Tuesday, 8 October 2013
Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Ade Ipaye, has taken a cursory look at the nation’s justice system and declared that the system is still where the colonial masters left it at independence.
Ipaye, who spoke on the backdrop of the 53rd independence anniversary, said there was no difference between the present justice system of the nation and the one bequeathed to it by the colonial masters.
He, however, stated that the problem of ineffective justice delivery system should not be shifted to the doorstep of a single stakeholder but be seen as a collective responsibility.
In this interview, Ipaye spoke on many other issues as regards the justice system in the country, most especially on the issue of pro bono (free legal) services and the efforts of the government at encouraging larger percentage of lawyers to pick interest in the project.
Concept of pro bono (free legal) services
The idea of pro bono is a good concept and it is very important because we have all of these law courts that were set up on the assumption that we all can afford lawyers to handle our cases or to defend us in case we are sued. But that is painfully not the case. A lot of people cannot afford the cost of litigation and if those people are left to their own devices, it means that they are shut out.
They do not have access to justice; they do not have the right to fair hearing, which the Constitution says they should have. That is why as a profession, lawyers should take time out to offer free legal services. In Lagos State, we have institutionalised it through the Office of the Public Defender.
But we have another programme now, which we call the Public Interest Law Partnership whereby we get lawyers to voluntarily sign up so that when we have indigent people, needing legal advice or legal representation, we can simply link them with lawyers, who are willing to offer free legal services and by these programmes, we are already taking up to 3, 000 petitions on an annual basis. We have several of our programmes and among them, we are attending to over 3, 000 petitions and we have almost 2,000 cases on-going in court, which we are doing for free.
Legal practitioners and the concept
This does not stop them from doing normal legal work. It is a social responsibility. Yes, they do some cases to make money but they also do some voluntarily because it is an opportunity for them to practice in their idle time. Instead of staying idle, it will widen their horizon because they will get cases that they may not otherwise get from their fee-paying client and they feel that they have done something worthwhile for their fellow man by being able to assist someone who would otherwise not have had such assistance.
And really, we are not saying that if a lawyer is busy, he should still take on pro bono in addition to what he is doing. We want people who would do it as if they were doing a fee-paying brief. And remember, our rules as legal practitioners in Nigeria even compel us to do pro bono work. So, we cannot insist that every case we take in court will be for a fee. We should do a bit for free for other members of the community who cannot afford it.
Agitation for the legislation of pro bono
Well, you see when we talk of corporate social responsibility or individual voluntary service, you don’t need to legislate it. Okay? Like I said earlier, it is incorporated in our rules as legal practitioners because the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) requires us to put in a certain number of hours for free. So, these things need not be compelled by law. It must be voluntary because when I take up a case for free, I should do it with all my heart. I should not do it as in ‘oh, the law forces this on me, so I will just see what I can do.’ One needs to be interested. One needs to buy into the idea and really, it is not a matter for law.
Standardisation of pro bono
You see, like I said earlier, we have such structures and what we do is that we monitor. Number one is that we pre-qualify. It is not everyone that signifies interest that we give cases to. We profile the kind of cases and then we look at the practitioners that can suitably handle such cases. So, if you register with us and you say you don’t do criminal cases, I will not come and give you criminal defence and once I give you any case to do, there is a reporting process. I’m following up; I’m calling you to see how far. So, if for instance, you don’t show up in court, I will know and then we will take the case up and give it to someone else who is willing to do it.
Curbing fraud on pro bono cases
The rules that govern our practice deal with that. NBA has a disciplinary committee and then in cases of fraud, I will prosecute if such a case is brought to my attention as Attorney General. So, there are layers of rules and practices and legislation that enable us to deal with such issue. And so, I will encourage anyone in that situation to petition my office and we will be happy to prosecute if we see that such a thing is happening.
Justice system in the country
Well, to me, talking about our society in Nigeria and Lagos State today, I think the simple question we should put before ordinary men is whether they think justice prevail in our society. If we put that question across, I think the answer we’ll get is what anyone among us can get because getting justice is a challenging problem. It is a big issue. It is one in which judges and magistrates can do very little, even though they do so much.
Barristers at bar have to play their part, the policemen and all the law enforcement agents have to play their part. Even, the prisons where we incarcerate our fellow men after due process, there is minimum requirements to meet there. Otherwise, the context and privilege of justice will not be at the level we want it to be. The justice system we inherited from our colonial master was the one in which a woman, who could not afford to pay a lawyer would be taken to the prison. The idea of fair-hearing cannot come to the aid of such a woman.
A lot has been said about prison congestion and our efforts to decongest. This is not unconnected to earlier discussion. Our journey in this programme is that we are able to assist people who are awaiting trial, but who have no lawyers. Through the office of the Chief Judge of Lagos State, we are also able to visit prison regularly and ensure that nobody is locked in there that ought not to be there.
This is not the forum to examine the concept of plea bargain. It is also a concept that must be examined closely in the context of society in which we live because I strongly support it. However, I think it can be reviewed like every other thing.
But the way we are now, the number of crimes going on out there, the number of criminal case files and the number of cases in courts have all made it such that it is impossible to conclude a case within the shortest period. So, justice will be delayed, not because of the laxity of the judges and magistrates, but because of the congestion of people and because of the overloads that are upon the police and counsel that are handing these cases.
If there are some of them that will not go through trial, I think we must seize the opportunities to do so. If we do not, the consequence is that people are there awaiting trial for longer than the period of the imprisonment prescribed for the offences for which they were arrested in the first place.
So, it is our way of ensuring that for the persons that have been there for a reasonable time and is willing to confess to his/her crime, there is no point keeping him there when we cannot conclude the file/trial. We are in a system that relies on witnesses rather than forensic evidence. Witnesses get tired. A lot of people come to me. They acknowledged that they are victims of crimes, but they are no longer interested because they do not want the trial to continue perpetually.visit sun news