Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel graduated in law 22 years ago in Rivers State University of Science and Technology. She is the Director General Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACN). In this interview she speaks on pro-bono, LACN among other issues. Excerpts:
At what stage did you find the LAC when you came in as DG?
It was 32 years old in 2010 when I came in, and I started January 2, 2011. What made me think a lot at that time was that lawyers were to represent indigent persons in the society and there was lopsidedness in the recruitment process. While the non-lawyers were over 300 the lawyers were very few, about 80. I wrote for recruitment of lawyers to balance the lawyers with the non-legal staffs.
We have about 14,000 Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs) so what can 80 lawyers do. That was very inadequate and we were given permission to recruit about 150 lawyers and now we are about 270.
To what extent have you been able to achieve your mandate?
We have been able to partner with our stakeholders. We told the justice committee of the House of Assembly that we will put four lawyers per state but four is still very inadequate. We now sought to partner with private legal practitioners that will help us do pro-bono which is one big achievement that I have achieved.
What innovations has the NLAC under your watch brought into the pro-bono concept?
We have articulated a better legal aid scheme for Nigerians which will involve private legal practitioners partnering with us and we are being supported by J4A with a technical partner called PRAWA working with us to make lawyers know the work of LACN. We act as a clearing house, which means we get all the cases, as many as possible and the private lawyers come to us and take as many cases as they may wish to take, while we supervise them. That is the issue between NBA and LACN.
The NBA is saying that they have a right to take their cases and supervise them themselves while we are saying the LACN Act S. 17 and 18 clearly state what a clearing house means and the role of LACN. Suffice to say that we are making progress.
We have worked to the extent that so many private legal practitioners are now enrolled with us. These private lawyers who are enrolled with us throughout the federation take up cases with us, which will enhance what NLAC is doing. To that extent we have articulated the mandate. We also use the NYSC and the SURE-P graduate internship programme. Last year we had up to 70 of them working with us in various states. All these have enabled us to achieve our mandate.
In December we are going to print out the names of all lawyers who are enrolled with us and we are going to institute an award system for those who have been working all these years without pay as pro-bono lawyers. We have very dedicated pro-bono lawyers who have worked in various states with us and we are going to make the list public.
We are going to print a directory which will show those who undertake legal aid and who are passionate about pro-bono. We have succeeded in making the private lawyers want to do pro-bono.
Many people are of the opinion that legal aid has to do only with criminal cases, what about the civil cases?
Remember that the Legal Aid Act of 1986 did not give jurisdiction of civil cases to the LACN, it was repealed in 2011 and the new Act now upgraded the LACN to take up civil matters. That now made the LACN prepare itself by taking matters in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and mediation and to work with the lawyers who hitherto were experts in criminal law.
According to the 1999 Constitution, a lawyer can be both solicitor and advocate but we tended towards specializing in the criminal aspect but we can now say boldly that our lawyers are now good in both civil and criminal. We are recording very high number of civil cases. Civil is good in the sense that you dispense with going to court and most cases are resolved by mediation. We are succeeding well and most people have seen the wisdom in trying to mediate in matters and resolving amicably without the police. It also helps the citizens to understand the difference of what cases should go to the police and what cases should not. We have a full department of civil litigation and a lot of lawyers now take it from their own states.
We have a partner in the World Bank in the Scheme Access to Justice for the Poor in Kaduna. That project is from a Japanese Development Bank grant which specify that the grant should be used for the poor and for only civil matters.
In the last three years, LACN has gained a lot from that project because foreign expertise has been brought into the project to help to train our staff in best practice for resolving civil matters amicably. That has helped us train 270 lawyers and a lot of lawyers in special mediation so that they can train staff in their office.
Do you think LACN has come of age?
We have because we now have more visibility; more donor agencies have taken up interest in us. Justice sector is never in limelight. People ask why we represent suspected criminals but I tell them that without a defence lawyer, a judgment would never be given in a criminal case without representation. Either for conviction or otherwise. So if a government has been magnanimous to give its citizens free legal aid, it is for the citizens to take advantage, but we have recorded more interest in what we are doing.
What are your challenges?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record. We will be 40 next year and we have been given money to have our permanent site.
Before now our judges were respected, do you think they are still been respected?
Yes, when you enter the court you find the aura of respect. When you come before a judge or magistrate you must bow. It is inherent in that office.