Legal practitioners are known to be officers and worshipers in the temple of justice. They are known to provide legal succor to the helpless laymen. They are known as problem solvers. They are known as the defense of the defenseless. They are known as the light giver in the face of complex and complicated national issues. Historically, they are revered for the immense wealth of knowledge and skills they possess, which are deployed as progressive means towards societal ends. Alas, can this be said of the current generation of lawyers in Nigeria today?
The concept of progressive advocacy, which is the fabric which the legal profession rests upon, is rarely visible in the activities of Lawyers in Nigeria today. The principal focus of actors in the Nigerian legal profession is basically profit-oriented private practice with little attention being paid to public interest litigation, free legal aid service to the under-privileged members such as, pre-trial detainees who cannot afford legal representation.
There are a lot of injustices occasioned regularly in Nigeria, without any remedy to some of the victims due to their lack of access to legal representation. A glaring example is the overpopulation of Nigerian prisons by so many pre-trial detainees, many of whom are held in prolonged detention than they would have legally been held if they were convicted for the alleged offence which heralded their detention.
A readily instance that comes to mind is the popular case of Sikiru Alade V. Nigeria decided by the ECOWAS court in 2012, wherein Sikiru Alade was alleged to have committed an offense and thereby kept in detention for nine years based on the holding charge of a magistrate since 2003. He was never tried nor arraigned before any court of competent jurisdiction not until 2012, when an American based non-governmental organization named “Open Society Justice Initiative” filed a lawsuit on his behalf at the ECOWAS court, upon which the court declared his detention illegal and ordered the Nigerian government to pay him some monetary compensation. This is just one of the numerous cases of injustice suffered by prisoners awaiting trial. To worsen the matter, the Comptroller General of Nigerian Prisons Service in an interview this year was reported to have said that almost 70% of Nigerian prisoners are awaiting trial.
Hence, it is time the legal orientation of Nigerian Lawyers is broadened to encompass extensive pro bono services which would satisfy the unmet legal needs of the under-privileged members of the society. It is time lawyers in profit-oriented private practice began to see the need to render constant and periodic probono services. It is time students in the Nigerian faculties of law began to constantly pay attention to local challenges in the society in the course of their study, so as to prepare their minds towards using their knowledge of law to remedy injustice perceived in the society. This no doubt would enhance the actualization of Sapara Williams’ expectation of lawyers in his quote – “a legal practitioner lives for the direction of his people and advancement of his country”.
To this end, it is suggested that clinical legal education should be actively encouraged in Nigeria through the establishment of law clinics in all faculties of law in Nigeria, particularly in the law faculties in southwest geo-political zone where this is a rarity. This would help remedy the defects in the British influenced law curricula of Nigerian law faculties which basically instills the idea of commercial practice in prospective and fresh lawyers during and upon the completion of their studies in the university. Invariably, the true notion of advocacy would become visibly evident in the Nigerian legal practice.
Olutayo A. Awoyele