The challenges of access to justice
ACCESS to justice in any society is critical and fundamental. Indeed it is not only the most basic requirement of any system of justice or the most basic human rights of any system that purports to guarantee legal rights but also the hallmark of any sane and civilised society.
In recent times I have had cause to reflect on not just access to justice in our country but on the quality of justice available to litigants or persons seeking any justifiable remedies in our justice delivery system. My concern is borne out of my conviction that officers in the temple of justice, the constituency to which I belong whether functioning as judicial officers or law officers including legal practitioners ought to strive not only delivering their services in their capacity as Judges and Lawyers or any such nomenclature but ensuring always that they remain jurists. The distinction between a judge/lawyer and a jurist is fundamental and critical in the search for not only access to justice but access to quality justice.
Access to justice will not mean just access to lawyers and courts. It is much more broader than this as it encompasses a recognition that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law and that whatever rights we seek to protect are meaningless unless those rights can be enforced with minimal constraints to the aggrieved persons and under circumstances ensuring that all manner of people are treated fairly according to the law and are able to get appropriate redress in circumstances when they are treated unfairly. In this context, there is no access to justice where citizens especially the marginalized groups not only conceive the system as frightening, or alien or in circumstances where citizens have no lawyers either because of inadequate resources to access them, or where individuals lack access to information or knowledge of their rights or where the system is fundamentally weak in delivering justice to the citizens.
Consequently, access to justice entails normative legal protection, legal awareness, legal aid and counsel, adjudication, enforcement and civil society oversight amongst others.
Fundamental rights, civil liberties and supremacy of the rule of law prescribing vital checks and balances in any society are realistic ideals but would in themselves be meaningless without access to justice or the practical means of understanding and enforcing the laws of the land without strings.
However, the major challenge in Nigeria today is not just access to justice but what learned Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Queens Counsel, Professor Fidelis Oditah described in another forum as ‘exit from justice.’ I cannot agree more with this cerebral scholar given the constraints and obstacles confronting the justice delivery system in our country today. These include long delays in the adjudicatory process, long adjournments of proceedings, over reliance on technicalities, collapsing infrastructure, corruption in the system, congestion in courts and prisons, poverty of knowledge, culture of impunity and declining confidence of the citizenry in the efficacy and efficiency of the administration of justice.
What therefore needs to be done?
• The system should guarantee equal access to justice and ensure that the quality of justice satisfies the aspirations of our people in the context of civilised norms and practices including international standards and models.
• We need to address barriers to both quantity and quality of justice.
• We need to strengthen the capacity of our justice delivery system including address issues of welfare packages and conditions in which justice is delivered in our country.
• We need to enhance physical access to justice including guaranteeing the luxury of justice to citizens through provision of legal aid to the citizens.
• We need to fund the justice delivery system by ensuring the independence and autonomy of the judiciary.
• We need to strengthen and promote legal awareness to the citizens.
• We need to strengthen civil society organisation as the foundation of promoting access to justice.
• We need to recognise that increase access to justice depends on public confidence which should not be allowed to wane or else anarchy looms.
• We need to support the enforcement of remedies and ensure that such remedies are adequate and commensurate with the nature of the offence.
• We need to encourage procedural fairness and equal application of the law to all manner of people without discrimination including facilitating transparency in all judicial processes.
• We need to increase the knowledge and professionalisation of justice personnel to dispense justice.
Where necessary, reforms must be undertaken. There is no excuse whatsoever why any litigant cannot be assured of justice within six months. There is also no reason why trials in some cases cannot take place from day to day. Punitive actions should be visited on all categories of professionals who by acts or omission are engaged in the subversion of justice in our land.
Today, public confidence in the justice delivery system is waning. Trust is in gross deficit. Indiscipline is everywhere, corruption now rules our land. Integrity is a scarce commodity; truth is becoming a major casualty in all of these. We need to do something to arrest this decay and the culture of impunity that seems to have been promoted in our country as an article of faith. The time to do that is now.
• Shittu wrote from Lagos.
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