Sunday, 4th June 2023

Effective agencies, not proliferation of departments can guarantee access to justice for all

By Joseph Onyekwere
17 December 2019   |   3:01 am
Access to justice is one of the major challenges confronting Nigerian society. The problem is, however complex in a situation where the aggrieved lacks the financial muscle to seek legal redress.

Access to justice is one of the major challenges confronting Nigerian society. The problem is, however complex in a situation where the aggrieved lacks the financial muscle to seek legal redress. But with the appointment of Mr. Moyo Onigbangbo (SAN) as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Lagos State, there might be some respite for residents as he disclosed to JOSEPH ONYEKWERE some efforts at making relevant agencies more effective and citizens informed of their rights and privileges.

Access to justice, particularly to the indigent residents of Lagos State is, still a big challenge, though the Office of the Public Defender and the Lagos Mediation Centre are doing a lot in this regard. What other plans do you have to further close the gaps?
ON the issue of access to justice, what determines its improvement is not the continuous proliferation of agencies or departments to assist in this regard. As a matter of fact, these agencies or organizations include the Directorate of Citizens Rights, Public Advisory Centre, and the Public Interest Law Partnership which provides Probono services of private law firms for indigent persons.

The most important thing is the efficiencies of these agencies and one of the focuses of this administration is to ensure the effectiveness of the existing agencies. We are working on enhancing the capacities of the OPD and CMC and also, to open up new centers to cover more areas within the State. More importantly, the public would be sensitized about the existence of these agencies. We are thinking of possible expansion of OPD offices in every nook and crannies of the state, especially in each local government and LCDAs. We plan to sensitize indigent residents to make use of these offices (CMC, OPD, AGPT, DCR,) through our various awareness programmes.

Lagos State is popularly referred to as a mini Nigeria and its major attraction is the cosmopolitan nature. As the chief law officer of the state, what are your plans to ensure that the Ministry of Justice continues to play its role to the society?
As you rightly said, Lagos is a mini Nigeria. It prides itself on its large population of multi-cultural, multi-religions and diverse ethnic society. As the Chief Law Officer of the State, I will, through the Ministry of Justice, continue to ensure that residents have access to justice even in most mundane matters. The plan is basically to foster speedy and time effective justice delivery among all persons in the state. This will be achieved mostly through institutional and policy strategies.

For example, the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) handles 1,636 cases, 600 petitions out of which 245 have been concluded, 141 judgments obtained, over 30 children rescued and total compensation of N8,103,567.09 received on behalf of clients. Similarly, Public Advisory Centre (PAC) received monetary claims of N3,684.666 on behalf of claimants while the Directorate of Citizen’s Rights instituted cases in the National Industrial Court where seven claimants were awarded N21, 352,319 as terminal benefits from their various organizations.

As a cosmopolitan city, we recognize the need to ensure that law and orderliness are kept. It is this administration’s agenda to clamp down on criminals, land grabbers and other trouble makers to reduce crime and all forms of security threat to the barest minimum. This administration has zero-tolerance for criminals. We would also ensure that the poor and downtrodden in society have access to justice through our agencies. Traffic offenders would be seriously dealt with while erring drivers will forfeit their vehicles with sanctions imposed on them. It is no longer business as usual.

In your opinion, what do you think is the major challenge confronting the administration of justice in Lagos and how do you plan to tackle it?
The major challenge confronting the administration of justice is multi-faceted. On the part of the government, the plan is to tackle the operational problems and to ensure that there is cooperation among the different bodies working towards enforcing the law. The aim is also to ensure that residents have quick access to justice since justice delayed is justice denied. The state government has made tremendous efforts to enhance justice administration. However, most of the stakeholders within the sector are not under the control of the state government. Example of this is the police, prisons and other pivotal agencies. It is no longer news that the state at different intervals had to intervene and support these agencies through our Lagos State Security Trust Fund. The challenges facing the various stakeholders can be overcome by concerted efforts, including a stronger synergy to achieve access to justice and ensure the maintenance of law and order.
One of the achievements of your predecessor was prison decongestion. He strengthened the Advisory Council on the

Prerogative of Mercy to carry out this objective. What are your plans to help sustain or even surpass the achievements of the council?
We hope to sustain and surpass the achievements of the council by strengthening the Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy. A new council will soon be inaugurated by the governor and we are optimistic that the members of the council will hit the ground running to decongest the correctional centres. We are going to embark on a more robust approach to decongesting prisons and plans are underway to implement the initiative. We will ensure that periodic visits are made and that the gesture is spread across all the facilities within the state for deserving applicants. I will equally ensure that the council is encouraged by working independently, fairly and transparently with adequate resources for the discharge of its basic duties. Also, the state through the Community Service Unit is willing and ready to work with the Nigerian Correctional Services to enhance the non-custodial sentence provision as provided in the Nigerian Correctional Services Act. This will immensely reduce the number of people who go through the prison system.

One prosecutorial tool that the Ministry of Justice has deployed in the last few years is Plea Bargain arrangement with accused persons. What is your view on its effectiveness? Is it something you wish to continue?
Plea bargaining is undoubtedly a veritable procedure for decongestion of Correctional Centres, giving closure to victims of crimes, de-clogging the courts’ docket and reducing the state expenses and resources. It is one of the focal points of this administration to enhance the process by making it seamless and more efficient. In the last two weeks, 94 plea bargain applications have been treated. It is definitely effective; it saves judicial and prosecutors’ time and makes criminal matters end quickly. This administration intends to continue with the system and hopes that more defendants will embrace the option of plea bargaining if they are indeed guilty.

The issue of obtaining DPP advice for pending cases, especially at the magistrate courts is still a serious challenge, what are your plans to speed up the process and also eliminate the public perception that the process is subject to undue influence?
Let me first correct the impression that legal advice issuance is delayed. This is no longer the case. It takes an average of 10-15 days to issue legal advice. The Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) office has been very efficient in ensuring that legal advice is dispatched timely. The records are there. A two-week deadline had been given some months back and there has been substantial compliance with the deadline. For instance, the DPP office received 212 duplicate files for legal advice and 164 has been issued and dispatched. The remaining 48 could not be treated because of a request for further investigation by the police.

The officers in DPP are of high moral and professional integrity coupled with the fact that this administration has zero-tolerance for corruption. I would like to allay the fears of the public in this regard and urge them to speak up or write to my office with facts if they observe anything untoward. The DPP and its team of lawyers work assiduously to ensure that legal advice is issued within the time frame. The process is not subject to undue influence as the lawyers in DPP serve with integrity and are mindful of this administration’s zero-tolerance for corruption. I assure you that legal advices are issued within the time frame and devoid of undue influence.

As a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, do you have any plan to strengthen and make more accessible to Lagos residents the option of Alternative Dispute Resolution?
ADR is the new wave and as expected, Lagos State has made tremendous progress in entrenching it in its justice system through the establishment of the Multi-door court, Citizens Mediation Centre and the OPD. This administration will create more sensitization and awareness for members of the public. As you already know, previous administrations have begun the work to making Lagos the hub of arbitration by investing in the LCA. The Ministry of Justice has the Citizens Mediation Centre, Citizens Rights and Office of the Public Defender, all of which deploy the use of ADR in resolving disputes. The plan of this administration is to further enlarge the capacities of these offices by opening more centres in different LCDA and locations for easy access to the public. We hope to commission two new centres in CMC.

The Multi-door courthouse role of seeking resolution of a dispute without going through the long haul of litigation is pivotal in resolving our commercial and civil disputes. This ties in well with the ease of doing business and reposing investors’ confidence in the judicial system that affords prompt and expeditious resolution of legal disputes.

Since you got into office, how will you describe your relationship with the state judiciary and how do you plan to collaborate with the judiciary to tackle some of the challenges facing the courts?
Our relationship is cordial and mutual. As you know, the judiciary is a separate arm of government and independent of the executive as provided by the constitution. The need to preserve judicial independence necessarily limits engagement with the judiciary to matters that relate to the public interest, policy, and legislation. However, we shall together tackle the challenges facing the courts in terms of infrastructure.

How will you describe your relationship with the law enforcement agencies in the state? I am asking because there was a conflict between some lawyers from your ministry and some police prosecutors recently over some cases they filed at the Federal High Court, which the ministry tried to take over?
My office and that of other law enforcement agencies are in synergy. We all represent different parts of the same structure which is the justice sector and each part has been discharging its role as effectively as practicably. I think the constitution is clear as to the role of each agency. The courts have also, on a number of occasions, pronounced on the issue. I doubt that an issue should arise in that regard. In any case, the law lies in the bosom of the court. So, I believe the court will set the issues straight

Your ministry is critical to maintaining a conducive business environment for the state. What are your plans to make sure that the government signs agreements that are beneficial to the state and also honour its side of the agreements?
The Mega-City plan is on course and this administration understands the importance of fulfilling contractual obligations. We know it is important in gaining the confidence of investors and as such, we will ensure the enforcement of agreements on our side/part. It is a global phenomenon that the government works with the private sector and investors to bring about development in all sectors of the economy. This administration intends to continue in that regard and it is committed to honouring our part of terms of agreements.

The commercial law department of the Ministry of Justice has been doing fantastically in putting up the most favourable portions for the state over the years. And as you may be aware, Lagos has always been forthright on its parts of agreements. The records are there. I intend to continue to uphold this standard and perhaps, ensure that the percentage of failed agreements is reduced drastically. The Directorate of Commercial Law has drafted 46 Commercial Agreements and generated N12,934,296.43 for the state.

There is this perception among journalists that you are media-shy. Do you have any plan to engage the media to propagate your activities in a mutually beneficial way?
I am not media-shy. Really, I do not know where that is coming from. I will keep engaging the media to propagate activities of the ministry. Prior to my appointment, I have aired several interviews on different media platforms to discuss topical legal issues. I recognize the media as the fourth estate of the realm and would continue to collaborate with the media to achieve justice in the state.

In 2016, the ex-governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s administration enacted the Property Protection Law to curb the activities of Omoonile (Land Grabbers). Despite the existence of this law, Lagosians are still tormented by the miscreants. What specific actions will you take to bring a permanent end to this syndrome?
Since the enactment of the Lagos State Property Protection Law in 2016 and the establishment of Special Taskforce on Land Grabbers, I make bold to say that the nefarious activities of land grabbers have been curtailed in Lagos State. Yes, there are still pockets of reports of illegal activities of land grabbers across the state. We are not ignorant of the havoc and unrest caused by these land grabbers, particularly in developing areas of Ibeju-Lekki, Ajah, Ikorodu, Ipaja, and Badagry, but when compared to what obtained before the enactment of the Property Protection Law and establishment of the taskforce, it is obvious that implementation of existing laws through the taskforce is yielding desired results. It is worthy of note that since the enactment of the law and inauguration of the taskforce, over 3600 petitions have been received by the taskforce. About 500 of these petitions have been concluded. Over 3000 petitions are currently being handled. In the course of the taskforce operations, over 200 arrests of suspected land grabbers have been made.

The operations of the Taskforce recently received a boost when 19 alleged land grabbers were arrested on November 13 at Plot 1, Block II, within Ogudu Phase II Government Residential Scheme in Kosefe Local Government Area. The trial is still on at the Magistrate Court. We presently have 35 land grabbing cases in court, and we are hopeful that justice would be served without hindrance, to serve as a deterrent to other land grabbers.

From these statistics, it will be noticed that there is an appreciable increase in the number of citizens who patronize the taskforce for the resolution of land grabbing cases. We owe this in part to the intensification of publicity and awareness campaigns as well as testimonies of people who have had their cases resolved through the Taskforce. As cheering as this is, the taskforce is confronted with myriads of challenges in carrying out its legal responsibilities which we are presently addressing for optimal performance. Of note is the deliberate attempt by land grabbers to arm-twist the taskforce into doing its biddings by embarking on a smear campaign in traditional and online media to preempt cases the taskforce is working on. These challenges have however not deterred us from carrying out our responsibilities. I have a word for them, “We are undaunted and unshaken in our resolve to carry out our mandate.”

Not a few legal experts have pointed out that the Lagos administration of criminal justice law requires important reforms. How soon are we expecting these reforms?
As a matter of fact, we are in the process of reviewing the Law. The process should be completed by the first quarter of 2020. We need to ensure that we have more robust provisions that can deal with issues such as restraint order pending investigation, freezing assets of criminals before they dissipate the asset or proceeds of crime. A lot more is in the review and the general public is called upon to support the government in the area of prosecution by making themselves available in courts as witnesses when called upon.

Babatunde Fashola’s administration witnessed the appointment of judges and magistrates as well as the building of new court houses. Are we likely to see a re-enactment of that trend under your watch as AG?
Definitely, very soon we shall be commissioning the Court House in the Ajah Area and we hope to commence more projects. With the approval of the Judicial Service Commission, we hope to appoint more judges and magistrates

What priority areas in the justice sector in Lagos State will get your premium attention?
Particular attention would be focused on law and order as well as Legislative Reforms. We have a lot of laws in the pipeline. The importance of laws in a society cannot be over-emphasized as it keeps society running. It also serves as a norm of conduct of citizens. Laws are made to provide proper guidelines and order upon the behaviour for all citizens and sustain the equity of the three branches of the government. We believe that laws are important in society. It is a clear message that Lagos State Government will not tolerate any form of domestic and sexual violence and that is why the symbolic walk led by the Governor was organized in the state.