Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar is the Director-General of Legal Aid Council. He spoke to BIDON MIZAR on the strides of the Council as far as providing access to justice for indigent persons is concerned.
One of the core mandates of the Council is to provide free legal services to indigent Nigerians. How has it faired?
So far so good we cannot say that it has faired 100% to achieve the purposes for which the council was set up, but for purposes of that assistance, in various means and ways for which it was set up, we can claim to have achieved close to 80 or 85% of our mandate. But you know Nigeria is a very large country, we are close to 200 million people as of today. A lot of people come into conflict with the law, also our social system is a little bit difficult and different. The nature of our social justice system is such that a lot of people are hardened into prison without the prerequisite investigations or prerequisite explanations done by the various holding authorities. So considering all that has happened and all that we have been doing, one can be able to say that we have achieved a very good percentage of our mandate of assisting the poor in accessing justice.
Don’t forget it is not only when one is removed from prison that an achievement is recorded, sometimes even at levels of investigations which we participate. Just in the recent past, we do alternative Dispute Resolution; situations where you go between the parties in order to assist them settle their disputes amicably.
Like I have said, the system is such that by the time you try to remove some people from prison, assuming you were able to get about ten or twenty people out on bail, then you will realise that the following day, about 50 people are taken back in prison, so it makes it a very difficult situation actually, but we are on and off and we are achieving the mandate for which the council was set up for.
The concept of the Legal Aid Council is as old as the practice and the concept of the Judicial System itself, because right from inception, we have had Legal Practitioners who are ready to offer legal services to clients who do not have the means to engage them and pay them their professional fees. So one can say that the concept of legal aid has being as old as the practice of law itself.
It took some drastic and measurable terms in the late 60s and early 70s when some public spirited lawyers decided to come together as a group even though before then, they have been handling this matters individually, rendering this services free to people who are not able to meet up with their financial obligations. When they formed a group, they continue the practice of rendering free legal services to poor indigent Nigerians free of charge. Not quit long from that period, government of the day, then of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1976 decided to set up a committee to look at the responsibility of setting up something like this that now became LACoN.
So the Council was created in 1976 and was given the mandate to assist the Poor Indigent Nigerians to be able to access justice. It has been a long while and it is still continuing.
There are many Nigerians in prison some of who committed minor crimes and don’t deserved to be kept behind bars.What is your Council doing about this unfortunate situation?
The issue of prison and its congestion has been a perennial problem over the years. For some of this inmates who are in prison either at awaiting trials or those of them that their trials are on and their offences are available and therefore, there is no way they should be in prison; some of them are only there because they could not be able to met bail conditions. This is one other problem, some of them have been granted bail, even in prisons or SARS facilities you talked about, but they have not been able to fulfill the bail conditions and therefore they are left to be lingering in the prisons.
A large percentage of them like you mentioned are also there for no reason of their own, but it is the system that has made it possible for them to be there. Additionally, there are many of them that are there and do not even know that they could be out of that place. A larger percentage of them are not even aware that they are not even suppose to be there, if they are aware or they are sufficiently educated to know that they are not suppose to be there, they can take some necessary steps to be out of prison, even if it is on bail.
I had the opportunity in participating in the federal government, some few years back if you can remember during the time, Bayo Ojo as the Attorney General of the Federation, decided to bring out a noble idea of what they called Prison Decongestion Programme, unfortunately, years later, it was politicized and abused, but it was a noble idea. I happen to participate in the programme during my practicing days and I met some people who were in prison for about 6 to 7 years without going to court, so we facilitated some of them going to court and a lot of them were granted bail by the various courts. One of them that was convicted, was instantly released from prison because he has stayed for longer years he would had served if he was convicted and sentenced to prison in the first instance. So it is a terrible situation and it is everywhere.
It is also certain that sometimes you find people of under age who are in this Detention Centres and prisons, it is not suppose to be, but I think what the government is planning to do is to have some Detention Centres purposely for housing under-aged offenders as against mixing them up in prisons with hardened criminals or even mixing them up with hardened criminals at the SARS Detention Centres. So, if it is the matter of trying to decongest our prisons, a lot has been put in place.
But we also know that it is a human problem that people will always have conflict with the law, but the difference between what is obtainable in other jurisdictions from here is that it is not everybody that is taken to prison or into detention centres. Sometimes even at the level of investigation; some of our investigating authorities do not have the necessary capacity, sometimes what you do is trying to investigate matters before arresting, but in most cases, our law enforcement Agents here detents you before they investigate, which is not good actually. So all said and done, I think it is a matter that can be handled and we are handling it. so as for the LACON we have a lot of cases nationwide, as you are aware we have offices in the various states of the federation and they are all functional, we have lawyers there, in addition to these, in the 36 state of the federation we have Legal Aid Centres and other Community Centres of about 30 to36, as at the last count and it is continous. We have had the corporation of the Controller General of Prisons and through him we had access to other Controllers of Prisons who gives us weekly details of their new detainees so that our officers round the country can go and assess or find out the reason for which they were being brought to prisons. Our men will interview them and see the areas they can be assisted, in most cases the idea is for them to get out on bail, when they are out on bail, they can now be able to pursue their legitimate rights. So, a lot of efforts is being put into the attempts to be able to decongest our prisons.
How can an ordinary Nigerian whose right has been trampled upon, contact you to get justice?
Don’t forget our job is not necessarily for those who are in the prisons awaiting trials, no; our jobs entail an ordinary man on the street walking and his/ her feels their rights had been trampled upon.
But I want to inform you that on daily basis both here, at our Head Office or our State offices, We receive daily complaints of people whose rights have been trampled upon. When they come in, they write a formal complaint for the purpose of records and their cases are being taken upon by our officers. If it requires going to court, or if it requires the Alternative Dispute Resolution of which I was telling you; that is by writing and inviting the affected party that is being complained against and then when we hear his side, we try to settle through our negotiation centres, which of course are all over the country.
In most cases when we have human conflict it is the inability of both parties to sit down and talk to one another that leads to litigation, litigation is not good for even the person that will want to take the matter to court, because sometimes we could hardly get justice. Where they are unable to resolve the matter, we sue on the behalf of the person who brought the matter to us, don’t forget this procedures is to let them know what their options.
So also note that our offices are open to indigent Nigerians who cannot afford justice, there are no consultation fees and when you come, we listen to you and we give you the options that are available to you. In most cases, we try to tell you base on our knowledge, because you are dealing with professionals, we try to tell you what your options are and we allow you to make a decision and it is based on your decision that we now take action.
What is your take on funding of the council?
So for all Federal Government Institutions, Agencies and Ministries, funding is a big problem, it is a big problem because it comes through budgetary allocations and recently, these budgetary allocations are not frequent and regular, they don’t come as at when due, but we try to manage with what we have been able to get from the government, as you know, government is an octopus and it has contending problems, the money is not just there and there is recession in the economy but, fundamentally our funding comes by way of statutory allocations from the Federal Government but essentially the funding is poor probably because of our large population.
The council has as much as 600 staff nationwide together with those at the head office it is not easy to cater for these people with the little resources. Sometimes we get less than 60 of our levies in a year so you can only do what you can be able to do with what you have.
We have been trying to see how we can be able to partner with the federal ministry of Justice so that they can appeal for a special type of statutory allocations for us through the budgetary process.
Secondly and very importantly, perhaps it is the reason that this funding is not adequate in most cases; the law that established the 1976 Legal Aid Act which is the 2011 Legal Aid Act made provision for what is supposed to be called Access to Justice Fund, the fund is to assist the council in carrying out its duties which unfortunately for the Council, since the law came into being in 2011 nothing has been done about that access to Justice fund.
You are taking over at a time the council is at its lowest ebb…
Yes, I was appointed in January by the present President Muhammadu Buhari, my appointment came at the right time even though as at that time, the then Director General of the Council, Mrs Sheila Bob-Manuel finished her tenure and I took over from her as the substantive Director General. I am coming into a familiar territory, because the legal Aid Council (LACoN), has been part of me, this has been part of my schedule in the past and I have also done a lot of cases regarding the LACoN.
When I took over, staff morals were a little bit low, but then I immediately went into meetings with my staff, I received briefings from the Directors, I read the files that are available and it was not difficult for me to pick up from where my predecessor left. So five or four months after, here we are and we are still moving.
What charge do you have for Nigerians?
The charge I have for Nigerians is a very simple one, they should be up and doing. Nobody should be in jail when he is not suppose to be in jail , and unfortunately, even to our knowledge, I know categorically based on experience that 50% of those of Nigerians who are in prison are not suppose to be in prison. There cannot be a better tragedy in life than for you taken to prison when you are not suppose to.
Secondly and very importantly, probably through you, the media; let Nigerians be aware that they can always rely on LACoN, and this Council is virtually in each state of the federation. Our overall intention and general idea is that at least for the little period that I am going to be here, we have a Legal Aid Centre in all the 774 LGA’s in the country, that way, you can be able to bring this issue of access to justice closer to the indigent Nigerians.
More than 70% of these poor indigenes are at the local level, and out of these 774 LGA’s more than 80% of the 70% are semi-illiterates or illiterates, they don’t know anything about the law. They don’t even know that there is somebody that is going to be able to assist them when they have conflict with law enforcement agency. So let Nigerians be aware that they can depend on Legal Aid Council every time even for the purpose of getting legal advice, every human endeavor requires you to have some knowledge of the law.
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