Indigent Citizens and the Legal System- the Role of the Legal Aid Council in Nigeria

“Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to defend himself in person or by legal practitioner of his own choice”. Section 36(6)(c), 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Nigeria has been described as one of the poorest countries in the world, with a prediction of over 95 million poor persons in the year 2022. This invariably implies that an average Nigerian is unable to afford basic amenities, more so afford legal representation when the need arises. This is where the Legal Aid Council comes in.

In 1976, the Legal Aid Council was set up with the mandate to provide free legal services to Nigerians who cannot afford the services of private legal practitioners. Section 8(3) of the Legal Aid Act provides as follows:

“The Council shall establish and maintain a 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”. 

The council identifies persons who are entitled to legal aid as people with an income of not more than ₦5000.00 per annum- section 9, Legal Aid Act. The aforementioned provisions show that the Legal Aid Council is to recognize and ensure that the right to a fair hearing of indigent citizens of Nigeria is guaranteed, notwithstanding the incapacity of such individuals to afford legal representation. This is a commendable establishment. However, given the state of correctional facilities within the country, can it be conclusively said that the Legal Aid Council has been of absolute help?

It is not news that the correctional facilities in the country are overcrowded. According to metro, in July 2022 the Custodial Centres of the Nigerian Correctional Service overshot their combined carrying capacity of 58,278 inmates by over 16,000, the development has continued to fuel aggression among the incarcerated persons and overstretched the system. As of the 5th day of September 2022, the total number of inmates is 75,859 with about 53,480 are pre-trial detainees. These figures now beg the question- what is being done about this? The figures display a gross state of overcrowding in the correctional centres and something has to be done about this.

By; Confidence Ezeala/Grace Okeke

Funke Adeoye, Speaks on the Launch of the Court Duty Solicitor Scheme in FCT: A Panacea for Speedy Justice Dispensation

In June 2022, Hope Behind Bars Africa, in partnership with the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee, held a collaborative  capacity-building session with lawyers who would be engaged in the  Court Duty Solicitor Scheme. Hope Behind Bars did this to strengthen participants’ ability to provide pre-trial legal services to indigent defendants.

Recall that in February 2022, ACJMC launched the Police Duty Solicitor Scheme (PDSS) to make investigation and prosecution more transparent. The scheme mandates officers to take  statements from suspects only in the presence of a legal council. To achieve this, the ACJMC saw the need to train and deploy lawyers who will promptly take up cases of offenders during their first interactions with the police.   In August 2022,  the ACJMC formally launched the Court Duty Solicitor Scheme (CDSS). The scheme aims to deploy lawyers to represent indigent and vulnerable litigants on trifle matters.  According to the Executive Secretary of the ACJMC, Mr Sulayman Dawodu Esq, the CDSS is one of the mechanisms effectuated to ensure that citizens have access to justice irrespective of their financial status. It  will ensure speedy trials and decongestion of detention facilities in the country including the reduction of the dockets of the courts. It  will also make it easy for defendants to access legal representation at their first appearance. 

‘Justice delayed is justice denied’.

William E Gladstone 

(Former British Statesman and Prime Minister) 

The criminal justice system is the machinery the society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect citizens and property. It is a fusion of various arms of government that aim to enforce the law and mitigate crime. These include the Police, the Chief Law Officer/Prosecutor, Judiciary and Correctional centres. There are other stakeholders like the lawyers and the organisations that work to hold the government accountable or provide legal aid, amongst others. These arms interface and are required to address criminal matters collaboratively, and in various capacities, ensuring that justice is speedily dispensed by investigating suspects, protecting victims of crimes and witnesses, convicting and sentencing the guilty, reducing reoffending, while absolving the  innocent.

According to statistics by World Police Brief,  7 out of 10 incarcerated persons are awaiting trial. This is attributed to various factors such as inadequate and under equipped criminal justice facilities, inadequate criminal justice personnel, the inability of suspects to afford the services of a legal counsel at the time of arrest amongst others.  Research has shown that the more crucial time for a defendant to access legal representation is between the point of arrest and arraignment. With the launch of the CDSS, defence lawyers will be available to represent  indigent defendants at the points of arraignment in selected locations in the Federal  Capital Territory (FCT). 

With the laudable legislative improvements made through the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) which was  signed into law in 2015, serving as a replacement for the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) and Criminal Procedure Code in Southern and Northern Nigeria.  We are glad that FCT will again benefit from the innovations of the ACJA  through the launch of the CDSS and we are excited to be partners with the ACJMC as we work together to continually strengthen the capacity of the lawyers deployed towards the scheme.   We believe that the CDSS, if properly implemented, will be a channel for effective and speedy dispensation of criminal justice in FCT. 

By: Grace Eche, Head of Operations

Hope Behind Bars Africa’s Emmanuel Okorie  Appointed as Member of Edo State Human Rights and Extortion Investigation Committee

In August 2022, the Commissioner of Police, Edo State Police Command, CP Abutu Yaro appointed Mr Emmanuel Okorie to the Human Rights and Extortion Investigation Committee. This appointment came as recognition for Mr Okorie’s dedication towards the betterment of the criminal justice system in Edo State over the past years. Mr Okorie who has over six (6) years of experience in legal practice and 3 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer, has coordinated legal aid and outreach activities for Hope Behind Bars Africa in Edo state since 2020, as our State Coordinator. He is also actively engaged in the Police Duty Solicitor Scheme, focusing his work on representing indigent and vulnerable persons in Correctional and detention Facilities in Edo and other neighbouring States. 

The law would strengthen the protection of the rights of citizens and ensure fair and speedy administration of justice.” Governor Obaseki, March 2018

The above were the words of Governor Obaseki when he assented to the Administration of Criminal Justice Law at the Government House in Benin-city, Edo state. The law, which was enacted in 2016 and came into force in  2018,  repealed the Criminal Procedure Law (Laws of Bendel State of Nigeria 1976) as applicable in Edo State. 

The domestication of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) in Edo State has been an effective tool in the speedy dispensation of cases handled by Hope Behind Bars Africa in the State. The several laudable provisions have contributed to ensuring that victims of crimes are not left out in the dispensation of justice, especially  regarding petty crime.

As a Criminal Defence Lawyer with a background in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Emmanuel Okorie, ensures that dispute resolution mechanisms are put in place by encouraging the parties to meet after the Defendant’s arraignment. This helps Hope Behind Bars Africa  determine if the Complainant would be willing to explore out of Court settlement pursuant to Section 355 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL), Edo State, which allows a Complainant to withdraw his/her complaint, having satisfied the Court that there are sufficient grounds for the withdrawal; hence, discharging the Defendant. 

One of such cases is the case of COP V Favour Okoro MEV/332C/2021. Favour Okoro was arrested for obtaining money falsely through pretence and stealing by sending fake debit alerts to POS operators. Emmanuel Okorie met with parties to settle out of Court, realising the matter’s technicality. He had negotiation meetings with the Complainants, and they agreed to withdraw the charge pursuant to Section 355 of the ACJL, Edo State.

From Emmanuel’s record, 45% of the cases handled so far were settled out of Court pursuant to the above section. This section is limitless, and applies to capital and non-capital offences.

Emmanuel has represented and secured the release of over 150 pre-trial detainees.  He played a major role in securing the release of persons arrested and detained during the EndSARS protest in Edo State, appearing before the Mobile Courts that sat within the premises of Edo State Police Command. As an Associate Member of the Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators (AICMC), Emmanuel is always keen to introduce restorative justice and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to the cases he handles.

The activities of the Human Rights and Extortion Investigation Committee would strengthen Edo State’s criminal justice administration and build public confidence in the Force by preventing police brutality and extortion. The Committee, which is saddled with the responsibility of receiving complaints of police brutality and extortion from the public,  will work closely with the Commissioner of Police and the Police Public Relations Officer to ensure that issues of human rights, police brutality, and extortion are adequately attended to. The members of the Committee are accessible to the public, and their phone numbers are in the public domain. 

Our mission at Hope Behind Bars Africa is to foster change in criminal justice administration, particularly as it relates to police and corrections, and we are happy to do this through our work with the Committee.