AnalysisHuman RightsNews

Indigent Nigerians Rot In Prison As Legal Aid Council Fails To Fulfil Mandate

Though the Legal Aid Council is expected to secure access to justice for the indigent Nigerians through free legal services, the institution continues to flounder as a result of lack of proper funding by authorities.

Adeyeye Olawale has spent three years at Agodi Prison in Oyo State, Southwest Nigeria. He has no hope of being released soon. The 40-year-old bricklayer was arrested in 2019 for alleged sexual abuse of a minor and was later charged to court.

Though he had a legal representative when the case started, the lawyer later withdrew his services because Olawale could not pay his fees. Three years on, he is still awaiting trial. He is one of many Nigerians rotting in detention for alleged crimes (civil or criminal) without conviction because they cannot afford the services of lawyers.

The data from the correctional authority reveals that the country’s facilities have the capacity to hold 50,083 inmates but they currently hold up to 70,056. Of the 70,056 inmates, 50,822 are awaiting trial, and only 19,234 have been convicted. By these statistics, it means seven out of 10 inmates are serving jail terms without being convicted.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) correctional centre statistics data, no fewer than 65 facilities are overcrowded in southwest Nigeria. The data shows that the same situation is obtained in the south-south part of the country and sadly, all the facilities in the southeast are overcrowded too. A review by HumAngle shows that the northern parts are relatively lower but at least two inmates are occupying the space intended for one person. 

Speaking on the data in July 2021, Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola called on state governments to work with the federal government in addressing the challenges as an overwhelming majority of inmates in custody are state offenders being tried by their respective state governments.

He urged the judiciary to also accelerate the wheel of justice as a lot of inmates had been in custody for a period longer than the maximum sentence their alleged offences carry, saying it is a miscarriage of justice.

Legal Aid Council

The Nigerian Legal Aid Council was set up in 1976 and it operates under the Federal Ministry of Justice with the mandate to provide free legal services to Nigerians who cannot afford the services of private legal practitioners.

The headquarters of the council is in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and it has branches in all the 36 states. Eligibility for legal aid, however, depends on whether one is unemployed or is without an income, among others.

Section 9 (1) to (5) of the Legal Aid Act 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.”

HumAngle understands that private lawyers have to register on panels of practitioners maintained by the Legal Aid Council in accordance with the Legal Aid Act and provide legal services to the Legal Aid Council for a nominal fee. It is a stipend paid to lawyers by the council but not the actual value of their services.

In order to access the organisation,  indigent Nigerians in need of legal services, or their relatives, visit their offices in any of the 36 states of the country and also FCT.  For those in correctional centres, officers of the council who go to prison are given the list of those in need of lawyers, and they are expected to take the matter up.

Has it lived up to expectations?

While the Legal Aid Council has been in existence for many decades, it has not lived up to public expectations. The reasons, according to lawyers and human rights activists 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), and delay in investigating crimes by the police amongst others.

Human rights activists who have had encounters with the Legal Aid Council cited some cases of poor attitude to work by some staff members of the Council. A lawyer, Inibehe Effiong said “The Legal Aid Council has satisfactorily discharged its statutory mandate, with the avalanche of inmates and suspects who are in need of legal representation. The council is not sufficiently staffed and there is also the issue of poor funding of the Legal Aid Council. As much as the Legal Aid Council establishment is good and commendable, the Council has not been able to achieve the purpose for which it was set up.

“Though I haven’t had personal experience but I have heard stories where they demand money from people they were meant to represent on pro bono and this is a reflection of failure of governance because judges even have to direct suspects of capital offenses to the Legal Aid Council because they cannot be tried except they are represented. They then ask those they are supposed to represent for free for money, thereby defeating the essence of the Council.”

In the same vein, a Lagos-based lawyer, Festus Ogun,  told HumAngle that “the government is not committed to employing people because it is basically afraid of paying their salaries and this is one of the reasons why the Council itself is understaffed. We have corps members who are helping them but this does not mean they should not have enough staff to carry out adequate responsibilities.” 

Some lawyers also argued that there is low visibility of the Council among rural communities, hence making it difficult for some indigent Nigerians to know that there is a  body representing poor masses in court. A human rights crusader, Sekinat Oyejobi, added that one of the challenges of the Council is the institutional bottleneck of being under the Ministry of Justice.

“Most of the cases they handle are against the government because the Federal Government controls security institutions, which are notorious for human rights violations. It would find it difficult to achieve success in a country where most violations of indigent rights come from government agencies. It is just a paradox because the office of the Attorney General prosecutes; yet the Legal Aid Council under the office defends. It appears laughable.” 

HumAngle contacted the Legal Aid Council for comments but the office telephone number was not connected. The body is also yet to respond to our reporter’s email as of the time this report was filed.

Meanwhile, a lawyer who works with the department but does not want his name mentioned because he is not authorised to speak disagreed, saying “the Council  has made an impact in providing legal services to the poor and has been repositioned to do more by organising several programmes in collaboration with the Bar to make pro bono work attractive to lawyers.” 

Solution

In his contribution on the subject of discourse, Adewumi Adeyemi wrote in a research paper that the government should create a branch for the Council in each court and equip them with lawyers. He also advised on creation of an independent revenue purse for the Council.

“The government should maximise the reform and decongestion of the Nigerian prison. Also, there should be a limit to the number of adjournments that the police can seek in court on the grounds of ‘investigation in progress’ coupled with duration. The Council should not limit itself in the urban area but must go to the grassroots so that they can disseminate their activities in all languages and through media.”

He added that the Legal Aid Council officers must also be willing  to execute their work with extraordinary passion in safeguarding citizens’ rights by ensuring fair hearing and fair trial in the dispensation of justice in Nigeria.

During a two-day workshop held in Abuja on achieving effectiveness in the quest for equal access to justice on Feb. 22,  the Chief Deputy Attorney-General, Office of the Attorney-General for District of Columbia, Jason Downs, said when there is proper funding for public defenders, violation of rights by the police and the government against the indigents and the poor will be checked.  


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Adejumo Kabir

Adejumo Kabir is a multiple award-winning investigative journalist. He loves community journalism and supports all public enlightenment. He currently works as Assistant Investigations Editor at HumAngle. He tweets via @AdejumoKabir2

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