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Justice: The need for public defenders in Nigeria.

To say that our prisons are overcrowded is an understatement. To say that our judicial system is slow in passing judgments is also an understatement. People in our prisons are mostly incarcerated or allegedly staying longer than they should. The problem of delayed (or denied) justice, overcrowded prisons and means for a way out has been constantly discussed with little progress to show. This is because the question of how our citizens got into prisons rather than why they’re in there has not been properly asked. Why they should be in prisons is suppose to be asked and answered before they go in, not while they’re there. When the question of how victims of our justice system got there, incarcerated or otherwise; the dire need for public defenders will become obvious.

Wikipedia defines a public defender as a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In Brazil, it constitution uniquely made provision for a public defender’s office at both state and federal levels. The office admits public defenders through civil service examination. In most parts the UK, public defenders service offices directly employ lawyers through the legal aid agency to provide advice in police stations and representations in courts. In the US, legal counsel is provided for those who can’t afford private attorneys through the public defender’s office. Countries like Germany, Singapore, Hungary, France, etcetera, provide some form of legal aid to those who can’t afford a private lawyer through public defenders. In Nigeria, the Nigerian legal aid council is simply not doing close to enough.

Thousands of lawyers are called to bar every year in Nigeria with little court experience to show years after being called. This is squarely because most citizens prosecuted cannot afford to hire a counsel. There is a need for government to find ways for our teeming barristers to be where they’re suppose to be, which is in our court rooms, defending Nigerians.

Courts could have a list for lawyers who want cases to put their names down and when the need arises, cases are assigned to them. A reasonable allowance for court appearance should be agreed upon and paid depending on the number and nature of cases handled by the public defender. This will be a good platform for lawyers to gain experience and build their names to be a brand in the legal system. It will be a good publicity for them. Big law firms with strong finances, could be made as a part of giving back to the community, to provide some of their resources to aid legal defense for free a few times a year. Pro bono should be encouraged among emerging law firm and forced on established firms.

It could be argued that our government cannot afford public defenders, I beg to differ. We spend a lot of money on the welfare of prisoners in our penitentiary and whether or not these funds get to the prisoners is an argument for another day. For now, I believe such resources are better spent on making them actually deserving to be in the prisons. Justice is a paramount ingredient in any progressive society and its prize should never be too high. If the government have fully employed state counsel it is only fair to have public defenders on the other end. Law students and graduates yet to be called, can be a valuable asset to this proposed public defender idea. They can help public defenders, consequently cutting some costs and gaining experience of the court environment in their ends.

Our courts will be functioning to the fullest. Open courts will be busier than the commissioner for oath’s office, where courts busiest work of issuing affidavits and declarations are done. Our judiciary will grow under the pressure to deliver, more revenue will be generated and justice will not be delayed or denied.

The only pressure worth effecting the change for a speedy and fair judgment on the bench is the one from the bar and a government willing to see laws obeyed and justice prevail. The strength of the bar is bigger than that of a person in an accused box, remand or incarcerated. This strength should be fully utilized.

Ibrahim oga could also be reached via twitter: @ibtouchdown

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