TOWARDS A NATIONAL PARALEGAL MOVEMENT IN NIGERIA
The United Nations Principles and Guidelines are founded on the idea that access to legal aid is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system, and thus of the rule of law. In the absence of access to justice, people are unable to have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. It also emphasizes the right of equal access to justice for all, including members of vulnerable groups.
In Nigeria however, the bulk of lawyers are located in the urban areas whereas the underprivileged and vulnerable individuals and communities in Nigeria who account for over 70% of the population and live in rural areas. Other challenges are language barriers where interpretation is not easily available, and access to lawyers who are able to communicate effectively with their clients may pose a further challenge.
These challenges are further exacerbated by physical distance, and prevailing cultures of social exclusion. Lack of information and low literacy levels results in a lack of public awareness on rights of citizens and how to manoeuvre the justice system. Lack of access to justice is worst for people who live in extreme poverty, and particularly for women.
There are tens of thousands of people currently held in pre-trial detention in Nigeria for minor and bail-able offences. Their lack of access to legal advice and the slow and cumbersome judicial systems keep them confined for long periods that can stretch into years thereby depriving them of their human rights, when bail is actually a valid alternative.
The Council has adopted two types of paralegal schemes to tackle these challenges – paralegals who are attached to lawyers and perform solicitor’s duties and community paralegals who perform community legal services. The Council has recently been collaborating with NGOs and institutions who render paralegal services.
In May 2019, the Council in collaboration with Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI), sponsored by MacArthur Foundation, organized a 2-day National Stakeholder Consultative Forum on Paralegal Services in Nigeria. Among the participants were Government Agencies within the Justice Sector such as the National Human Rights Commission, Federal Ministry of Justice and Nigerian Law Reform Commission. Non-Governmental Organizations rendering paralegal services also participated in the workshop. Amongst them were Global Rights Nigeria, Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative, Justice Empowerment Initiative, Bauchi Human Rights Network, and Nigerian Universities Legal Aid Institutions. Other institutions include the Nigerian Bar Association and Cleen Foundation.
Speaking at the National Stakeholders Consultative Forum on Paralegals Services in Nigeria, the Director General LAC, Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar revealed that the Council is ready at all times to promote and support any effort by individuals or organization whose aim is to advance the course of justice to Nigerians.
Mr Aliyu B. Abubakar commended IWEI while revealing that the non-governmental organization had over the years executed Community Paralegal Services in rural and urban centres of the country, also said the two day workshop would focus on creating a robust rural based community paralegal services. “The larger percentage of our population in Nigeria has difficulty in accessing justice and these persons are domiciled in the rural area. The reasons are not far-fetched. Lawyers who ordinarily would have provided services to our citizens in the local communities are concentrated in the cities thereby making our people who are poor, geographically isolated or otherwise vulnerable to lack access to assistance in solving their justice problems. Meanwhile, in these communities, the people are faced with legal issues such as crime, land, matrimonial and so on. Hence, paralegals have a key role to play”, he said.
Executive Director of IWEI, Amina Hanga who said one of the responsibilities of IWEI is to provide paralegal assistance to those who cannot access or afford justice said, “There are just a hundred thousand registered lawyers in Nigeria within a population of over 190 million people, majority of whom are in the rural areas. This is roughly one lawyer for over 1700 people. The effect is that legal aid continues to elude those in needs such as the illiterates and people living in the rural areas”.
COMMUNIQUE ISSUED AT THE END OF A 2-DAY NATIONAL STAKEHOLDERS WORKSHOP / CONSULTATIVE FORUM ON PARALEGAL SERVICES IN NIGERIA ORGANIZED BY ISA WALI EMPOWERMENT INITIATIVE (IWEI) IN COLLABORATION WITH LEGAL AID COUNCIL OF NIGERIA (LAC).
1.0 A 2-day National Stakeholders Workshop / Consultative Forum on Paralegal Services in Nigeria: Issues and Challenges organized by IWEI in collaboration with LACON was held from Wednesday 22nd to Thursday 23rd May 2019 at the Barca Liga Hotels Ltd. Plot 2422 Franca Afegbua Crescent Abuja, FCT Nigeria.
The forum had the following key objectives:
- i) To increase awareness among stakeholders on the role community-based paralegals play in in promoting and improving access to justice and the challenges they face in accomplishing their tasks.
- ii) To share findings of the rapid assessment on identified challenges and bottlenecks to the development and implementation of a National Operational Guideline for paralegal services in Nigeria.
iii) To develop a workplan/action plan and roadmap for the development and implementation of a National Operational Guideline for paralegal services in Nigeria.
- iv) To constitute a Technical Working Group (TWG) from among the stakeholders to be responsible for the implementation of all resolutions and consensus reached.
2.0 The forum was attended by 46 participants from the public sector institution, professional associations, and civil society organizations from the justice system,; LACON, IWEI, Justice Empowerment Initiatives, Women’s health and Equal Rights Initiative (WHEI), PRAWA, Federal minister of Justice, Citizens’ Rights Department Abuja, NAPTIP, OSJI, Bauchi Human Rights Network (BAHRN), NLRC, CIRDDOC, Leadership Newspaper, Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN), Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Voice of Nigeria, CLEEN Foundation, NBA, NHRC, ROLAC, Nulai Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiative, CINSI, Global Rights Nigeria, MacArthur Foundation.
3.0 The forum was declared opened by the Director General LACON Aliyu B Abubakar Esq and had a keynote address presented by Hajiya Amina Hanga, Executive Secretary IWEI. Participating organizations involved in access to justice programs and initiatives shared experiences and challenges working to improve access to justice in communities through paralegal services in Nigeria.
4.0 Two technical working groups were formed during the forum proceedings to brainstorm on legal and operational framework for community based paralegal services in Nigeria.
5.0 A committee was formed during the forum proceedings to brainstorm and suggest modalities for a planned National summit of paralegal services in Nigeria.
6.0 At the end of the 2-day deliberations, the forum observed the following:
- i) Community based paralegal services is adequately provided for in the legal aid act 2011.
- ii) Legal aid act 2011mandates LACoN to license persons to practice as paralegals after undergoing a prescribed course
iii) Paralegal services are classified according to types of cases and issues involved and also location
- iv) There is inadequate knowledge and awareness about the provisions of the Legal Aid Act 2011 on paralegals even among key sector stakeholders.
- v) There are currently no national standard operating guidelines for paralegal services in Nigeria.
- vi) A paralegal service in Nigeria currently is challenged by lack of standardization, institutional legitimacy, and general acceptability.
7.0 The forum recommended the following:
- LACON should create an operational framework for the implementation of the Services
- LACON should urgently develop operational guidelines for paralegal services based on mandate and provisions of the legal aid act 2011
- LACON should put in place licensing and regulatory systems for training and paralegal services.
- LACON should lead all stakeholders for increased advocacy and awareness campaigns on relevance and importance of community-based paralegals
- A National summit on paralegal services in Nigeria be held in early October 2019.
- A comprehensive report of the resolutions and recommendations of this workshop be sent to the Legal Aid Council board for their consideration