In May 2017, I attended a community service workshop for Magistrates serving in the Nasarawa State Judiciary organized by the Faculty of Law, Nasarawa state University Keffi (NSUK) to train judicial officers on different social justice issues by resource persons drawn from within and outside the faculty. The program was aimed at improving administration and justice delivery in their various courts.
The highlight of the event for me was a lecture delivered by Professor Nnamdi Aduba of the Faculty of Law University of Jos-what resonated most with me was his talk on the common saying “the judiciary is the last hope of the common man” I was nodding my head in agreement until he added; “I want to know the person who said that, so I can give him a dirty slap!” it was hilarious. He went further to narrate an experience of how even as a professor it was difficult and expensive for him to get access to justice. How accessible therefore are our courts to the less privileged people in our society?
Section 36 (1) of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria guarantees the right to fair hearing of every person in the determination of his civil rights and obligations by or against any government or authority. This must be done within a reasonable time by a court or tribunal established by law and constituted in such a manner as to secure its independence and impartiality. The section goes further to provide in sub-section (6) that such a person shall be entitled to the services of a legal practitioner.
We live in a country where a large number of citizens live below the poverty line, people therefore are much more concerned with putting food on their tables than paying for the services of lawyers. What then happens when their rights have been infringed upon? What options are open to indigent persons who need legal advice in civil matters or when faced with an accusation of crime? The constitution in section 36 (5) presumes the innocence of every individual until the contrary is proven in a court of competent jurisdiction. Therefore, who prosecutes or defend on their behalf? With the high cost of securing the services of a legal practitioner and subsequent cost of litigation, poor people are vulnerable to being at the receiving end of a lot injustices without any legal remedy.
The above observations and the need to protect the rights of the poor led to the comments made in 1961 by Justice Adetokumbo Ademola the Chief of justice of Nigeria at the time during the African Conference on Rule of Law held in Lagos where he pointed out the hollowness of a constitutional right to fair hearing, if the financial aspect of access was ignored. Those remarks were the foundation of legal aid in Nigeria. It also led to the drafting of a Bill Legal Aid and Advice Act 1961 by the then Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation, Dr. T.O. Elias, for Parliament but unfortunately it did not see the light of day due to the political situation of the country at the time.
However, these efforts later resulted in the establishment of the Legal Aid Association of Nigeria in 1974 made up of a number of legal luminaries who took it upon themselves to champion the cause of providing legal aid for poor Nigerians. The activities of the Association paved the way for the promulgation of the Legal Aid Act No 56 of 1976 by the then military administration of General Obasanjo which established the Legal Aid council of Nigeria.
The council had a mandate then to provide legal assistance on specific criminal proceedings including murder, manslaughter, malicious or wilful wounding, assault etc with no civil jurisdiction. The Act has gone through a series of amendments over the years, thus, expanding the scope of work of the council. The last review led to the enactment of the Legal Aid Act 2011, which increased the scope of the council to include cases of armed robbery which was not covered by the old Act. It also mandated the council to establish and maintain a civil litigation service for the purpose of assisting indigent persons to access advice, assistance and representation in court where the interest of justice demands.
The council has offices in all states of the federation and legal aid centres in local government areas where majority of indigent people are resident. Section 10 (1) of the Legal Aid Act 2011 provides that the services of the council are available to people who earn below the national minimum wage. However, section 10(2) of the Act gives the council discretion to aid persons who earn above the minimum wage.
Some of the challenges faced by the council include lack of adequate human resources and funding. These limit its capacity to effectively discharge its mandate as provided for by the Act. Thus, the services provided by the Legal Aid Council are complemented by Law Clinics some of which are established by the council itself and others are university based.
There are 21 university based Law clinics under the auspices of the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI) Nigeria, a non- governmental, non-profit and non-political organization established in 2003. The organisation is committed to promoting clinical legal education, legal education reform, legal aid and access to justice in Nigeria and the development of future public interest lawyers.
These clinics are established as part of the faculties of law in the universities where they are situated, with the aim of providing legal aid and advisory services on pro bono basis to indigent and underserved people within and around their university communities in a bid to bridge the gap between the less privileged and access to justice.
Legal aid has evolved over time, it is no longer limited to providing legal representation in courts; it involves offering a wide range of legal services aimed at educating, enlightening and raising awareness especially on the law, basic rights and available remedies. Thus, university based law clinics are equipped to provide legal aid and advisory services that include Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Childs rights awareness, Clients counselling and advice, Community enlightenment through street-lawyering, Human Rights Education, Prison Pre-trial Detainee Services, Public Interest Lawyering (PIL) etc
These Clinics are wholly student based with supervision from qualified legal practitioners from the faculties. The law clinic program is made up of two components: the academic and service component which incorporates substantive and procedural law to equip students with the skills necessary to effectively provide competent and efficient justice services while breeding a crop of ethical and community conscious lawyers. Although students are not qualified to represent clients in court, they are allowed to handle all other legal issues under close supervision.
To fill the vacuum of legal representation in court, clinics engage the services and partnership of practising lawyers who appear in court on behalf of clients on pro bono basis. It is therefore important for legal practitioners to take more interest in offering free legal services to indigent people not only because it is necessary for the advancement of their professional careers, but most especially because they have a duty to impact positively on the society.
Consequently, the concern of legal practise should not be restricted to the financial benefits; lawyers should be community conscious, this will go a long way in reducing widespread ignorance of the law and help raise awareness on rights issues and available remedies for their breach. Lawyers are also responsible for the growth and development of society.
In conclusion, it is worthy to note that a lot of progress has been made in the area of providing legal aid to indigent persons in Nigeria. Nevertheless, more work still needs to be done to fill the very wide gap between the less privileged and access to justice. It is therefore necessary for practising lawyers, law firms, private individuals and non-governmental organisations etc to look towards partnering with university based law clinics especially in the areas of training and capacity building to consolidate on the successes so far achieved. The development of Nigeria is a collective effort and no society can develop if majority of its population do not have access to justice.
(Clinic Head, Nasarawa State University Keffi (NSUK) Law Clinic)
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