SPECIAL REPORT: As Lagos govt fails to implement own law, physically challenged lawyers suffer

Ikorodu Judicial Division signpost
Ikorodu Judicial Division

It was a normal day at the Ogba Magistrate Court in Lagos. Daniel Onwe, a physically challenged lawyer, had a case slated for hearing. And so, he arrived early to discharge his responsibility.

Shortly before his case, Mr Onwe felt the need to visit the toilet. He embarked on the torturous journey from the third floor to the ground floor.

“The challenges are so many,” he told PREMIUM TIMES. “I was in Ogba Magistrate court on the third floor for a particular matter but was pressed shortly before my matter was called. In the first place, it was quite inconvenient for me to get myself to the courtroom on crutches but I managed. I was ‘pressed’ and there was no restroom except I return to the ground floor. The court lacks an elevator that can even help.

“Despite my challenges, it took several minutes and extra hardship that I cannot forget anytime soon to visit the toilet. This is just as simple as using the restroom but I have to pass through pains and only God did not make me collapse by the time I returned to the courtroom,” Mr Onwe said.

Widespread challenge

His ordeal on February 18, 2019, encapsulates the experience of physically challenged lawyers in Lagos.

Special people, as physically challenged are often called, are hindered in the discharge of their day-to-day activities by structures and policies of courts in Lagos.

PREMIUM TIMES findings revealed that lawyers on wheelchairs are practically carried like babies into most courtrooms and those with crutches struggle with the staircase to appear in courts.

A visit to five courts in Lagos revealed that these courts are mostly located on higher floors, making it difficult for people with disabilities to access.

This reporter visited Epe, Ikorodu, Ikeja and Badagry Judicial Divisions.

Despite the provisions of the Lagos Special Peoples Law passed in 2011, that all structures in the state be redesigned for accessibility of the disabled within five years, courtrooms remain inaccessible as the government has failed to implement the law.

‘Our travails’

PREMIUM TIMES investigation shows that the challenges of these lawyers vary depending on their areas of impairment.

In 2013, Lanre Adebayo, a visually impaired lawyer with the Lagos State Ministry of Justice was almost denied justice in a rape case.

“I was defending a rape case some years ago and the prosecutor was supposed to tender a medical report of the incident. They brought the report before the court but something told me to call the clerk of the court to help read the details of the medical report because of my visual impairment. When the clerk read to me, I found out that the name of the alleged rape victim in the document was different from the matter at hand,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

“It was further discovered that the date on the medical report did not correlate with the day and date of the alleged incident. So, it was these two (information) that I used to cross-examine the medical doctor that brought the report.”

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These key information would have eluded Mr Adebayo had his instinct not prompted him to request the documents be read.

“What I am trying to say here is that, ordinarily, I would not have known the atrocities they played if not for the help of the clerk. So, the courts are not made in a way where a blind lawyer can bring his personal aide to the court to help read out a document. Even sometimes, the space in the courts is not enough for lawyers in the bar let alone allowing a third party to help verify your documents.

“Many lawyers have been victims of these facility failures as the deaf on their part did not even have means of arguing their matters in court. No aid for the blind too,” he said.

More lamentation

Another visually-impaired lawyer, Mubin Anomo, also lamented the situation.

He lamented the non-implementation of Lagos State 2011 Special People’s law.

“The rules of the court itself is not helping the performance of disabled lawyers. Sometimes, we don’t get timely correction when we make mistakes. Obviously, nothing in Nigeria is easy and accessing justice in court for us is most difficult. In fact, some of us who are blind are even ‘fair’. Those on wheelchairs face all sort of experiences. The laws are there but no implementation,” he said.

While the courtroom environment does not suit the mobility of lawyers with disabilities, PREMIUM TIMES findings reveal that there is no support from the court staffers.

Section 21 of the Lagos State Special Peoples law provides that no person living with a disability shall be discriminated against on the ground of his or her disability by any person or institution in any manner or circumstances whatsoever.

Some of the physically challenged lawyers, however, said they feel discriminated against by the system.

The National Assistant Secretary of Lawyers with Disabilities, Bolarinwa Salami, who also doubles as chairman of the association in Lagos, narrated his ordeal at the Lagos High Court in Igbosere.

“I almost fell while trying to climb the staircase at Igbosere because the rails are not strong such as when you rest on it, you fall. There’s also no ‘cooperative’ support staff. If the environment is not good, there should be good staff to support but the court staff are not also helping issues. They do not have the understanding of giving helping hand. Some of them will even tell you that it is not a must for you to do litigation.”

The lawyer recounted one of his bitter experiences at the court.

“I once had a problem in the court because I could not acquire a parking space after the limited spaces had been occupied. I got a space close to the courtroom but never knew it was reserved for the judge. By the time I finished my matter and returned, I realised that all my car tyres had been deflated. I was told it was an order by the judge.

”None of the court staff explained my situation to him that I was on crutches. The judge claimed that I was obstructing his entrance and he summoned me. But fortunately, upon seeing me, he was apologetic due to my ‘situation’.”

Idowu Abdulsalam, recently appointed as Special Adviser to Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of House of Representatives also explained his difficulties in Lagos courts.

Mr Abdulsalam, a former street beggar, said he heaved a sigh of fulfilment when he was called to the bar to start practising as a lawyer in Nigeria in 2016.

He defied all odds to bag his law degree from the University of Lagos in 2015, proceeded to the Nigerian Law School, where he emerged successful in the bar August/September 2016 final examination conducted at the end of the one-year programme.

“The court structures have really affected our practice negatively. We crawl to courtrooms. Yet, the impediment can simply be tackled by just simple creation of ramps or elevators. In Nigeria, we have laws but they are ‘dead letter’ laws.”

Law versus reality

The Lagos State Special People’s Law was first passed by the State House of Assembly on June 21, 2011, and assented to by former Governor Babatunde Fashola three days after.

The law, which is expected to safeguard people living with disabilities against all forms of discrimination and equalise their opportunities in all aspect of living in the society, has been largely unimplemented.

Section 24 of the law provides for ”necessary facilities in public buildings”.

The act allows for a transitory period of five years from the day of enactment. Therefore, it’s full implementation should have commenced in 2017.

Within this period, all public buildings, roads, pedestrian crossings and all other structures were expected to be modified to make them accessible to and usable by persons living with a disability.

The law also allows a person living with disability the right to seek redress

“A person living with disability shall (subject to his or her right to seek redress in court) have a right to notify the Office of the state of inaccessibility or barrier to accessibility of public place in his environment,” the law reads in section (7a).

Seven years after the law was assented to, however, the government has failed to re-design court facilities as provided by the law.

Eight years after Lagos passed its law, the federal government also put in place a similar law. The Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2019 was passed by the federal government in January.

The law also relates to the Lagos Special Peoples Law. It prohibits all forms of discrimination against persons with disability. If an individual is found violating this law, he/she will pay a fine of N100,000 or a term of six months imprisonment. The law imposes a fine of N1 million on corporate bodies.

It also provides for a five-year transitional period within which public buildings, structures or automobile are to be modified to be accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs.

Visits to courts

PREMIUM TIMES observed that the Igbosere Magistrate Court has five floors, Ogba has four, Epe court is a storey building, same as many other courts in the state.

Of these, it is only the courts in Ogba and the new Igbosere Magistrate Court that have provision for a ramp from the ground floor to the topmost floor. However, all the restrooms are on the ground floor. There are no elevators in both.

The car parks in the five courts are limited and most of the courtrooms visited by this reporter are not structured in ways for easy access to those in wheelchairs.

PREMIUM TIMES findings also show that all the court did not make provision for sign language instructors for deaf lawyers.

Outcry

The Association of Lawyers Living with Disabilities said they plan to seek redress in court as soon as they ”conclude proper creation of awareness of the law”.

Also, reacting to the challenges of its members, the National President of Association of Lawyers with Disabilities in Nigeria, Daniel Onwe, told PREMIUM TIMES ”that the barriers make practice more challenging.”

“Basically, the architectural barrier is saddening. I am not aware of any court in Lagos with elevator. It is quite embarrassing when you see a lawyer with disability being carried or crawling on the stairs. Despite available law, we still suffer. Not that all of these really affect the capability of our members but it takes extra difficulties for us to excel in the profession.”

Speaking on steps taken by the association to ameliorate the challenges of its members, Mr Onwe said: “We are working with the support of the Disability Right Fund. We are launching a campaign soon to make sure that stakeholders in the judicial system proffer the best solution to court accessibility.”

“Before now, we’ve been engaging Lagos Chief Judges to make sure the Lagos State Special People’s Law of 2011 is implemented. Courts must have designated parking space for us. The deaf and the blind must also be put into consideration.”

When this newspaper asked for information on the statistics of disabled legal practitioners in the state, Mr Onwe told PREMIUM TIMES ”they are in hundreds”.

“It will be difficult for us to know the number of disabled lawyers in the state or even in the country. Some of them leave other states to appear in courts here. Some are not even practising. Some are practising but do more of paper-work. So, we can’t get the exact figures of lawyers with disabilities,” he said.

NBA officials react

The Assistant Secretary of NBA Epe Branch, Oladotun Hassan, who also doubles as Chairman NBA Lekki Forum, said the association’s focus ”is not on chastising the government but to call for proper implementation of the law”.

“Definitely, lawyers living with disabilities are facing lots of challenges but opinions like this are not meant to chastise the government but to call them to look into the law. Our focus should be on implementation and we call on Governor Sanwo-Olu to look into this.”

Bayo Akinlade, the Chairman of Ikorodu branch of the NBA, said there is a need for the special lawyers to form caucuses within the association. He said his branch is also ready to provide necessary provisions to make courts in his branch accessible.

Also, the Ikeja Branch NBA Secretary, Dilibe Ifezue said: “little or nothing has been done by the government to put the interest of people living with disabilities into consideration. While the law says there should be an upgrade in structures of courts, I regret to say that it does not appear to me or the association I represent that much efforts have been put in place to help the disabled.”

Authorities

PREMIUM TIMES efforts to get a reaction from government authorities were not very successful.

This newspaper visited the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs.

Babatunde Safiu, a senior lawyer at the office, told our correspondent that ”part of the law had been implemented”.

“There’s a moratorium in the law that public buildings should be adjusted but nothing has been done in that respect. This may be due to the budgetary plan of the state. It should be noted that part of the law has been implemented. It is the same law that provided for this office. It was implemented in 2012 but that of buildings restructuring is yet to be implemented.”

When questioned on why the office has not looked into the implementation of the law, he told this reporter that “a civil servant like me cannot answer that.”

This reporter also visited the Lagos State Ministry of Justice. The ministry’s permanent secretary and Solicitor-General of the Ministry of Justice, Funlola Odunlami, declined comments.

“I am a civil servant and we don’t react to stories,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Deputy Chief Registrar of Lagos High Court, Rasak Davies, also said ”that he cannot speak to journalists on the matter.”

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