In Nigerian administration of criminal justice system, the prisons services play a major role as inmates are kept in prisons upon an order of court. Among those persons kept in the prisons are those whose trials are awaiting may be as a result of no legal representation or as a result of investigation still on-going perhaps the prosecution is not ready to try the accused person or defendant.
This paper is an attempt at considering the role of lawyers in the decongestion of awaiting trial inmates in prisons in Nigeria.
What prompted the writing of this paper is the recent discovery of the writer of this paper upon his visit to Kuje Prison, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, to briefly meet some inmates of the prison, whom he represents pro bono, when on the 11th day of November, 2017, the writer of this paper visited the said prison. Upon arrival, though not the first visit, he observed from the prison’s notice board where the prison’s capacity is written, that the capacity of the prison is 560. However, the total number of inmates in the said prison as at 11th day of November, 2017, was 816. By calculation, it means the prison is highly congested with additional 256 of its normal capacity. Out of the 816 inmates, 221 are convicted, while 595 inmates are awaiting trials. The remaining numbers are left out by the writer of this paper. It will be surprising that the number of the awaiting trial inmates has outnumbered the capacity of the prison itself with 35 awaiting trial inmates whose guilt is yet to be determine by the court of competent jurisdiction, while their innocence has been kept challenged as a result of their being kept in custody awaiting their trial, since the capacity of the prison is 560. Is this not shocking really?!
When the writer of this paper considered the ordeal of the awaiting trial inmates and after considering those possible solutions, the writer of this paper was able to conclude that the decongestion of the awaiting trial inmates actually lies on majorly on the Nigerian lawyers, as many of those awaiting trial inmates do not have any money to engage the services of a lawyer of their choice. It should be understood here that the reference to ‘Nigerian lawyer’ in the above lines, is a checkmate on the functions and the roles of the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, the Council, saddled among other responsibilities, the function of rendering legal aid to among other persons, those inmates as that of the awaiting trials who cannot afford the services of a lawyer of their choice, pursuant to section 46(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and the Legal Aid Act, 2011.
An analytical study of the number of lawyers in Nigeria and as a reference using the Kuje Prison, Abuja as a case study, will reveal that where each lawyer in Abuja were to take up one case each of the awaiting trial inmates, the whole prison will drastically crash from 816 to 256, a number far lesser than the capacity of the prison. Which signifies that the main reasons for the high number of the awaiting trial inmates of the prison is because many lawyers have not taken up cases of pro bono services in respect of awaiting trial inmates. It therefore means that the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria should work more on encouraging lawyers to take up the cases of awaiting trial in Nigerian prisons. Also, lawyers in private practice are advised too to take up at least one case yearly of awaiting trial inmates, apart from the fact that such attempt forms part of the criteria for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. The Legal Aid Council of Nigeria is advised to eschew any unnecessary gratification in the assignment of pro bono cases to lawyers or deserving and or willing lawyers all because money is involved by considering some applicants based on connection or influence, in the interest of the public and that of justice.
Nevertheless, the issue of finance is another challenge for a lawyer to take up pro bono cases independently. In fact, one will not expect that this will be possible considering the financial challenges confronting lawyers in Nigeria. For instance, the writer of this paper had proposed to take up at least five pro bono cases of those awaiting trial inmates yearly and more where there is financial capacity, as he has taken up just one case already, but upon the taking up of the first case, despite the writer of this paper’s passion and determination to take up many other cases, he practically resolved that it is not really advisable to use emotion to take up such cases because, the financial commitments in this only one case whose trial is on-going, cannot be over emphasized. In fact, the writer of this paper had since February, 2017, applied to the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria to assign pro bono cases to him to handle with his passion and serious dedication, and with the hope that the little financial grant from the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, would help in reducing the burden experienced where there is no fee attached, but the application is just lying there with the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, without any communication or assignment. It was when the expectation of the writer of this paper was lost in the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria that he independently applied to the Controller of Prisons, FCT-Command, Abuja, to render pro bono services to the awaiting trial inmates, the application which was gladly granted. Most importantly, these inmates cannot even afford to pay a kobo to the writer of this paper. The burden of transport to and fro the Kuje prison, to the Court at Federal High Court of Nigeria, Maitama, Abuja, for their trial, appearance fees, the cost of filing and serving necessary processes on the Complainant on behalf of the Defendants, etc., despite not charging any professional fee, all became the responsibilities of the writer of this paper. Therefore, there is no financial strength for the writer of this paper to fulfill his dream of handling at least, five cases of awaiting trial inmates annually. Having considered this financial factor, the writer of this paper was only able to resolve at taking up just one case of such awaiting trial inmates as an annual commitment. The writer of this paper hereby calls on Non-governmental agencies, private companies, religious societies etc. to support the grant of financial aid to lawyers so that they can boldly take up such cases of the awaiting trial inmates with the advantage of decongesting the Nigerian prisons.
It is the writer of this paper’s submission that the prison is not a dumping ground for the prosecution and or the law enforcement agencies; rather, immediate prosecution of the accused person/defendant should be fast-tracked to earn the cause of justice. Most pathetically, some of those inmates on awaiting trial might be innocent of the criminal allegations against them, the innocence which can only be resolved in their favour by a continuous trial of their matter.
Finally, lawyers, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, Non-governmental agencies, private companies, religious societies, etc. all have roles to play in the decongestion of Nigerian prison throughout Nigeria and it is indeed a role that is abundantly blessed by God Almighty.