On July 24,  2000, the government of Lagos State under the leadership of its then-Governor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu,  blazed a trail in the legal annals of Nigeria by setting up an Office of the Public Defender in the Ministry of Justice  (incidentally under the stewardship of its Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice at the time, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN (who has, of course, since gone on to become Nigeria’s Vice-President), with a view to assisting disadvantaged groups in accessing justice through a strong, vibrant and high-quality pro bono service in collaboration with national and international stakeholders.

In other words, its stated mission was to provide quality legal aid through free representation in court and legal advice to promote respect for rights and freedoms, the law, and the Constitution and to ensure that all persons resident in Lagos State, irrespective of means, gender, tribe or religion have access to justice.

A key objective of the OPD is to create a forum that is open to receive and legally deal with issues that affect the socio-economic rights of indigent residents of Lagos State.

Whether the OPD – in Lagos State or elsewhere – as well as complementary agencies such as the Legal Aid Council, etc. have really performed this role to their utmost, and what more needs to be done to ensure their maximum efficacy on behalf of society’s downtrodden, was the focus of the 4th technical session at the 2021 annual conference of the NBA’s Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL).

Chaired by Hon. Justice JD Peters of the National Industrial Court, a panel of knowledge and influential stakeholders – a preponderance of them, understandably, from the trailblazers in this regard, namely, the Lagos State government – gathered to examine the efficacy of the OPD and how it could better serve its target citizens.

The lead speaker, Dr. Babajide Martins, who is the Director of the OPD in Lagos State, was represented by a director in that establishment, Mrs. Ajayi, who opened by stressing that there are dire consequences to leaving some people behind as far as access to justice is concerned, which was why government – which normally is known in the more plausible role of enforcer of its laws and the sanctioning of offenders – should not only also ensure a fair hearing for those who are accused of contravening those laws, but in fact go ahead to provide legal defence where they are unable to get such legal defence for themselves.

The powers of an Attorney-General, she went on say, are not just prosecutorial, but they are defensive as well.

Thanks to the example set by Lagos State, a few other states have followed suit; recall that the Governor of Oyo State had hinted during the Conference’s opening ceremonies that an OPD was in the offing in the state.

Ogun State in particular, had not only run with the Lagos State OPD template, but has, according to its Attorney-General, Mr. Akingbolahan Adeniran, added some far reaching innovations of its own to it. Initiatives such as the Civil Justice Lab Transformation Project; the Claims Registry at Local Government level; the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee; the Correctional Information Management Services; and the so-called ‘Justice Clock’, to name a few, are all aimed, the Ogun State AG said, at enhancing and fast tracking access to justice for indigent and vulnerable persons.

With the foregoing, what’s not to like about the Office of the Public Defender? one may ask. But a panelist, Mazi Afam Osigwe, SAN, struck a discordant tone when he expressed reservations about the quality of pro bono services these vulnerable persons were actually getting.

The learned silk cited examples of lawyers who were all too ready to offer pro bono services via the OPD, the Legal Aid Council and other institutional schemes – but only as a means to their own ends, namely, to rack up enough cases to qualify for the coveted rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

What then should be done to  ensure that such less-than altruistic motivations did not hold sway as far as pro bono legal defence is concerned? Osigwe called for a stricter and more exacting monitoring of standards by relevant authorities.

His view was echoed by Mr. Bayo Akinlade, a former chair of the NBA’s Ikorodu branch and coordinator of the Police Duty Solicitor Scheme (or PDDS for short). The NBA, he said, is in effect an NGO – and an extremely large one at that.

There is a wide gap between the noble aims of the OPD and the Legal Aid Council, etc and their ability to actualize them – on account of their inherent weaknesses and limitations, which a representative of the Legal Aid Council on the panel had listed to include inadequate funding and poor staffing, as well other statutory limitations which have severely narrowed its scope. This is the gap, Akinlade said, the NBA must fill, on account of its numerical and financial superiority over these governmental agencies.

Mr. Akinjide Bakare, a senior official of the Lagos State Ministry of Justice who stood in for the solicitor-general, Mrs. Titilayo Shitta-Bey, also made the distinction between quantitative and qualitative legal representation.

He called for changes to be made in areas such as policing (which he belives is already skewed against poor people), so that such people are not unduly victimized. He tasked the NBA to be more involved in the legislative process around which free legal services revolve, in addition to which the NBA should register lawyers as honorary members of the Office of the Public Defender, in a bid to improve the quality of pro bono services.

Another problem that needs to be urgently surmounted, in the view of Mrs. Igbeaku Evulukwu, a Lagos-based legal consultant, is that of widespread ignorance on the part of potential beneficiaries of the services of the OPD – no thanks to the inadequate level of sensitisation and public enlightenment being carried out by the relevant authorities in that space.

This general lack of awareness, she maintained, accounts for the relative low number of cases that have been resolved since the OPD obtained legal status in 2003.

The consensus, even after the Q&A interaction, in which members of the audience expressed concern or interest in some of the issues that were thrown up, was that the NBA – and SPIDEL in particular – had an important role to play in ensuring that the OPDs and other such institutional schemes rendered qualititative services to the vulnerable in our society as far as access to justice was concerned. 

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