A non governmental organization, Good Leadership and Peace Advocates of Nigeria, GOLEPAN, weekend, stated that the inability of the Nigeria Police to exercise discretion as to which case should be charged to court and limited sponsorship of Pro Bono lawyers by the Federal government were some of the factors responsible for Prisons congestion in the country.
It further decried the low access to justice in Nigeria especially among the indigent citizens adding that most prison inmates are individuals who cannot afford legal fees and representation in court.
Founder of the group and Principal partner of ZEADA Attorneys, Barr. Adaeze Nwaji who expressed concerns over the situation said justice in Nigeria is now basically reserved for the rich.
Nwaji, a Brithish trained Lawyer, spoke at a one-day workshop on pro bono legal service delivery organized by Ebonyi State University Law Clinic in partnership with GOLEPAN, ZEADA Attorneys & Lead Trust as well as Network of University Legal Aid Institutions.
With the theme: “the role of pro bono Lawyers in our criminal legal system, legal aid council guidelines for pro bono lawyers professional ethics and skills needed for effective pro bono service delivery”, Barr. Nwaji advocated for funding of pro bono lawyers to offer legal services to indigent citizens.
She explained that due to limited lawyers willing to undertake pro bono services for indigent citizens, the issue of congestion in Nigeria prisons has continued to persist.
She added that the police have a big role to play in prisons decongestion by exercising its discretion in determining whether a case is serious for prosecution or not.
“Justice in Nigeria is basically reserved for the rich. But there supposed to be legal aids from ministry of Justice for the indigents citizens.
Regrettably, to get Justice in Nigeria, you must have money to get lawyers to represent you which supposed not to be so. Nigeria Police said bail is free but is never free.
“Some of these inmates have been there for years and they have not been tried. And because we have limited lawyers that are ready to represent these people they are not getting representation; because they don’t have money.
“One of the ways to actually decongest our prisons is to get Nigeria Police to know that they have the powers to determine whether a case is a serious one that requires prosecution or not as it is done in other countries.
“So, if police will begin to exercise the discretion they have, it will decongest the prisons. And if we have more legal aid lawyers and they are funded there will be better representation for every citizen.
“It should not be when you have money before you can get one. And because some of the lawyers don’t have money and they are busy with other things they cannot afford to do free work.
“So, there is need to fund pro bono lawyers. Justice system starts with fair hearing but when you are not represented, you are denied Justice.
Also speaking, the representative of Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, Barr. Nwokpoku Nathaniel, while alluding to the problem of prisons congestion in Nigeria, noted that the council was doing its best to offer pro bono services to indigent citizens in Nigeria.
According to him, Federal government approves some fund to assist pro bono lawyers; adding that “for us, Legal Aid Council, which is federal government establishment. We are civil servants and our work is to represent indigent citizens”.
Nwokpoku said the council makes more than 300 representations every year in Ebonyi alone for indigent citizens.
“In Ebonyi, we have made serious impacts. Of course, if you go to Abakaliki maximum prisons,you will discover that a placement for about 500 persons or so, is being occupied by over 1000 persons and daily, that is how they chun in people.
“The number of people that come out are not usually the number that go in every day. What we do is to make sure we decongest the prisons both here in Abakaliki and Afikpo prisons.
“Some persons are not usually in prison. They come from their homes to tell us the nature of cases they have and we file processes on their behalf. We represent 300 persons and above every year. He however, blamed the menace of prisons congestion to the nature of crimal justice system in Nigeria.
Explaining further, he said criminal justice system encompasses all the paraphernalia of justice system in Nigeria; ranging from police, court, prisons and other law enforcement agencies.
“Usually when people are arrested there is delay in investigating their matters. You see them being kept in the prisons more than necessary.
“The Constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria stipulates that any body suspected to have committed a crime should be arraigned in court within 48hrs but is no longer so.
“Investigation takes about weeks or months to conclude and when a matter is concluded on investigation and brought to court for trial, if charges are not filed against them in a court of competent jurisdiction you see there will be delay”.