TS COLUMNIST: How NULAI Is Promoting Social Justice in Nigeria by Stanley Ibe [READ]

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Sometime in 2005, Nasiru Muktar, a young student of the Nigerian Law School received an invitation to participate in the 1st Client Counseling and Interviewing Skills Competition organized by the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI Nigeria). Although his team did not win the competition, his career trajectory changed during that competition. Today, Nasiru leads one of the more dynamic law clinics – University of Abuja Law Clinic – and sits on the board of NULAI Nigeria.

The story of Clinical Legal Education (CLE) in Nigeria is about three years older than Nasir’s contact with the programme. In 2002, three law professors, Akin Ibidapo-Obe, Ernest Ojukwu and Yemi Akinseye-George embarked on a journey to understudy the clinical legal education programme in South Africa. That journey followed a resolution at the first British-Nigeria Law Forum in Abuja a year earlier to “explore opportunities to introduce clinical legal education” and created the impetus for Nigeria’s participation at the 1st All Africa Clinical Legal Education Colloquium in Durban in June 2003.

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Upon their return to Nigeria, the academics formed Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI Nigeria), a non-profit committed to “promoting clinical legal education, reform of legal education, access to justice and legal aid.” In the fifteen years since its founding, NULAI Nigeria has led a revolution in legal education.

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Beginning in four law faculties – Akungba Akoko (South West), Maiduguri (North East), Uturu (South East) & Uyo (South South) – the CLE revolution sought to introduce a new and more interactive methodology of teaching law as well as law clinics that served as laboratories for students to convert the theory of classroom teaching to the reality of everyday life.

In the last 15 years, NULAI has gone from a network of four law clinics with generalist orientation to a network of 41 law clinics with a couple of specialist clinics in fields such as women’s rights, children’s rights, freedom of information, pretrial detention, among others. The movement began at a time when CLE did not a feature on the curriculum of legal education. Today, it is a compulsory component of training at the Nigerian Law School and a requirement for accreditation of law faculties by the Council of Legal Education as well as the National Universities Committee.

Although the CLE movement has come a long way, there are several challenges to overcome. First, there are very few law teachers who are as committed and passionate about CLE as Nasiru. NULAI is doing its best to change this story but old habits die hard. Secondly, law clinics are not getting as much support as they could from their faculties and university administration. Unfortunately, there is only so much that a law clinic can do absent consistent support from its host institution. Unstable academic calendar is a third challenge. This could be internal to the university or as is the case with the current strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), external to it. Either way, unstable academic calendars make it pretty difficult for law clinics to plan. The final point on challenges is the seeming disconnect between law clinics and the justice system.

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Nigeria probably has about 120,000 lawyers. With a population of 180m, the lawyer to citizen ratio is 1: 1,500. Clearly, this cannot meet the demand for legal support and may not in the foreseeable future if the current population growth rate of 2.61% per annum is anything to go by. There is therefore a need to actively encourage law clinics to produce socially conscious practitioners who prioritize the public interest.

As the clinic movement enters its second 15 years, it is crucial to think institutionalization and sustainability. These probably informed the choice of theme for the 2018 Africa CLE Colloquium hosted in Ilara Mokin, Osun State from 11-14 November by one of Nigeria’s finest new generation universities, Elizade. The colloquium drew participation from across the CLE hemisphere across Nigeria and provided an opportunity to debate such topics as development of clinical legal education; how can a law clinic be sustainable; African Journal of Clinical Legal Education; public interest, pro bono and legal clinics; clinical legal education and advancement of access to justice; and building a stronger network. Participants also benefitted from a teachers training session.

At the end of the colloquium, participants recognized the need for a road-map for better collaboration, more effective resource mobilization, more intense mentorship and clearer standards for monitoring and evaluation. Beyond these, they signed up to a stronger network of law clinics founded on the principles of justice, equity and public interest. These pillars represent the cornerstone for a movement capable of doubling in size, reach and efficiency over the next 15 years.

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