ANALYSIS: Many ways indigent Nigerians can access free legal representation

Federal High Court Headquarters, Abuja
Federal High Court Headquarters, Abuja

Wale Akinnusi has spent six years at the Kirikiri Prison and has no hope of being released soon. The 51-year-old was arrested in 2013 and has since remained in detention for allegedly raping a 19-year-old in Lagos.

“I am in close contact with my wife and children. But we have no money to get a lawyer,” Mr Akinnusi told PREMIUM TIMES in February.

His arrest came after a girl under his care accused him of sexual abuse. He was arrested and later charged to court.

When the case started, Mr Akinnusi had a lawyer who later withdrew his services because Mr Akinnusi could not pay his fees.

Mr Akinnusi is one of many Nigerians languishing in detention for alleged crimes – civil or criminal – without conviction. He also belongs to a peculiar set of awaiting trial inmates who cannot afford the services of a lawyer.

The cost of litigation in Nigeria has continually been on the increase such that citizens can hardly afford adequate legal representation when a legal matter arises.

For instance, to prosecute a case in Nigeria, an Abuja based lawyer, Ezekiel Oyero, said, “for the civil matters, for instance, it depends on the lawyer and the cost of filing in the jurisdiction. Note that filing costs vary per jurisdiction; what it is in Abuja is not the same in Kaduna.

“Basically, once the filing is done at the court registry, necessary parties are served with relevant processes and then a date is given for hearing. Every jurisdiction has its cost. As for a civil matter, the lawyer’s charges depends on the nature of the case and the lawyer.

“For criminal matters, which are obviously mostly filed by the government through the Ministry of Justice, it is usually filed free of charge. Free of charge in the sense that government bears whatever cost is incurred in the process, even when the complainant is a private individual.

“He will be given adequate time and facilities to get legal representation. It’s a constitutional right. In order words, the Legal Aid Council are to an accused what the Ministry of Justice is to the state,” he added.

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Statistics (as at July 2019) from the Nigeria Prison Service (now Nigeria Correctional Service) website put the number of inmates in Nigerian prisons at 73,995 out of whom only 23,568 (32 per cent) have been tried and convicted, while 50,427 (68 per cent) are awaiting trial.

How can Nigerians get legal representation free of charge?

Legal Aid Council

The Nigerian Legal Aid Council is a body under the Federal Ministry of Justice. It was set up in 1976 to provide free legal services to Nigerians who cannot afford the services of private legal practitioners.

The headquarters of the council is in Abuja and it has branches in all the 36 states. The council provides legal aid, including rendering legal services through consultation, legal advice or representation in court.

Eligibility for legal aid, however, depends on whether one is unemployed or is without an income, among others.

The Legal Aid Act, Section 9 subsection 1 to 5, identifies a person entitled to legal aid as someone whose income does not exceed N5,000 per annum or persons granted such treatment by the president.

It also in Section 8 (3) states that “The council shall establish and maintain a service to be known as the Civil Litigation Service for the purpose of assisting indigent persons to access such advice, assistance, and representation in court where the interest of justice demands, to secure, defend, enforce, protect or otherwise exercise any right, obligation, duty, privilege interest or service to which that person is ordinarily entitled under the Nigerian legal system.”

In Nigeria, private legal practitioners registered on panels of practitioners maintained by the Legal Aid Council in accordance with the Legal Aid Act provide legal services to the Legal Aid Council for a nominal fee. This is a small fee paid to these lawyers by the council but not the actual value of their service.

Although legal aid has been in existence in Nigeria for over 30 years, it has not lived up to public expectations. The reasons include inadequate funding, lack of personnel, lack of publicity and inadequate information on access to justice, delay in treating case files by the Directors of Public Prosecution (DPP), delay in investigating crimes by the police, prison congestion, etc.

Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, the Director-General of the council, Abubakar Aliyu, said it is currently working with 228 lawyers. He said the council gets its funds from the federal government and handles criminal and civil cases, mediation and give legal advice.

He said from its inception to 2018, the council completed 148,249 cases, while 23,140 are pending.

He said the council wants to expand the clearinghouse programme and paralegal services scheme (where the council tends to work with NBA and NGOs to provide legal aid).

In order to access the organisation, the director said, “People go to our offices because we have offices in every state. For those in prison, our officers go to prison, they are given the list of those in need of lawyers, as most of our clients are the indigent ones. Also, some get to hear about us through the radio.”

Pro Bono services

Pro bono is short for “Pro bono Publico”, a Latin phrase which means “For the public good”. It is a term often used in the description of the provision of free legal services by lawyers to the people in need of such services, who are unable to afford it.

The difference between legal aid funded services and pro bono services is that while legal aid is funded or sponsored by the government, pro bono services are provided by lawyers in their professional capacities without the anticipation or receipt of payment for such services.

There are no pro bono chambers in Nigeria but some law firms do handle-free cases. Sometimes, non-governmental organisations get lawyers to offer such services.

Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, the Executive Director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) Nigeria said the organisation has been providing free legal service since 2014.

“We believe that access to justice is very key and is a right to everyone who is accused of any offence and one key element to access to justice is access to a lawyer.

“In our effort to ensure that we support people who are indigent, we have been providing legal aid for indigent detainees. We started in FCT in 2014 and later we expanded to Benue, Nasarawa, Delta and Edo.

“How do we do this? We go into the prisons, interview inmates who don’t have lawyers. They are brought to us by the prison service, we interview them on why they don’t have a lawyer and when we establish that they really don’t have the means then we take their cases. They are just too many, so we have to sieve from the number we collate and just take a few because of the challenge of funds that we are faced with.”

According to Mr Uhaa, working with six lawyers, they have been able to complete 210 cases. Less than 10 were convicted, he said. The others were set free.

To access their services, citizens are advised to log on to their website.

NYSC Legal Aid group

The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) also has a Legal Aid Group. The group is usually made up of lawyers and a few corps members in other fields and renders free legal services to indigent persons, especially those in prison and police custody.

The group visits the inmates in custody, interacts with them to know their offences and how long they have been in custody and whether they have legal representation. It only takes up cases on minor offences and not offences that carry serious punishment like the death sentence or sentences ranging from seven years of imprisonment to life imprisonment. The group also pays fines on behalf of the inmates who have the option of fine for their release.

“We are also open to people who would like us to help in one way or the other towards either getting a loved one released or bailed,” said a member of the group in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) who asked not to be named.

According to him, working with three lawyers and others of different disciplines like psychology and so on, the group is currently working on two cases.

“We interviewed about 10 inmates on the day we went to the prison to see them but ended up picking just two of the case files that fell within our jurisdiction of operation, so we’re working on just two cases at the moment. The suspect in one of the matters is about to be released but the other matter is still very much ongoing and we hope to be able to finish work on it before our service year elapses.

“There’s a little purse we have and try to maintain in the CDS. So that’s where we take money from most of the time and when it runs dry, well, we simply resort to our own pockets,” he added.

Other means

One of the other means of getting free legal services in Nigeria is through the office of The Public Defender (OPD). With an office in Lagos, the organisation renders legal aid to indigent persons on civil matters. OPD can be reached on their website.

The Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria also renders legal aid. In collaboration with Human Right Law Service (HURLAWS) and the Inter-African Network for Human Rights and Development (AFRONET), it executed a pilot project in two Lagos prisons to test the feasibility of a major national initiative to decongest prison populations by securing the discharge of awaiting trial persons in 1997.

Access to aid services is not restricted to Catholic members. It is purely for indigent persons. They can be accessed through their website.

Also in this category is the law clinic. A law clinic is a law school programme that provides hands-on-legal experience to law students but also provides legal services to mostly indigent clients. Clinical professors and senior lecturers (who are usually experienced lawyers and teachers) coordinate the affairs of the law clinics and work on the cases with law students in the university or Law School. The law clinics in Nigeria all provide free legal services as they work towards serving the public interest.

There are currently 18 active law clinics in Nigeria. To access the services of the law clinics, one can visit their website.

The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation made up of women lawyers.

Formed in 1964, FIDA is the acronym for the Spanish name “Federación Internacional dé Abogadas”. They render services that border on abuse of human rights, the vulnerable and the less-privileged and they are working with 10 lawyers.

A former chairperson of FIDA, Anambra chapter, Chineze Obianyo, said, “One can access the organisation by going through the FIDA Nigeria website or branch facebook page, by internet google on different laws in the state or by going to the court to ask for pro bono lawyers or lawyers that deal on human rights.

“Through networking with other CSOs who will equally, recommend and or confirm our status for example Coalition of Eastern Non- Governmental Organisations (CENGOS).

“Those in rural villages have access to us through the community outreaches and anchors which we place in the communities. The community anchors are our strongest point of contact. It is on this platform that we maintain sensitization and awareness programme to these communities during the august outreach.”

‘The report was supported by The Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).

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