Chat with Oluyemi Orija – Leader of Nigeria’s All Female Legal Team Offering Free Legal Service to Prison Inmates

The Headfort Team

Oluyemi Orija came in contact with prison inmates for the first time in her life as a young law graduate when she made her first court appearance in Akwa Ibom State. That first encounter was all it took her to develop enough passion to begin a Foundation which has gained both local and international recognition for its contribution to prison advocacy in Nigeria.

In 2019, 33 year old Oluyemi set up the Headfort Foundation to help the category of inmates who in her words ” have no business being in prison.” The foundation has so far secured the release of over 200 inmates in Lagos State alone.

With an all female team, and over 100 volunteering lawyers across Nigeria, Headfort Foundation is breaking boundaries. From establishing the Lawyers Without Borders Project to expand its scope to every state  to Olyemi being named among  one hundred most influential women by BBC,  the Foundation is poised  to take prison advocacy to to an all new level in Nigeria.

Read DNL Legal & Style’s chat with Oluyemi 

DNL L&S: What is Headfort Foundation all about? 

Headfort Foundation

Mrs. Orjija: Headfort Foundation is a registered nonprofit organization run by women lawyers to create access to justice for the members of the Nigerian society regardless of social and economic status and we render free legal representation to indigent and innocent inmates across Nigerian Prisons. We started Headfort Foundation in 2019 by just rendering free legal services to indigent inmates in prison. What we usually do then was to go to the prison, we started with Ikoyi prison because it was close to us, we would have told the prison management that we were coming on a date and they should get the people who have no lawyer ready for us. So when we get there, they announce to the inmates that pro bono lawyers are here. We take their cases and represent them and ensure that justice is done. That was where we started. Now, Headfort Foundation does more than legal representation, we also try to educate people on their rights because we know that when you are informed, you take decision from an informed position. We also do what we call Ex- inmates support initiative, this helps us to cater for the inmates when they are out. We are bothered about their lives after prison, so, we have projects around that. Now, we have become a full fledged nonprofit organization that deals majorly on justice and prison reforms in Nigeria.

DNL L&S: What inspired you to set up the foundation? 

Mrs. Orjija: Unlike many lawyers that would have had court or prison experience before they were eventually called to the Nigerian bar, mine was different. Before I was called to the bar, I had never been to a court room. My first time in a courtroom was my first court appearance as a lawyer. It was my service year and I was posted to Akwa Ibom State.  So, getting to court, I saw inmates being brought to court and their charges being read to them. I realized that some of them would have been in prison for quite a while and the judge would be asking questions about their cases. I was also wondering about the cases they were charged with that had kept them in prison that long. This person has fought another person and is in prison for two years, why? I mean it is not worth it. Yes he has done something wrong, the law considers it as a crime but the penalty is it worth it? So, I had seen quite a lot of them happen, sometimes it is somebody who stole something worth N10,000. Someone who stole food, edible, somebody broke crates of egg, or stole loafs of bread all being sent to prison. You see all of these things and because they are very poor people, they are not able to afford the service of a lawyer and that elongate their stay in prison. So, I thought to myself; “yes I don’t have the capacity to represent these people right now but I know within myself immediately that should I start a law practice of my own, I am definitely going to incorporate prison visitation and free legal representation to indigent people to my work.”

So, in 2015, I started my law firm, Headfort Chambers. I couldn’t start immediately because the firm itself was still trying to take shape and trying to put things together. But in June, 2018 I officially told my team then at the chambers thatwe need to start prison visitation. When I said it, everybody was like “what’s up with prison visitation when we are looking for money to run a new practice.” But I told them that this is what I have always thought to myself to do and now we have the platform, let’s do it.

The first day we went to prison was in November 2018 at Ikoyi and we took about 20 cases at the time. We were new to the prison warders and new to the inmates themselves, so, they didn’t even think these people could help them. We took those cases and left, then distributed them amongst ourselves, some of my friends who are lawyers also joined. Then the first person came out, the second and the third and the news spread. News is easy to broadcast in the prison there. The moment they heard this person is out and it is those ladies that came that took them out. The next time we went to the prison, everybody was rushing to come to us because they thought to themselves that their freedom was in our hands. So, that was how we started and the inspiration was basically to bridge a gapthat is obviously in existence. When you go to our prisons today, about 90% of the people there are poor people. There is no rich person that has been granted bail that would not be able to perfect their bail. Most of them had been granted bail but are not able to perfect their bail because they are poor.

So, we were just trying to bridge the gap and we have the passion. We started in 2018 but officially registered in March 2019.

DNL L&S: How many volunteer lawyers does the Foundation have presently? 

Mrs. Orjija: Right now our volunteers are 108 across Nigeria. It is not just one state, they are scattered all over the country.

DNL L&S: And all the volunteers are they females? 

Mrs. Orjija: No, the volunteers are not all female but the founders and all the staff are all female.

DNL L&S: Is having an all female team deliberate? 

The Headfort Team

Mrs. Orjija: Yes, it is. Although it was not our intention from the beginning to have an all female team, but, we have had two males join us in the past and in our experience, we realized that our male gender are more money conscious and you know that this job is not particularly lucrative. When it comes to the funding aspect of the job, we struggle. Men are not patient enough for all that. They have responsibilities to attend to and I wouldn’t blame them. But then, there is something about women in my experience. A woman is justice driven, she would rather not sleep when she can see obviously that there is an injustice somewhere and she has the capacity to help. She would do all it takes to help. I tell you that in our team, we have people who when the firm cannot afford to take up a case, they would from their own purse take up the case. They are that passionate and committed. There is a case we are currently handling. The guy has been in prison since 2009 and he is still in prison. When we took his case he had spent about 10 years or more in prison. So, we applied for his bail at the high court and just two weeks ago the application was granted and the counsel that represented him has been on my neck, that we need to perfect his bail and she has been insisting that this guy must not spend another Christmas in prison. They are that passionate because, you look at the case and then the crime they are being charged for, if they were even guilty of the offence, they won’t spend that long time in prison, let alone that there is possibility of them being innocent, a possibility of the court discharging them. What happens to all the years they have spent in prison awaiting trial?At the end of the day, our women are more passionate, more committed, they are justice driven, they won’t sleep when they identify injustice.

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So, we said to ourselves that if this is working for us as female only, it is better we stick to it than have men join usand  in another one month leave because they cannot stand the small money we are paying. Because even though they may be fulfilled career wise, they may not alwaysbe fulfilled financially.

DNL L&S: Are there categories of cases you handle particularly or you just take up all cases?

Mrs. Orjija: Yes, we have category of cases we handle. First, we handle criminal matters only. We do not take civil and commercial matters pro bono.  Then, with criminal matters,we don’t take capital offences; talking about rape, murder, armed robbery and the likes. We try to restrict ourselves to minor offences and the reason is not farfetched. We thought to ourselves that for minor offences, government should be thinking of non custodial sentencing for these kinds of offences. There is no reason why someone who was arrested by the police for wandering about should be dumped in prison. There was a guy that was charged for hiding in a dark place with an intention to commit crime and this guy spent three months in prison. These are the kind of cases we try to consider. People we think that they are not deserving of being in prison at all. There are some other times you see some cases that you just cannot look away.

I would tell you a story. Do you know that some people are forgotten in prison? Like some cases they tell you they can’t find their files or they no longer have a date in court. Some people are in prison now and have not been to court in three years. Covid-19 happened and affected a lot of things. There was a guy that we represented around June/July this year, he was arrested in 2017 and arraigned in 2017 and later that year the DPP advice came out and said this guy should be discharged.  On the day that the DPP advice came to court, he was not produced from prison and nobody followed that order of court up. He remained in prison until 2021 and nobody was taking him to court. When we met him, we were asking and he was just saying I was granted bail and also talking DPP advice, his stories were not adding up. In instances such as this, we go to court to find out what has happened. It was in court that the registrar said his DPP advice had been out. Our lawyer just requested to see the DPP advice and immediately discovered that the guy was to be discharged.  He spent extra four years in prison. Cases like this where people are in prison and they don’t even have the chance of appearing before a court. They need somebody to follow up on their case, dig up their file wherever it is. Sometimes when you help these guys get just a date to appear in court, not representing them, it is like you have given them the world.

Those are the kinds of cases we look out for. However, when you get to prison, it is hard to separate because when they announce to them that pro bono lawyers are here, everybody just wants to rush and come to be attended to. It is only when they are before us and we ask questions. The moment the person says he is charged for rape, we try to explain to them we don’t take those cases and we have our reasons for not taking rape, murder cases and such. First, it takes time to conclude, you can be on DPP advice for one year and you won’t get it. It is time wasting and of course we want you to face the law if you have committed an offence.  As much as we are not representing them, sometimes we help them get their dates and sometimes we help them follow up on DPP advice to ensure that it comes out for them to know their fate. If the DPP advice says discharge him then he is let go. If it says charge him to a high court, we advise them to contact theirfamily to get a lawyer to represent them.

DNL L&S: Accessing the inmates, do you have any difficulty with the prison officials? If there are procedures that you follow are they seamless?

Mrs. Orjija: I tell you for free that the prison officials need help and they recognize that they need help. Imagine a facility that is built for eight hundred persons that is accommodating more than four thousand people. They know they need help, so when we go to them and say we are pro bono lawyers, they open their arms and say “please come and help us”. First we started at Ikoyi prison before we started to attend to people in Kirikiri prison. The first day we went to Kirikiri, they were practically begging us to keep coming. So, when we started the “Lawyers Without Border” Project; that is the project where we have mobile offices around court, and station pro bono lawyers there. The office we have at Ogba magistrate court attend to majorly cases from Kirikiri. Now, it is like we are stakeholders in Kirikiri. They know that when we take up the case, we would definitely see it through. They have been very cooperative. At first at Ikoyi, they were giving us attitude, so, when we go in there, they will tell us we have two hours, sometimes they say we have just one hour and say they have program. I won’t really call it attitude, I think it is their procedure and program for the day and when we come in like that, they allot time to us which might most of the time not be enough for us. But in the average, I would say the prison officials have been very cooperative and even invite us to come. Right now, Ikoyi is still calling us to come and we have not even given them date yet.

DNL L&S: How do you fund the projects? 

Mrs. Orjija: Funding is the major challenge we have. We would be doing more than what we are doing now if we had fund, because if we had funds we probably would be able to pay for some people’s bail. Presently, we don’t pay for bail, because we cannot afford to do that even though we would love to. So, all we do is just give them the legal representation. We would do more and even better if we had funds. Some people would be able to come from their houses to the court instead of from prison to court if we had fund. Fund has been a challenge. Besides that, our personnel need to be paid, our lawyers need to be paid, office needs to run, and operations need to run and it takes money to do all of these. So, it’s been seriously challenging. But thank God like I said, we have a law firm and proceeds from the firm also help with the Foundation. We use the online platform to also access resources. We solicit for fund online and thankfully, Nigerians have also been cooperating. They have helped. We have people who donate to us on a monthly basis. Yes these monies might look small, when we tell people that people donate N10,000 to us on a monthly basis, they smile and be like; “what would that even do?” But it does a lot because sometimes it might be just N5000 to even get somebody’s CTC that you need. So, all these monies go to all of that. But the major fund that we need is our operation. You can imagine working in an office where you don’t have light. You don’t have good ventilation. It can be stressful. You have to pay rent, you have to pay salary and the more success we have, the more responsibilities we have because we are expanding. On Friday we lunched the Abeokuta, Ogun state branch of our Lawyers Without Borders Project. This means we have to get two staff there and it means more money. So, money cannot be enough but we actually don’t even have now. It is not even the case of being enough.

DNL L&S: Have you thought of collaborating with law firms to assist with legal representation for these inmates? 

Mrs. Orjija: In the past we did not approach law firms but we approached NBA because we thought that NBA has database of lawyers and we felt that younger lawyers have the zeal for this kind of work but unfortunately, NBA has not been cooperative. We have written, we have been to NBA Abuja for a meeting and they couldn’t even find the letter we wrote them. But after the BBC documentary we were invited for a meeting with one of the biggest law firm in Lagos; Libra law firm. We had a meeting and they have expressed their willingness to help us. So, we have an agreement that when we have more cases we could always allot some to them so that their lawyers can take them up. So, yes we are exploring that now, and we still need more people because there are thousands and thousands of cases to be attended to.  I believe we are really going to have more hands that would help voluntarily without getting paid, I think we would have more of that and we are looking towards to that as well.

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Headfort Lawyers Without Boarders

DNL L&S: You talked about Lawyers Without Borders earlier, can you tell us more about that Project? 

Mrs. Orjija: Lawyers Without Borders is a project under Headfort Foundation which was birthed when Covid-19 happened. The court was not opened for a very long time and people were in prison. Even the prison restricted access. Unlike before when we go to prison, about ten persons from the firm can go, they give us table, we sit and have the inmates in front of us and we take their cases and have conversation with them, we couldn’t have that because everybody was scared that you don’t come and give the inmates the virus and all. If you want to go to the prison, they can only allow two persons to enter. And how would two persons attend to almost a thousand persons? So, we said how can we have better access to these people? That was when we came up with this project. We named it “Lawyers Without Border”. What we want to replicate is to have an office just like the prosecutors have their offices in court. We also want defence counsel or legal aid counsel to have their offices within the court, so that when these inmates are brought, it is easy for the magistrate to say; “you don’t have a lawyer? Go to that office” or Registrars and the prison warden can refer and even as pro bono lawyers, we can access the court and ask; “do you have a defendant who doesn’t have a lawyer, we can represent them.”  But of course to do that, we needed to have the approval of the Chief Judge.

We wrote to the Lagos Chief Judge and in no time, the application was approved. Then we started in Igbosere magistrate court but unfortunately, when the Endsars protest was going on, the office we set up there went with the court. The office got burnt. But we moved to Ogba. We have an office at Ogba and Ebute Meta presently. And like I said, on Friday, with the approval of the Ogun State Chief Judge, we launched in Abeokuta. We also have the approval of the Ekiti State Chief Judge and we are commencing in Ekiti in January. In Lagos, we have the approval to be in all the 25 courts premises, however, because of lack of fund, we are just present in two courts presently.

And you know what? If we have fund, setting up the offices would be more productive than going to the prison, because families of inmates will come into the office and lodge their complaints.

Sometimes you may want to ask what the government is doing. Well, government has legal aids but legal aids office in Lagos is in Ikoyi, OPD office is in Surulere. Most of the family members of these guys are so poor that they can’t even transport themselves to those places but at least on their adjourned date, they can manage to come to the court, so when they come to the court they can have access to a lawyer. Sometimes even when you are not representing them, even if it is to give them legal advice to tell them what is likely going to happen in their case is enough for them. So, that is what that project provides; accessibility and affordability.

DNL L&S: Regarding non custodial sentencing and bail conditions given by judges and magistrate, do you think these contribute to prison congestion and if yes, how can people like you assist with getting government to look to that direction with regards to policy making? 

Mrs. Orjija: I will start by saying that we have four angles to our work; first is sensitization, second is legal aid project itself, the third is advocacy and the last is empowerment. Advocacy is the one that talks about what you have just mentioned. But the unfortunate part of it is that when you lobby or persuade the government to make policy, implementation remains the problem we have as a country. Nigeria has law for almost everything. The non custodial sentencing has been a law in Nigeria, since last year. In other countries, I understand that when laws are made, they sensitize the audience about the law so that they can be aware. It is not so with Nigeria. We have laws that we do not implement. This brings me back to our magistrates and judges. It seems to me that most of them don’t even understand the concept of bail. Because when you hear those bail conditions sometimes, you are ask yourself, “where do you expect this person to get somebody who has a property in highbrow area in Lagos to come and stand surety for them?” I don’t understand, you are asking for a level 16 officer to come and stand surety for a person. If you understand that the concept of bail is not exonerating this person but just saying that he should come back to court on every adjourned date and attend to his trial, why would you give such stringent condition that they would most likely not be able to meet. So, I think the bulk of the work now is sensitizing our magistrates because they are the ones doing this work, I was telling some people sometime ago that some aspect of government seem to be benefiting from the congestions we have in the prisons. In Lagos state government for instance, sureties are expected to be tax payers. If you are not a tax payer, for the purpose of standing surety, you must pay tax. If two persons pay tax, and go for an interview before the magistrate and they are rejected, you would need to go and start looking for someone else who would also pay tax to appear before the magistrate again. So, in trying to perfect the bail of one person, government generates fund and the more people they dump into the prison, the more money they make.

Another thing is the way our justice system is structured. How would the state prosecute somebody for a state offence and the Federal Government is the one taking care of the person in prison? I believe that if Lagos state is spending a part of its yearly allocation on funding the prison, probably, we would not have so many people in prison. But the fact that they dump thousands of persons in prison and they are not spending a dime on them but even generates money from tax and the likes this might continue. At Headfort Foundation, any platform we find opportunity we talk about these things. We make a case for states to be in control of prisons. Again, you know that in some countries, prisoners are made to generate revenue even while they are in custody. They engage in skill acquisition, farming and the likes.  But here, they are a complete liability. Have you been to Ikoyi Prison? From morning to night they are there either smoking or doing absolutely nothing that brings anything to the economy. So, of what essence is all of these things? Like I said, the laws are there, but implementation is zero.  So, today, if someone is before any court for; as they call it “two fighting” they will still say you are hereby remanded in prison custody. So, it is a whole lot of things but of course when we have the platform, we talk to them when they can hear. But I believe the government is making the right laws it is just implementation that is the problem and our magistrates and judges should be sensitized better on non custodial sentencing.

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DNL L&S: Apart from the funding challenges we have talked about earlier, what other challenges are you facing? 

Mrs. Orjija: The other challenge we have is our justice system itself. Because there is corruption and we have to be very realistic about it. It is heart breaking when you go to court doing a pro bono work and the Registrars are asking you for money and frustrating your work because they asked you to give them money. You need to file a process, you don’t have the money or you eventually source for the money and somebody is asking for one thing or the other. Lawyers doing pro bono work should be able to file processes for free just like the ministry of justice. We are not the only NGO that does this kind of work. One person can’t do it, we have to come together and fight for this. As the police are filing for free, nonprofit organization doing pro bono works should also be able to file free. But you know what they even tell you at the registry? For you to be doing pro bono work, you must be rich. For you to be doing free work, it means you have money now. There was a time we had an interview with CNN and they were to do a story of a guy that we helped out. They met this guy, they did the story and they requested for documentary evidence that he was actually discharged from court? We would need to pay money to obtain the CTC. Presently, we have helped 232 persons out of prison and counting, imagine us wanting to get CTC of the court proceedings of the day discharging them. And the money the Registrars would be asking for all of these cases. It is a lot of money, where do we get that from? There is a particular Registrar in court 4 in Ogba, that woman will charge N8000 for a one page CTC. What happens if you want to get about ten CTC from that court? Where would we get that kind of money from? So, those are the challenges. When we started the “Lawyers Without Border” Project, I was thinking to myself that the Magistrates and the Registrars will now see indeed that that this is a pro bono project because if you come as a private lawyer, they might not believe you. But they see that you are coming from this office and refer people to your office but unfortunately the treatment is still the same. Right now, we have more than hundred CTC we need to collect, we apply but they tell you they won’t prepare it until they see money. So those are some of the challenges that we have presently.

DNL L&S: Is there any case(s) you have handled that is significant you would wish to share the experience?

Mrs. Orjija: In the early 2019, when we newly started, we went to prison that day and I met this particular guy. Like I mentioned earlier, the prison warden will give us like an hour. So we were like running out of time and this guy came. He was the last person I attended to that day and he said “ma please help me” I told him we were running out of time but I still gave him our form. I was asking if he speaks English and he said to me “it is that English gangan that brought me to this prison o. madam are you Yoruba, e je aso Yoruba.” So, he told me his story.

His name was Segun and he was a bus driver. Someone had offered him a motorbike on hire purchase and he felt it was business for him and took the bike at N170,000 and was to pay N10,000 every week to the owner. He gave the bike out to another person who remits to him and he remits to the owner since he was already driving a bus. This went on smoothly for five weeks and the guy he gave the bike disappeared. While he was looking for the guy, the owner of the bike came after him and arrested him for stealing. He was taking to Panti Police Station where he told them what happened. He took the police to the guy’s house. They did not find him but found his brother. His brother confirmed that indeed his brother was given the Bike by Segun but he had travelled back to the North with the where they came from. He undertook to pay for the bike and pleaded not to be arrested. He was arrested too and taken to Panti with Segun. The guy’s brother negotiated with the police and paid N70,000 of N150,000 and they released him on bail. Segun didn’t have any money to drop and was charged to court for conspiracy to steal a bike.  Because he didn’t have any legal representation the police advised him that when he gets to court, he should plead guilty. They told him that the court will reprimand him and he will go. In court, he didn’t understand English and relying on the advice given to him by police, he pleaded guilty and there and then, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

We immediately started looking for how to contact his family members to see how we can appeal the case and get him on bail pending appeal. He said he didn’t have the numbers of his family members off hand but he can give me their names so I can check on Facebook. I went to Facebook and chatted his sister and she said she was in Ilorin and she doesn’t have money to come to Lagos. We were going back and forth on that and while we were at it, we applied to court that sentenced him at Surulere for the proceedings in preparation for appeal. We kept on going to prison and I would see him in his uniform because he is one of those who guide us in prison.  So he would ask about his case and we would give him update and promise to do our best. A particular time, I went to the prison and I didn’t see him, I asked for him and I was told he was sick. I asked what kind of sickness and they said it is kidney problem. I didn’t believe it but one night, Segun himself called me from prison and said the treatment he is getting in prison is not enough that he needs to go out for treatment. That they said his lawyer should write to the Magistrate that sentenced him. The next day, we wrote that letter and took it there and were told they cannot do anything that we needed to write to the ACR and while we were doing all that, Segun passed away. The day I learned that he died, I cried, I was like really? When you now think of what took him to prison, is it worth it? This is a pure civil transaction, yes the bike got missing, the worse that should have happened is enter into an agreement on how to pay back the money on installment. Another thing was the wrong advice that was given to him to plead guilty? Probably if he had pleaded not guilty he would have seen someone who would have helped him and look at mediation with the complainant or help may have come one way or the other.

That case was very striking for me and its one of the things that also informed our Lawyers Without Borders Project. We want a situation where everyone can have access to a lawyer, because I see no reason why a Magistrate should sentence you without legal representation, especially when the person was even an illiterate. There are just so many issues around that case. He was sentenced to five years for conspiring to steal bike worth N170,000 on the same day of arraignment without legal representation. So, when you look at all of this, that case has been one case I am not sure I would ever forget.

Mrs. Oluyemi Orija

DNL L&S: Who is Oluyemi Orija? 

Mrs. Orjija: I am OluyemiOrija, I am 33 years old. A lawyer from Ekiti State married to an Egba man and I am blessed with a beautiful son. Basically that’s me. Recently just last week, I was named one of the one hundred most influential women by BBC, so I think that is the only addition I have now.


DNL: Link to Headfort Foundation Home Page


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