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OPINION

Breathing Fresh Air Into Legal Aid Council

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The emergence of Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar, as the new Director-General of the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria has been hailed as a “welcome development” for the nation. Bagudu, who took over from Tunde Ikusagba, is a tested hand and his coming would mean several things for the Council.

The Council, established as far back as 1976 by the then Military Government through the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of that year, exists mainly to provide legal aid, assistance and generally free access to justice to the society’s poor and indigent. With these laudable objectives and, in spite of its long history to date, many Nigerians are unaware of the Council’s existence much less its capacity to assist the ordinary Nigerian who cannot for any reason whatsoever  afford the services of legal practitioners.

The challenges facing the Council can be categorized into two. The first and most important of all is funding which is a general problem for all government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). The LAC’s budgetary provisions over the years for both capital and recurrent expenditure have remained extremely low and never released in good time. However the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, as well as the Solicitor-General of the Federation have assured of their readiness to assist the Council in the area of funding.

Most of the human challenges which the Council is experiencing can be checked and minimised through improved funding.

The Council has over 300 qualified legal practitioners on its payroll, with offices in all the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory. Also, it has several Legal Aid Community Centres spread across the states in addition to the partnership with the NYSC lawyers who are engaged annually.

The Council collaborates with private legal practitioners and NGOs rendering pro bono services. With this capacity, its presence is felt all over the federation. The Council has done a lot and is poised to do more, but, unless the citizens get the necessary sensitisation and public awareness of its existence and ability to assist the indigent Nigerian to get justice, it will be same song on a new lute.

Just as Abubakar stated during a media parley recently, these gaps have been identified and, soon, the Council will begin regular publicity on television, radio and other social media platforms, so as to bring the activities of the Council to the knowledge of Nigerians and, resultantly, help them engage it whenever they are in need of legal advice or assistance at no cost to them. This is the intention of government in setting up the Council in the first place.

The Council’s Prison Decongestion Programme, coupled with its extended mandate, as provided under the revised Legal Aid Act, 2011, has extended its mandate to provide legal aid, advice and access to justice in three broad areas – criminal defence service, advice and assistance in civil matters including legal representation in court and community legal services subject of course to the merits and indigence tests of the parties.

Another laudable innovation in the new Act is the provision for the establishment of a Legal Aid and Access to Justice Fund into which financial assistance would be made available to the Council on behalf of the indigent citizens to prosecute their claims in accordance with the Constitution. Clearly, the Council has got the mandate and the requisite manpower; all that is lacking is the necessary tools.

The major stakeholders (the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigerian Prisons Service, the Nigerian Police Force, the National Youth Service Corps, Nigerian Custom Service and the judicial heads in various divisions across the states of the federation) and foreign agencies (United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), the European Union (EU), Department For International Development (DFID), British Council, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank (WB) as well as Justice for All (J4A) now Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption (ROLAC), Open Society for Justice Initiative (OSJI), Open Society  Initiative West Africa (OSIWA), Nigerian Universities Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI), Prisons Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA)) have always pitched in with robust partnerships and technical assistance to help the council deliver on its mandate at various stages in its existence.

For Abubakar, there is no better time to leave a huge mark on the sands of the Council. Freedom, as guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution, is the most important human asset apart from health. While health or the lack of it is beyond human control, losing one’s freedom is the worst thing that can happen to any human being, while quick access to justice is the highest form of liberation anyone can attain.

Through its EU, UNODC-sponsored National Legal Aid Strategy, 5-year (2017 -2022) Development Plan, the Council aims to improve, amongst others, the rule of law, transparency and general cooperation in the agencies within the Judiciary.

All said, Abubakar’s appointment can be called a number of beautiful names and qualified aptly (“a new dimension for the Council”, a “breathe of fresh air for the nation”) and all sorts, but if the budgetary allocations are not improved upon and the Council is not given the all-round support which it needs and deserves, it would be the continuation of the old order.

It is heartening to note that the Honourable Attorney-General and Minister of Justice has assured of his readiness to assist the Council to achieve its mandate.

– Mibzar, a journalist, wrote from Abuja

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