It is somewhat disturbing according to available data from Nigeria National Prison Audit: on the number of detainees in prisons across the country without legal representation. More worrisome are those who could not pay fines imposed on them by the court, needless to talk of those who can not meet or pay for bail including those whose trials had been stopped due to unavailability of witnesses. They are all in wailing in prisons across the nations.
What about those whose trial had stopped due to unavailability of Investigative Police Officers or a case of missing case files? What of those on holding charges, or affected by delay or unavailability of DPP advice? They are there in prison wailing for nothing too. So many awaiting trails could be innocent and poor. But they are there in overcrowded and congested prisons making one to wonder if justice is for the wealthy?
Here justice seems expensive and I don’t know why it is that so. Could it be real that laws are made for the poor and not for the rich? You see, laws without justice is like a body without a soul. It is somehow mind blowing to know that by estimation over 4 billion people do not enjoy protection afforded by law. That over 3 billion people living in countries of the world are violated of civic freedom according to the new CIVICUS monitor tool I’ve just used. Grass root access to justice is far fetched as law practice continues to be more concentrated in urban rich circles. Law courts are located not in rural centers, lack of information, illiteracy, linguistic barriers, high cost for filling claims, coupled with entrenched stigma; all makes justice tall and far for poor. But I know that justice, I mean quality and timely justice can support development and eradicate poverty. Yet my eyes are on the justice gap in Nigeria. I am only but a watchdog.
Judicial system is made to look far from grass root people. Far and costly it is, that anarchy looms more in poor communities than in elite settlements. Can’t you see the gap between the judicial system and the masses? Can’t you see that courts are over stretched thereby making justice delayed. Can’t you see the masses becoming impatient to the extent that jungle justice is unbecoming in our society? That’s just some of the gap in the system and I think something new need to be done.
These gaps gives needful rising for Paralegal Services. Peradventure justice could be timely and court less burdened. Have you seen civil cases in Nigeria courts that have lingered for years endlessly? Whereas such need not be in first place. A case that- Am sorry would have resolved in minute is all piled up in our courts. Where there are no Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism, and where there is, the poor do not know how to access same.
Paralegals are not lawyers. They are barefoot advocates from Civil Society organization or Non Governmental Organizations. Lawyers can equally serve as paralegals too. But Paralegals are ordinarily community based volunteers who have experience and have received reasonable training in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Human Rights and Community Relations. They offer free first aid legal advice to clients - the poor. They resolve civil disputes and facilitate justice to most vulnerables in local communities. They also help and empower locales to know how to access justice by themselves for themselves. Primarily, Paralegals help those without skills, income or sharp elbow to obtain fair redress.
In Nigeria, there has been some kicks from sections of lawyers and even Bar Associations on the quality and standard of training, data base mechanism of Community Based Paralegals. The traditional/ community leaders have complained same that Paralegals have come to take over their duties and relevance. But is that true? Of course no, it is not. Paralegals works with all stakeholders and mostly on referrals to relevance authorities when need arises. They are not competing with any rather complementing what lawyers and Community leaders are doing.
In so many occasions, I have been asked on the legality of Paralegal service in Nigeria especially, the Law enforcement agencies that have refutable ignore recognizing who a Paralegal is. Others are not aware that Paralegals exists including poor indigent citizens whom are sole beneficiary of the service.
But if we are to lay to rest this entire conversion, we shall refer to the Act of Legal Aid Council 2011 Nigeria. Legal Aid council Nigeria is an establishment under the Federal Ministry of Justice. It was established pursuant to the promulgation of Legal Aid Decree No.56 of 1976 later amended by the Legal Aid Act Cap L9, Law of Federation 2004, and now repealed by the Legal Aid Act 2011 to enhance the Rule of Law through the provision of free legal assistance and advice to indigents.
To be precise, Legal Aid Act 2011, part IV Section 17 states that; the council may grant licenses to persons who have undergone a prescribed course in Paralegals services to render such services in appropriate situations. The Act also authorizes the Council to partner with or otherwise engage the service of NGOs and law clinics that are engaged in the provision of legal aid or assistance to persons who are entitled to legal aid.
This section makes it clear as per where and how Paralegal service in Nigeria has got its legal soul. In Nigeria, Paralegals are people from CSOs and NGOs with experience and training, and are typically resident in local communities where they work. Therefore, at this point it is imperative to highlight one of the global network and platform that I have come across with the named – #NAMATI with a website www.namati.org that works to give localized legal support and empowers groups of paralegals across the world.
In Nigeria, Global Rights, WARDC, CIRDDOC, Lawyer Alerts, CMRC, JEI, IWEI are on ground pioneering Paralegal services.
To this end, as BAN Ki Moon, former UN Secretary General once said, “We are all stakeholders in a collective enterprise to eradicate poverty, build a sustainable world and leave no one behind. Everybody’ future is at stake. That is why I want everybody to be informed and engaged”.
And that is exactly what I am doing as a Paralegal by putting law skills and information into your hand, thereby creating awareness that will bridge justice gaps and make justice system more inclusive and closer to the people both socially and geographically.
To me, human rights are meaningless unless they can be enforced. I have always wanted to be paralegal. What about you?