Volunteer Lawyers Give New Direction to Nigerian Legal Aid Initiative

Three men in a police station
A legal aid takes notes while interviewing his client in a police station in Akure, Nigeria. © Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR for the Open Society Foundations

In late December, two men were arrested by the police in the Nigerian city of Ikorodu, which lies on the northeast edge of Lagos, the country’s sprawling commercial capital. Both were charged with nonviolent crimes, and both were offered release on bail.

Yet because neither man could meet the bail conditions, they were immediately at enormous risk: In Nigeria, people can spend months or even years in pretrial detention—even on minor charges—wasting their lives in overcrowded and dangerous cells, awaiting an uncertain trial date. Indeed, that very same month, four people were released from the Kirikiri prison in Lagos after being held for between 8 and 11 years without trial—longer than the sentences they would have faced if actually convicted.

Fortunately, this time, good sense prevailed. The cases were immediately reviewed by volunteer lawyers from the local branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), working at the police station as duty solicitors. They made the case with the police that neither man was likely to fail to appear when summoned to court. Both walked free.

The involvement of the NBA lawyers in Ikorodu represents an important evolution in a 12-year effort to provide duty solicitors at Nigerian police stations. The objective is to make a reality of the Nigerian constitution’s commitment to providing suspects with access to legal aid within 48 hours of arrest—a step that can protect suspects’ rights, and reduce the number of people held unnecessarily in pretrial detention in the country’s overcrowded prison system.

Until December 2018, the Police Duty Solicitors Scheme relied exclusively on young lawyers engaged in mandatory national service, who were trained by the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria and the Rights Enforcement and Public Law Centre, and then deployed to select police stations.

In the first five years of operation, in four states, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and run by the Rights Enforcement and Public Law Centre, the scheme achieved much—over 13,000 people were kept out of unnecessary detention in four states, 90 percent of them going home within 10 days of arrest. The results and ensuing advocacy were sufficient to persuade the Nigerian Police Force to expand the initiative: In September 2017, the Inspector General of Police issued Force Order 20, an internal police regulation officially recognizing the scheme.

Despite the successes, however, the scheme struggled to expand because of a shortage of resources. In particular, the Council struggled to get the funding needed to pay a basic stipend to the national service lawyers it was seeking to train and deploy, leading to a shortage of available lawyers for the scheme.

Then, amid the growing concern about how to move things forward, the Ikorodu branch of the NBA stepped in with a bold new approach: Instead of using national service lawyers, why not seek voluntary support from socially-committed members of the Bar Association, working on a pro bono basis?

Led by its recently elected chairman, Bayo Akinlade, a lawyer with a strong commitment to social justice and reform, NBA Ikorodu reached out to the police, the judiciary, the Council, and members of the local community to mobilize the effort. The initiative launched on International Human Rights Day, December 10, with an initial team of 13 volunteer lawyers on standby to provide the crucial legal service in six police stations.

NBA Ikorodu has now created an alternative model for expanding the duty solicitor scheme, offering an alternative path for growth alongside the use of the Council-trained national service lawyers. The question is whether the challenge can be taken up by any of the other 124 branches of the NBA spread across the country.

So what are the incentives that might persuade other branches of the Bar Association to get involved, and persuade lawyers to offer their skills for free to people too poor to pay for their services?

For NBA Ikorodu and Akinlade, supporting this initiative has clearly strengthened their reputation, both locally and within the broader Nigerian legal community. For the lawyers who participate, volunteering offers a chance to give something back, by assisting the most vulnerable members of society. In addition, Akinlade says a lawyer’s participation in the scheme builds goodwill with the branch and the community, which invariably recommends them to other clients, including paying clients.

The NBA Ikorodu initiative to provide legal aid at police stations is also mirrored by another effort focused on the Kirikiri prison: more volunteer lawyers, working in the courts, have secured the release of some 70 people held in pretrial detention.

Hopefully, similar factors can persuade more branches of the NBA to pick up the challenge and join Ikorodu in the struggle to build a better justice system.

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