The cavernous interior of the Justice Mohammed Bello Hall (Marque 2) in Abuja was the venue of the 2nd Breakout Session at the 63rd Annual Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which convened to discuss the topic, Challenges and Opportunities of Pro Bono Work in Nigeria.’
Moderated by Ezinwa Okoroafor, it comprised of Funmi Ayeni, who was the Lead Speaker, as well as a quartet of other panelists in the persons of Tonye Krukrubo, SAN; Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar; Itoro Eze-Anaba and Jake Epelle.
In her opener, Okoroafor decried the disproportion between the number of lawyers in Nigeria and the general population – and the urgent need to bridge the gap. The session, she added, would see to interrogate the role of pro bono legal services in bridging the justice gap, and to provide insights into how lawyers can make a tangible difference in ensuring equal access to justice for the vulnerable.
In her lead presentation, Mrs Funmi Ayeni began by asserting that access to justice by indigent people was not a privilege but a right, citing relevant extant laws that provide for fair hearing for all – regardless of their station in life. Ayeni went on to identify the nature of cases – civil and criminal alike – which are qualified for pro bono services and their sources, and identified some of the challenges facing pro bono services, namely, financial constrants, payment of filing fees, and the lack of a central base.
In his contribution, Tonye Krukrubo SAN a partner in Aluko and Oyebode, stressed the constitionality of pro bono work, citing the following various legal sources ranging from Section 36(6)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to Section 349(1) & (4) of Adminstration of Criminal justice Act, 2015, to Section 155 & 210 of the Child’s Right Act 2003, to Rule 38 of the Rules Of Professional Conduct 2023, among others.
On the reasons to undertake (or steer clear of) pro bono work, the learned Senior Advocate elicited laughter among the assembled delegates when he gave the following points:
For every pro bono case I take, I can at least undermine one more lawyer joke;
I can keep my paying clients while holding on to my dream of making a difference in my community;
God probably won’t care if I am “this close” to a billable hours bonus;
My children will think I’m cool;
I don’t get a pass on something this important just because I am busy;
Pro bono work keeps me in touch with my inner Atticus Finch;
Saving a child or even a family is a life changing experience I will always remember;
Doing pro bono work recharges my batteries;
Lawyers who do pro bono say it makes them better lawyers;
Because the Rules of Professional Conduct say all lawyers should work to ensure equal access to justice for all those who cannot afford counsel.
Krukrubo listed a plethora of opportunities of pro bono work for the provider of the sevice, for the beneficiaries, for the sponsors, for the legal profession and for the state and the general public.
Conversely, he also listed some challenges associated with pro bono work as, such as possible conflict of interest between pro bono clients and other clients and other office duties; the lack of firm culture supporting pro bono activities; difficulties encountered by lawyers in finding the time for pro bono work; inadequate funding; the shortage of highly skilled lawyers in certain geographical locations; rhe lack of adequate statistics or publicly available means of verifying with regards to the finances of the populace thus depleting lean resources, depriving those who truly need it and causing lack of trust of intended beneficiaries by service providers and sponsors, among others.
Krukrubo concluded his submission by proffering the following recommendations, among others, for an effective and beneficial pro bono culture in Nigeria:for the just identified challenges of the pro bono work in Nigeria as follows: provision for the legal framework, implementation and special enforcement mechanism for a firm culture/mechanism of supporting pro bono activities particularly in small and medium-sized law firms to allow for funding and logistics; employment of more qualified lawyers and proper posting of same across the nation with particular attention to needs; provision of a reliable and accessible statistics for verification of means of the intended beneficiaries for use by service providers and sponsors.
This will make determining more easily who an indigent person is; eduction in statutory limitations and bureaucracy in the provision of pro bono services particularly those contained in the LPA, Legal Aid Act and Legal Practitioners Renumeration (For Business, Legal Service and Representation) Order, 2023; Creation more courts, appointment of more judges and employment of court officials in order to cure the infrastructure deficit; strengthening the existing legal framework, particularly the Rules of Court that support the provision of pro bono; waiver of all fees or at least filing fees for indigents in all court just as the Court of Appeal has done in Order 13 of the Court Appeal Rules 2021; and the formation and implementation of a formal pro bono receipt and referral system in courts, the temple of justice where indigents can walk-in, meet the court clerks, other officials or a specially designated pro bono officer to tell them their issues and such an officer upon verification of the status of the complainant as an indigent, will record their case and then refer the matter to a service provider.
On her part, Mrs. Itoro Eze Anaba, another panelist, centred her presentation on pro bono opportunities, especially in the service of victims and survivors of raped cases as well as persons with disabilities, adding that society should stop making assumptions on who is likely or unlikely to commit a rape case, as every one can do so, and therefore wherever the case is reported the authorities concerned should do away with assumptions and do the needful and see the justice is done.
Jake Epelle, yet another panelist focused on the needs of people living with disabilities in Nigeria, and highlighted some key points about disabilities as well the challenges faced by affected persons, as well as made a number of recommendations.
Abubakar Bagudu, the Director-General of Legal Aid Council, identified lack of adequate manpower as the key problem facing his organization, and called for more support as the LAC works to provide the enabling environment for the sustenance abd growth of a robust culture of pro bono legal culture in Nigeria.