A lot of Nigerians have been deprived of justice and fair hearings due to numerous issues. But fundamental to these issues is the inability to afford a competent lawyer and the stress and bottlenecks involved in assessing free legal representation and advice.

Rwanda, which has fast become a trailblazer in the adoption of technology in delivering government services, is saving its citizens the stress and often huge amounts of money used in travelling miles away to seek legal aid services from lawyers.

A joint project, which was created by Legal Aid Forum (LAF), a membership-based network of 38 national and international organisations, and Viamo, an international expert in mobile engagement, leveraged the wide use of mobile technology in Rwanda. It will allow LAF to provide legal information and advice to vulnerable members of society free of charge.

The three-year project is to be funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and will run until 2021 with a cost of over US $807,000 (Rwf700 million).

“We realised that people were spending a lot of time and money going to seek legal aid information but, with this system, people’s issues can be cleared on the phone anytime and from anywhere. Should their cases remain unsolved, the system leaves them a helpline for further assistance,” Andrews Kananga, the Executive Director of Legal Aid Forum said.

In order to determine the focal points, along with the most pressing issues faced by people, LAF liaised with the Rwandan Ministry of Justice to get adequate data for the project.

Are free legal services available in Nigeria?

The answer is yes, there are a couple. Access to justice is a fundamental human right, but with the majority of Nigerians under the poverty line, most can’t afford to hire legal representation when the need arises. But financial hardship shouldn’t be a barrier to justice.

In Nigeria, we have something close to the Legal Aid Forum in Rwanda but mostly unknown because of its poor reach and execution. Speaking to a freelance lawyer, Miss Temitope Odeyinka, who specializes in property and corporate law in Lagos, she highlighted two ways citizens could access free legal services in the country presently.

“So basically, in the Nigerian legal system, there are different ways by which people get free legal service. The major one that is very common and readily available is the one giving by Legal Aid. It pays lawyers to defend people in the law court, especially criminal cases where you will need a lawyer. For example, for every capital offence you will need a lawyer, so in a situation where you can’t afford a lawyer the state will provide a lawyer for you, and that lawyer is going to come from Legal Aid,” she explains.

“And also in NYSC [National Youth Service Corp] camps where there are Legal Aid Groups, they go to prisons and look for people who have been in prison and don’t have a lawyer to represent them. These NYSC lawyers pick some of these cases, simple cases, and they help them get their sentences either lessened or withdrawn. The second way people get free legal services are from pro bono lawyers. It comes from private law firms as a form of Corporate Social Responsibility.”

The Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (or Legal Aid) was promulgated by the then Head of the Federal Military Government, General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976, but was actually conceived by Sir Adetokunbo Ademola to ensure people with low income also had access to a fair hearing in court.

The Legal Aid Council, as contained in the Act (LAC Act 2011), is empowered “for the purpose of assisting indigent persons to access such advice, assistance, and representation in court where the interest of justice demands, to secure, defend, enforce, protect or otherwise exercise any right, obligation, duty, privilege interest or service to which that person is ordinarily entitled under the Nigerian legal system.”

In addition, the Act stated that the representation should also be granted “in respect of any breach or denial of any such right, obligation, duty, privilege or service.”…when the council should be “responsible for the representation before any court or tribunal for such civil matters.” This suggests they are not.

Is the current system of providing free legal services in Nigeria effective?

No, it isn’t. Miss Temitope, who also worked with the Legal Aid team during NYSC, said “I’ve seen Legal Aid lawyers who don’t have a passion for their people because they know it’s government: ‘whether I do it or not, I’m fine.’ And again, in law, you don’t have to win your cases, you just have to do it. So it makes them lazy when representing these people.”

However, in spite of the Legal Aid Council and pro bono lawyers, the demand for legal support far outweighs the supply of legal aid services. There simply aren’t enough public interest lawyers to go around.

Fortunately, the simple application of technology can streamline legal representation, and with wider adoption, improve the fair hearing of the downtrodden.

Replicating the new Rwandan system in Nigeria

Sulakshana Gupta, the country manager of Viamo helping Rwanda deploy its own system explained that for citizens to get special advice from a law expert, they could call the Legal Aid Forum referral call centre, or call a toll free line that will take down their request. The call requester would then be called back by the legal aid call centre operator who fills out an intake form and then refers the case to the right legal aid providers. What this kind of system does is reduce stress and the time citizens, especially those living miles away from the office of the legal aid group, spend in reporting cases.

Taking it even further than what Rwanda is launching now. Imagine someone dealing with an abusive and neglectful behaviour of a landlord or tenant, which is a common problem in Nigeria. Instead of enduring in frustration the treatment from the landlord/tenant, you can simply assess a mobile or web application that can be used to take proactive measures against the other party.

Through this app, there can be a way of documenting the conditions you are facing through photos and case notes, and the app should also be able to automatically generate an official letter of complaint, which can then be mailed to the Legal Aid Council office to file a case in the court.

From there, the case can be taken up by any lawyer attached to legal aid to represent the injured party in a court or the lawyer could, instead, simply engage both parties in a mediation process to resolve the conflict.

Automating administrative and referral processes free up valuable time and would help pro bono lawyers attend to more cases. While law firms in Nigeria have been quite slow to embrace these new disruptive technologies, public interest law is different. Tech can allow our current ineffective system to serve more citizens who need legal advice and representation. It’s a disruption for good that nonprofit tech companies and the ministry of justice can spearhead.

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