Oluyemi Orija is a Lagos-based legal practitioner and human rights activist. In 2015, she set up her lam chambers, Headfort Chambers, an all-female law firm and in 2018 Orija established Headfort Foundation, which specialises in rending free legal services to poor inmates who have spent months or years, in jail without trial. In this interview with OLUGBENGA SOYELE, Orija speaks on her successes, challenges, the administration criminal of justice system in Nigeria and other sundry issues.
Why did you choose to study law?
While growing up as the daughter of a respected chief in our community, I witnessed the amicable settlement of disputes which arise and how they were being handlled. I understood how minor issues could lead to very grave enmity among family members, neighbours and friends and why the need for amicable settlement is very important. When I became of age, I decided to study law.
I graduated from Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, Nigeria and proceeded to the Nigerian Law School. After Law School I proceeded to Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria for my mandatory one year National Youth Service where I worked at the legal department of Uruan Local Government Area. I have worked as associates in four law firms before setting up my law practice in Lagos in 2015. Today, I am the managing partner of Headfort Chambers, a corporate and commercial law firm and a for profit outfit. I am married to Oluwaseun Orija and I am blessed with an adorable son.
What informed the formation of Headfort Foundation?
During the first year of my law practice, I realised that lots of people who do not deserve to even be charged to court end up in prison due to lack of requisite knowledge of their fundamental human rghts and absence of legal representation. At that time, I couldn’t represent such people as I was under a paid employment which didn’t give room for that. After seeing several of these cases of indigent and minor offenders, I made it a goal for when I starts my private law practice.
In 2015, I set up my law practice under the name Headfort Chambers. In 2018, I introduced a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative to Headfort Chambers where the firm through its employees visit the prisons and take up the cases of indigent inmates and victims of police brutality and represent them pro bono. In 2019, the CSR initiative became bigger than the firm envisaged in terms of impact and number of people begging to be attended to, at that point, it was decided that the initiative be registered as a non-profit outfit. So in March 2019, I founded Headfort Foundation.
How has the experience been?
The experience has been thrilling because the organisation has recorded tremendous success since inception. Some of the goals have been achieved and projects are on-going. Currently, the organisation has started its lawyers-without-borders project which requires the construction of booth stands to be placed in all courts. This will be a mobile office for our team who will be permanently stationed in the court premises for easy access to indigent inmates who need our services.
This project was borne from our experience and understanding of the various cases that shouldn’t end up in court and people who shouldn’t have been detained in prison.
Can you share some of your success stories?
Headfort Foundation has successfully secured the release of 121 inmates pro bono. The foundation has also unveiled its sensitisation, advocacy and empowerment programme where we sensitise students of senior secondary schools on reality and effect of police brutality, their human rights and consequences of crime. Approximately 500 senior secondary school students have been sensitised in the cause of its work.
We currently have 35 volunteers who believe in our cause and help out in their various areas of specialisation.
What are the challenges you encountered in the course of your work?
We have been faced with several challenges including creating awareness for what we do. Most people don’t know what, why, and how we do what we do. They don’t know the impact and extent of our work. We meet relatives of inmates who are not even willing to show up in court due to fear of the word “Court”. Some don’t even want to speak with lawyers or relate with them. In some cases, people stigmatise ex-inmates and disassociate from them. They don’t even want to know whether the ex-inmate was unjustly detained in custodial centre.
All these are as a result of poor awareness and we have been doing our best in addressing these issues. It is still a big challenge and we hope to have people like your organisation which are willing to make our voices heard in the society.
Other challenges are those of funding, partnership and collaborations. This has been a major issue as many people don’t understand the need for what we do. Daily, the police in Nigeria arrest people for flimsy reasons and charge them to court on misdemeanours. Some other times, they charge Nigerian youths to court when they cannot afford to pay their unconstitutional demands even when they have not committed any crime. Most of these youths are illiterate and poor and have never been to a court premises in their lives, they get extorted, intimidated and misinformed by court officials and thereby continue to languish in jail. The Nigerian prison is overly congested, and we lack the needed funding to do more than what we currently do. There are more people who need our services but a few hands to do the job.
Also, we face the difficulty of getting organisations which can offer rehabilitation services and empowerment of ex-inmates. This is one of our projects, but we haven’t been able to fully implement it as we don’t have the capacity to do so alone without funding or collaboration.
How do you fund your activities?
As earlier stated, funding has been a major issue for the foundation. The good thing is that we have well-meaning Nigerians who appreciate our work and donate to our cause. These donations have come from organisations like Headfort Chambers, African Alliance and Integrative Ruminations as well as individuals who reach out to us on the social media and send us donations in hundreds and thousands.
We have written proposals for grants, but none has been successful and we hope that our work will get the needed recognition that can attract major grants.
Do you share the view that a special fund should be put in place by government and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and made accessible to public-spirited individuals and foundations such as yours that engage in pro bono work?
Yes! Truth is that there is so much work to be done but because there is no funding for pro bono jobs, people run away from it. From the stage of recruitment, we realise that it is very difficult to get people who are willing to work for stipends. We outline projects but can’t implement all of them because of lack of funding.
If organisations and government can collaborate with NGOs as part of their collective social responsibility, it will help NGOs to do more.
A lot has been said about the state of the administration of criminal justice system in the country, from your experience in the sector, what do you think are the problems and how can they be overcome?
The administration of criminal justice system in Nigeria is a very cumbersome one. It is infested by long and unnecessary adjournments, corruption on the part of some judicial officers, counsel and even parties. And also the expenses incurred in getting justice. On the issue of unnecessary and long adjournments, advocacy for a timed proceeding will help in curing this and will also put all judges on the edge in ensuring that the proceedings are within the stipulated periods. On the issue of corruption, all erring officers, counsel and parties should be tried in open court. This will send a stern warning to others and reduce the urge for corrupt practices. On the issue of expenses incurred in getting justice, there should be a reduction in the amount paid as filing fees and more organisations should rise up and fight for justice free of charge just like we do.
Do you think the Nigerian prisons system is currently performing its function of being a correctional centre?
No. A look at the inmates, their demeanour, dressing and attitude will tell you about where they are coming from. Most of our ex-inmates talk about their experiences in prison and they are always very sad and annoying stories. The accommodation, feeding, healthcare and the absence of segregation among offences as to the nature of crimes have made them to give up on life. We realised that most of them are negatively influenced and make wrong decisions like pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. It is true that some organisations go to the custodial centres and hold trainings for them but the impact is not felt. The custodial centre officers are too low and there are no professionals that can rehabilitate the inmates among them. Most of the employees are employed based on keeping inmates in the custodial centres and not to rehabilitate them. This is a serious problem as the inmates easily influence the new ones. They make them realise that the society has nothing to offer as they are not even treated like human beings.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act contains several provisions put in place to check the excesses of the police and other law enforcement agencies but it appears like its impact is not being felt, what do you think is responsible for this?
Implementation has always been a major problem in Nigeria, and this is what is affecting the impact which the Administration of Criminal Justice Act is supposed to make. We most times hold unto the old laws because they have become a norm and we don’t see the need for change.
The newly-elected president of NBA, Olumide Akpata, in his inaugural address, called for a special recognition scheme under which lawyers who can show concrete evidence of public interest advocacy are considered for elevation to the rank of Senior Advocate, do you share this view?
Yes! The country needs more people working to make the needed changes. This will encourage those who are passionate about public interest advocacy to do better and will also make more people show interest.
Why do you think big law firms in the country do not pay serious attention to pro-bono work?
The big law firms have more briefs from rich clients who need the worth of their money in very short periods and so they usually do not have time for free services. Also, the people who go to court and see the problems that pro bono works aim at solving are employees who cannot do the pro bono jobs while under a paid employment.
How do you balance your busy schedule and your private life in a city like Lagos?
It has been quite overwhelming, but God keeps showing up for me and has also blessed me with a very supportive husband who has made life peaceful and easier for me. He supports me and encourages me to keep going. I take it a day at a time and trust God to hold my hands and lead me.