Making justice accessible to the poor

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Hadeel Abdel Aziz of the Lebanon Justice Centre for Legal Aid, makes her presentation at the executive session

Bitrus and Godiya (not real names) had a child out of wedlock 20 years ago in a Kaduna community. The man had sustained denial of the paternity of the boy for the past 20 years resulting in bitter feud between the families.
Then the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) came into the case in 2014.

The issue was resolved after they were convinced to do a DNA test and the result was positive for the man.
“After two weeks, the result came out and the father accepted the outcome. This brought about peace and unity among them. The boy is happy that he now knows his father; the father knows his son; everybody is happy,” says Victor Labesa, Project Manager Access to Justice For the Poor in Kaduna and Director of Civil Justice with LACON.

Interventions such as this have become common in Kaduna State where the Legal Aid Council introduced the Access to Justice for the Poor programme in 2013. It is a pilot project to make legal counseling and procedure accessible at no charge.

“We have settled a lot of religious crises; some disputes where people were talking about a piece of land over which they could have broken their heads; and farmers/herdsmen relationships. We talk to them on the need to maintain peace and unity. So it has been a very tremendous and great programme that has helped the state,” Labesa said.

In Nigeria, the cost of filing a lawsuit is prohibitive, seeking for justice in a society with low awareness and the slow judicial process in the law courts, makes it impossible to obtain redress through legitimate means. This has led to ‘jungle justice’ in the local parlance – or in other words – several persons taking the law into their hands.

To make legal aid services such as this qualitative, efficient, and accountable by drawing on lessons from Jordan, LACON organised a two-day workshop for stakeholders in the justice and human rights sector in Abuja recently.

Speaking at the event, the Director General of LACON, Mrs Joy Bob-Manuel, highlighted the enhanced role of the council in both criminal and civil matters made possible by the Legal Aid Council Act of 2011, which have encouraged it to train more staff in mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Thus in its third year, according to her, the Access to Justice for the Poor in Kaduna has been able to deal with several civil matters bordering on “matrimonial causes, (family law), inheritance, landlord/tenancy, land matters, and investment matters.”

The major landmarks of the programme include: establishment of 19 centres in Kaduna local governments. 5000 people were trained as front-line staff in mediation. Beneficiaries of the trainings are traditional rulers, religious leaders, staff and paralegal staff, and youth organisations.

Also, the awareness has risen due to the aggressive media campaigns mounted for the programme. At least 800, 000 persons have been sensitized through road shows, radio jingles and direct engagement by staff. As a result, 600 people have so far benefited from the programme this year alone, more than the 500 and 400 that benefited in previous years.

Speaking on the essence of the workshop, Bamidele Ibikunle, Deputy Director Planning, Research and Statistics of LACON, says: “This programme is to have a sharing experience between Legal Aid Council in Nigeria and Legal Aid Services in Nigeria and Lebanon. And for us to compare notes and see what they are doing which we can copy in Nigeria and what we are doing well which they can replicate in their country.”

Buoyed by the achievements of the Kaduna programme, which was made possible by the Japanese Social Development Fund through a $2.5 million grant, participants at the workshop from the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) and the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), among others shared experiences in human rights and access to justice interventions they conducted and compared notes.

Hadeel Abdel Aziz, the Executive Director of the Justice Centre for Legal Aid in Jordan led the executive session where participants identified gaps and mapped out strategies to improve services and set targets for long term, efficient service delivery.

“We need to establish committees in each of the 36 states, and a few other states have frameworks for bringing various stakeholders together,” says Stanley Ibe of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“The good news is that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act provides yet another framework. And the big story about town now is how to implement this very interesting piece of legislation that is huge.

“The second point is that we have a new government and the current vice president was Attorney General in Lagos and in the view of many experts, he left one of the most significant reforms in justice sector in Nigeria.
“So his assuming office presents an opportunity, in my view, for the justice sector to take centre stage in national discourse.

“The third, of course is beyond Nigeria. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which is a regional institution responsible for promoting and protecting human rights, adopted guidelines on arrests, police custody and criminal administration, 2014. It is supposed to guide state parties and Nigeria is not a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. I hope that this will be the beginning of great things to come.

It seems to me that no system can work together except the component units are actually in sync,” Ibe also said.
Labesa believes the feedback so far received from beneficiaries in Kaduna’s southern areas is satisfactory. Despite this, many prospective legal aid beneficiaries are not aware of the options available to them under the law. Therefore, it makes it important that more outreach should be created to reach more people in the country.

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