Police Force Order 20 makes it compulsory for any lawyer to have free access to client in police detention
Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel, an indigene of both Cross River and Rivers States, was born in 1953 in Ibadan, Oyo State. She graduated from the University Of Lagos with B.Sc. Zoology in 1977 and from the University Of Science And Technology, Nkpolu, Port Harcourt, with LLB in 1991. She attended Nigerian Law School, Lagos State, between 1991 and 92, after which she began a private law practice in 1993 and has served in various law establishments. In 2001, she was appointed Secretary, Associated Maritime Service Limited, Port Harcourt, a position she held until 2010, when she assumed office as the director general, Legal Aid Council.
The task of providing legal services to the indigent and the vulnerable led to the establishment of the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria. Since the Council came into being, not much has changed in the effort to provide succor and reprieve for the oppressed of the society. In this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, the director general, Legal Aid Council, Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel, examines the plight of the poor with regard to access to justice. She also gave insight into the challenges and successes of the council, among others.
The mission statement of your council is to remain the leading and pro-active provider of free, qualitative and timely legal aid services in Nigeria, ensuring social justice and the emancipation of the oppressed, reprieve to the weak and vulnerable, thereby giving voice to the voiceless. Why is it that the greatest percentage of pre-trial inmates in Nigerian Prisons are mostly the poor and vulnerable?
The Legal Aid Council was set up by the Federal Government of Nigeria in order to give free legal representation to the very poor citizens of Nigeria, unfortunately,a large percentage of these citizens are very poor and vulnerable, and cannot afford the services of private practitioners. They do not know their legal rights and are easily arrested due to lack of knowledge of their rights as offenders by the police who are the first point of contact with offenders of law. This is mostly without the help of a lawyer until the police call a lawyer for such persons. Therefore, you are right that most pre-trial inmates in Nigerian prisons are mostly the poor and vulnerable, and the reasons are obvious.
Tell us the reasons. Although you said they are obvious but there are those who do not know
The poor are vulnerable. They comprise men, women and children who do not have the finances to fight their battles. They are victims of eviction by landlords; they suffer criminal abuses and domestic violence and so on but cannot afford the services of lawyers and sometimes, are innocently arrested by the police. They become voiceless and therefore lawyers and non-governmental organisations that come to their aid become their voice. It is termed, Voice of the Voiceless.
What challenges are hindering you from building a new Nigerian where there is equal access to justice for all irrespective of means, and where all constitutional rights are respected, protected and defended to ensure justice for all?
There are many challenges that hinder equal access to justice. They are basically both human and financial, but throughout my tenure, I have worked tirelessly to overcome these challenges by looking inwards to locate the defining roles that the Legal Aid Act 2011 proffered. The Legal Aid Council therefore has the following initiatives, three of which are very proactive. One is the Police Duty Solicitor Scheme which led to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), with the Inspector General of Police to have the council’s lawyers stationed at police stations to reduce the unnecessary detention of offenders. This led to the police amending its Force Order 20, to allow offenders unhindered access to lawyers. Another one is the initiative of the council to collaborate with private practitioners in a pro bono scheme. This solves the problem of qualitative and quantitative legal representation. The third is the Paralegal Scheme instituted as an integral part of this desire to help the poor access to justice.
Drug arrestees are denied access to legal assistance on the ground that they are not captured within the ambit of the Legal Aid Act 2011. It has also been argued that a combined reading of Sections 8 and 10 of the Legal Aid Council exclude drug arrestees from the umbrella of legal aid. It is further contended that the National Drug Control Master Plan (2015-2019) has not ameliorated this hardship. What do you think of those?
It is true that lawyers of the Council are not given the legal powers to represent drug arrestees (as you put it). We cannot give what we do not have. Remember, for access to justice to be well conducted, there are many other sectors involved such as the prosecutors and other defence lawyers and most times, a technical point would be used to deny the arrestee free legal representation from council’s lawyers on the ground that the Legal Aid Act does not have the power to represent such persons, and until this part of the law is amended, it unfortunately remains that way. However, private practitioners can defend them and so far, these arrestees have the capacity to pay private lawyers.
On account of this, will you advocate an amendment to Legal Aid Act to accommodate free legal services for minor drug offences?
As a lawyer, I will never oppose an amendment to any law that deserves an amendment. In this same vein, parts of the Legal Aid Act that need to be amended and go through the proper process are welcome.
Desirable legal aid in Nigeria is extremely limited with the availability of enough lawyers to meet the increasing need for free legal services in the country. Why is this so with the number of youth corps members at your disposal?
The ideal situation is that most poor and vulnerable people in Nigeria should have access to justice with help from lawyers that give free services, and the challenge of the limited number of lawyers that the Council has at this time is overcome by the National Youth Service Corps, which has a mandatory collaboration with the Council as embedded in the Legal Aid Act 2011. However, the reality is that all their lawyers cannot be deployed to the Council. Those sent to the Council are mostly accepted in the 36 states, where our offices are situated while many other NYSC lawyers prefer other sectors of the economy to work in, such as government agencies and private practice. They also take up cases on their own but obviously, with the astronomical high population of Nigeria’s poor and vulnerable, it is impossible to fill the void of needs with only NYSC lawyers, and that is the reason, as I have explained above, that the Council is also collaborating with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on a pro bono scheme.
What is the nature of the pro bono collaboration with NBA? Is it such that the Bar assists the Council to handle matters without fees when invited or is it on a regular basis?
In 2017, the Legal Aid Council’s management signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the President of Nigerian Bar Association on the pro bono scheme. That means it is operational when any private practitioner can take up cases free of charge, when they accept cases through an internal process known as the clearing house and announce the matter in court on behalf of the Legal Aid Council, and report periodically on all that transpires in court until judgment is given by the court. Pro bono matters are free or without fees, whether a lawyer represents a poor person on behalf of the Council or on behalf of his firm. I sincerely commend the many private legal practitioners who through the years, have worked tirelessly with the Council on the pro bono scheme.
Your council is also beset with issues of funding, poor publicity, inadequate information on access to justice, delays in the administration of justice and a general lack of empowerment for your lawyers to provide adequate legal aid. How are you grappling with all these and still hoping to achieve results?
Yes, the Council is beset with lack of adequate funding, especially now that Nigeria is going through serious financial problems, and being a government parastatal, we are subject to the same sharing formula that others face. If the finances improve, other aspects such as more publicity will improve. There is no radio or television station or print medium that will give the Council free air time or print space. We have to pay market prices because they also have to improve on their internally generated revenue. The lawyers are paid the normal civil service structure salaries and this is the reason the management of the Council and other agencies within the justice sector are working on many ways outside the box to improve access to justice. There are many reforms ongoing one of which is the passage of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, which is being implemented in the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory and Federal High Courts. Many states are also rushing to domesticate this revolutionary Act into state laws and if well implemented, a lot of challenges that hinder access to justice would have been dealt with. There is also a monitoring committee in place to supervise implementation of the law at both federal and state levels with representatives of all agencies involved.
Not minding the challenges, can you give us the statistics of the number of indigents who have benefited from your services across the country in the last one year?
I must point out here that the Legal Aid Council is a statutory member of Nigerian Bar Association, and every year at its national conference, all parastatals under the supervision at the Federal Ministry of Justice gives a statutory report. More so, we have in place, a good data base and a good template for collecting statistics from all our states and local government offices. The last report presented in August 2018, showed that the statistics of cases granted amount to 9,719 while those completed amount to 4,489.
In your opinion, what do we need to do to reform our criminal justice system towards decongesting our prisons?
In my opinion, what needs to be done is being done through a collaboration of all agencies involved in the criminal justice sector. The police, being the first place the offender is apprehended before trial, I have stated that the Council has initiated, with the help of development partners, the Police Duty Solicitors Scheme, which enables the police to mandatorily call a lawyer for a poor offender, who also gives legal advice at this point, which ensures that bail can be given with ease at this level. The other sectors include the courts, where the magistrate is the one that gives remand orders to send offenders to prison to await trial, and I am speaking from a point of knowledge that most chief judges in Nigeria issue practice directions as to how to give remand notices and other timelines from when the offender is taken to prison and other court appearances. The Nigerian Prison Service has far reaching reforms going on as well. The federal government is improving service by providing more vehicles. There are new courts being built while judiciary across states of the federation are building more courts closer to prisons to mitigate the problem of prison officials taking prisoners to far away courts. We implore the media to enlighten the people by giving more publicity to this sector.
What mechanism do you have in place to monitor to satisfaction, the implementation of the Police Duty Solicitors Scheme you just mentioned and to what extent has it achieved the desired result?
The Police Duty Solicitor Scheme (PDSS) is an initiative that started in 2005 with a Memorandum of Understanding, with the Inspector General of Police at that time and continued up till today. This has led to the amendment of Police Force Order 20 in 2017, to make it compulsory for any lawyer in Nigeria to have free access to his client in police detention as investigation goes on. To this extent, Nigeria has joined the civilized world in best practice of the police calling a lawyer to represent a poor offender. The police must obey its force order and the Legal Aid Council is satisfied also that a new dawn is in the horizon and the Nigerian Bar Association has embraced this initiative of which monitoring is part of the process.
What role is your Council playing in the proposed Correctional Services bill currently before the National Assembly?
The most revolutionary Act/Law in the criminal justice sector today in Nigeria is the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law. It has dealt with the most difficult challenges in this sector and there is a provision for a monitoring committee, which has since been inaugurated and functioning. There are provisions for each of the agencies within the justice sector, including the police, courts, prisons, prosecutors and defence lawyers as well as the Legal Aid Council. The Council is always invited to public hearings to make contributions whenever other bills concerning the justice sector, especially of correctional services is being reviewed by the National Assembly, and the Council makes well-articulated contributions.
Can you tell us few of the well-articulated contributions or suggestions you have made to the National Assembly to ensure a better Correctional Services Act?
I have mentioned the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015. The Legal Aid Council in its submissions insisted that its Director General or a representative must be a statutory member of the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee and this has since been implemented up to the state level. This was not so in the past. This ensures that the Legal Aid Council has a voice in the administration of criminal justice for the poor.
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