Although constitutionally mandated under the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, access to legal aid is often a luxury for indigent arrested persons. With about 120,000 lawyers serving a population of 170 million or more, it is not difficult to understand why. To make matters worse, public interest lawyering is scarcely popular.
In this challenging environment, the public institution saddled with the responsibility of providing legal aid and assistance to the poor has to work extra hard to make its impact felt around the country. Established in 1976, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) has had to grapple with the perennial challenge of inadequate resource allocation, which often impedes long-term planning.
Regardless of the resource and other challenges, LACON took the opportunity provided by its 40th anniversary celebrations to develop and launch a National Legal Aid Strategy (2017-2022). The strategy has a three-fold objective – facilitate implementation of Legal Aid Act 2011, position the Council to deliver on its mandate; and enhance delivery of legal aid services in Nigeria.
The Strategy is a six-part, 67 page document which aims to give Nigeria “a better legal aid scheme.” It identifies implementation gaps in the context of the Legal Aid Act of 2011 (LAA) and offers ideas to address them. To give three examples, the LAA establishes a Legal Aid and Access to Justice Fund (the fund) (section 9); provides a framework for coordinating the provision of legal aid (section 17); and empowers LACON to inspect places of detention (section 19). Interestingly these three are critical to transforming access to legal aid for the poor in Nigeria.
In terms of action points for operationalizing the fund, the strategy recommends “assessment and documentation of the impact of lack of funding;” public sensitization on non-implementation of LAA provision on funding; advocacy to relevant institutions of government, amongst others. As important as these recommendations are, I would like to think that activating the fund might require two preceding steps namely prioritizing the subject in the budgetary processes at the state and federal levels; and creating an effective framework that guarantees funds allocated get used for purpose and users account for them as and when due.
The coordination bit is trickier. LAA mandates LACON to “maintain a register of non-governmental organizations and law clinics …engaged in the provision of legal aid or assistance…” I am guessing this was designed to serve dual objectives – provide some coordination in service delivery and act as a check on the activities of legal aid providers in a context in which poor and vulnerable people may be exploited. To activate this provision, the strategy recommends “strengthening the already existing National Database on Legal Aid/Pro bono Lawyers..;” “establish(ing) a directory of service providers” and making it accessible, amongst others. This writer does not fully understand what the drafters of the strategy meant by “strengthening” already existing database and how that relates to establishing a directory. Perhaps the reference is to updating the database and making it accessible to users and institutions that might be interested in the sector. If that is the case, then it should be possible to extract a directory of service providers out of the database. What is perhaps critical is to make the effort to manage the often difficult intersections between service providers (public and private across local, state and national levels) and their (potential) clients.
Inspecting places of detention has been a sore point in the field of legal aid. There is a seemingly never-ending debate about whether inspection should be announced or unannounced. In the context of the LAA, LACON ought to “from time to time conduct inspection of prisons, police cells and other places where suspected persons are held in order to assess the circumstances under which such persons are detained.” There is no reference here to whether the inspection should be announced or unannounced. Beyond this, there are fundamental questions about how far LACON can go with this considering that it is not independent; how broad an interpretation one might give to the phrase “other places where suspected persons are held;” and what capacity exists within LACON to do this important work. The strategy recommends the use of LACON staff across the country. It is clear that the numbers cannot go round so they might have to collaborate with institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, which has a similar mandate and possibly publish joint reports. There is an interesting proposal to designate “trained persons from various organizations” to perform this role. Until it is clear how this might be operationalized, it is difficult to know how feasible it is.
The National Legal Aid Strategy is no magic bullet. It does not aim to solve all the problems but it could potentially radically transform the way legal aid is delivered. As always, the devil is in the details. The extent to which all concerned work together to implement this strategy will determine whether we can conclude that it was a worthwhile venture.
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