Legal Aid Council in the eyes of the people

A recent declaration by the Director-General of the Legal Aid Council, Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel that the body was committed to justice was a turning point for me. The declaration prompted me to do a search on the activities of the council particularly because the DG hinted that the council is keyed into the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Her explanation was that the council kept faith with the Transformation Agenda in the past two years by taking radical steps in the provision of free legal services with effective monitoring and control.

In reviewing the achievements of the Legal Aid Council, in an interview published by a national daily, my conclusion was that Mrs Bob-Manuel was modest in enumerating the activities of the council. Particularly heart lifting is the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the police in nine pilot states to ensure that awaiting trial persons would not stay too long in prisons.

Such MoU is of significance because of the tendency for suspects, particularly indigent ones, to languish in police remand as the nation's convoluted criminal and judicial systems are complied with. One can only hope that the Legal Aid Council would eventually get the funds that the DG said it requires to spreading the initiative to the other states and the FCT to cover the entire country.

The decision by LAC to increase its Pro Bono activities is equally well received. According to the Chairman of the Council, Chief Bolaji Ayorinde (SAN) the council is bringing in private lawyers to contribute to its Pro bono activities, which is the key aspect of the body's work.

According to Ayorinde, the concept is “to bring on board private lawyers to collaborate with Legal Aid Council, to take over some private cases, which Council will regulate.” The explanation is that there is need to have orderliness.

At a time when more and more people are unable to afford legal representation, this news is a cheery one as some accused persons otherwise end up languishing in incarceration. Eventually realizing a lofty goal like this translates into more people having access to justice.

Another remarkable achievement of the Legal Aid Council is its collaboration with Japanese Social Development Bank that has enabled it to launch the Access to Justice for the Poor project in Kaduna state. The three year project, facilitated by the World Bank, is providing free legal services to indigent persons in the state and the entire country and has already been implemented in 10 Local Government Areas of Kaduna state in 2012.

In the coming months, the Legal Aid Council would play increasing roles in decongesting the nation's prisons. This followed disclosures that the Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF, and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), is working towards transferring the responsibility of prisons' decongestion to the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria. This is a development that could see the number of awaiting trial inmates drop significantly in addition to ensuring that people do not waste away in jail only for them not to be convicted of any crime after spending years in incarceration.

These achievements were recorded despite the persistent challenge of funding faced the organization. Limited funding means that there is a limit to the number of lawyers and other staffers that can be on the par roll. It also means that logistics is limited for a body that has the mandate of covering the entire country.

This challenge of funding faced by the council is something that should be of great concern as there is no organisation that can effectively deliver on its mandate in the absence of funding. The leadership of the Legal Aid Council has suggested and even appealed that more lawyers offer Pro Bono services. This is an appeal that should be responded to with all vigour and enthusiasm of nationalists. After all, the strength of a society is best assessed by the kind of protection if gives to the weak, in this case the indigent people who ordinarily may not be able to afford legal services.

The challenge is however not for those in the legal profession alone. Individuals and organisations can also play roles like setting up foundations or trusts that will support the council financially and in other ways. It is also important that Nigerians keep discourse about the Legal Aid Council on the front burner as many people, especially the indigent ones, who are the target population, are unaware that they can enjoy the services of this organisation without having to pay money.

The conference being planned by the organisation for September would be a good avenue to unveil such stakeholders' initiative.

Comrade Philip Agbese, An Activist wrote from Ankpan Ward, Makurdi.

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Articles by Philip Agbese