“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