents in need of legal representation,” he advised.
Albert said in the absence of those provisions, LAC cannot be hold responsible on the basis of poor result, rather they should be commended for achieving so much with lean resources and the absence of much needed infrastructure and logistics.
Reacting from a different perspective, Bar. Joseph Ekwe said the security agencies should be undergoing intensive training and retraining on the need to respect the fundamental rights of persons without compromising their own work and also to learn investigative competencies to avoid lapses and indiscriminate arrest of innocent persons.
“They should also not keep suspects beyond 48 hours at the maximum. The 1999 Constitution in s.35 (4)(a) (b), (5)(b) should be amended by the National Assembly. The above sections encourage “holding charge”. That is arresting people before investigating their cases except where it is extremely necessary. Despite that Administration of Criminal justice Act, 2015 frowns at holding charge, it still doesn’t stop the horrible security agencies from practicing holding charge today.
“Rushing to Magistrates Courts by the security agencies and ministry of justice to get order of remand to dump someone in correctional centres is highly condemnable, abominable and is a tragedy,” he suggested, advising that Correctional centres should as well undertake weekly publications of the trial progress of every person in their custody and proper documentation and records of inmates.
When all those are done, Ekwe explained that the indigents would have logical and speedy trials.
“As a former president of the Legal Aid in my NYSC in Niger State, I used my team of lawyers to do exploit in Suleja Prisons and others. That’s when I discovered that the Legal Aid could be frustrated by all these agencies, but thankfully enough, Suleja Prisons now correctional centre cooperated with us and we achieved mightily in Prison decongestion,” he recalled.