Demand for legal aid outpacing available resources – Bob-Manuel

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Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel is the DG, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria ( Legal Aid) which is currently celebrating its 40 years anniversary. In this interview, she speaks on the council, its establishment, partnerships and some of her achievements.

How do you cope with the rising demand by Nigerians today for free legal aid?

Building and strengthening the provision of legal aid services to indigent persons across Nigeria has being our mandate since inception, while access to justice especially for indigent person’s stock within the criminal justice system has become a central focus of most institutions.  Demand for legal aid is fast growing and outpacing the available resources, this therefore raises the need for a well-structured, coordinated and expanded legal aid services with capacity to meet the demand.

While legal aid may not have the funding and human capacity to meet this need, we have partnered with different institutions and individuals whose mandate connects with what we do to ensure that we deliver quality services to our clients especially in the rural areas.

Tell us about the establishment of the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON)?

The LACON was established under the Legal Aid Act No. 56 of 1976 which was amended by the Legal Aid Act Cap L9, 2004 of the Federation of Nigeria, and repealed in 2011 by the Legal Aid Act 2011.

The Legal Aid Council began life as an association of public defenders, through the concerted efforts of notable legal luminaries such as Chief Chimezie Ikeazor, Debo Akande and Solomon D. Lar and many others. The intention of that group of lawyers was to provide free legal services to indigent suspects. The efforts of the association were recognised and given formal, legal status by the government of General Olusegun Obasanjo (as he then was) in 1976.

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The council’s statutory duty is to provide free legal representation, assistance and advice together with alternative dispute resolution services.

At what state did you meet the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria when you assumed office?

I started effectively January 2011, I met only 80 lawyers, and an already processed 2011 Legal Aid Act which I went about to make sure it was passed. So there were 80 lawyers for a very large mandate, the 2011 Act that was finally passed in June 2011 and accented to by the then president Jonathan and then I asked for permission to do more recruitment.

The 2011 Act was similar to the 1977 Act but with an expanded scope, and as such the 80 lawyers were grossly inadequate to cover the mandate. That also spurred me on to know that the government cannot do everything and the way forward for me was partnership, and we needed to expand the number of staff and partners and that has been my main achievement.

We have the development partners like the World Bank, UNADP, J4A that have assisted and supported us in capacity training and articulating what a legal aid team in Nigeria should be.

Specifically, what were the interventions?

The intervention was a validation workshop to have a legal aid team in Nigeria. Section 17, 1 (2) of the Legal Aid Act 2011 tells us that we can partner with nongovernmental organisations and firms who offer legal aid. Section 18 tells us that we should partner with private practitioners for pro bono (free legal service). This is what the national legal aid strategy which is a five-year plan has set out to do.

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 We launched it on the 40th anniversary and any development partner who wishes to see a better legal aid team will follow the plan and the plan simply involves: capacity building for all and use of paralegals, non-legal officers who are taught the rudiments of law so that they can mediate and offer alternative dispute resolution of issues. This will allow the lawyers concentrate on their representations.

Already, we have an MoU with the NBA where we are going to decide on how a private practitioner can take up awaiting trial cases to reduce the number and they have agreed that they will do that with us; with the help of those partners who will support workshop because they are well grounded in these affairs in the UK where the government appoints practitioners to take up cases.

We are all on the same page now regarding the incapacity of the government to deal with these issues alone and that we must look past our challenges to forge ahead in looking for more creative ways to deal with the situations on ground. So I am happy about the 40th anniversary because it has given us that perspective and we all agree that it’s time we moved forward.

How does the legal aid council work as a clearing house for pro bono?

The legal aid council and clearing house project started with a pilot project in FCT office of the council in 2013 as the clearing house collaborating with private practitioners in the FCT who offered their service pro bono. The success of this pilot project led the partners to agree to roll out the services to all the 36 states offices of LACON in order to expand the engagement of more pro bono service providers.

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This project has built the council’s capacity to own the mandate given to it in its act to be the clearing house for access to justice to the poor in Nigeria which it does by engaging private practitioners who are willing and apply to do pro bono service and register cases they can take up.

The council therefore provides coordination and monitors the progress of such cases. It also partners with nongovernmental organisations and law clinics that offer legal aid services.

Culled from Daily Trust

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