The obstacles to access to justice are deeply entrenched and require appropriate and specialised resources to ensure that a much-needed legal need in Nigeria does not go unmet. In the past, NGOs have played a role, alongside government legal aid agencies, but the resource constraints of these organizations limit their impact on the scope of the challenges. The purpose of the project – ‘Building a Culture of Pro-Bono Assistance in Nigeria’ is to put in place infrastructure (the Clearinghouse) to tap into the available pool of lawyers who are eager to give back to society through pro bono work. The clearinghouse in Abuja, Kaduna, Osun and Sokoto are matching experienced volunteer lawyers with nonprofit organisations and indigent individuals in need of free legal assistance.
Apart from the establishment of the clearinghouse, it became evident; there was a dire need to engage in policy advocacy to build structures within the judiciary that supports the provision of pro-bono services through the clearinghouse. There are many lawyers across the country that want to provide free legal services but are constrained due to excessive financial and time commitment required on their part. As a result of this, the clearinghouse is engaging the Chief Judges of the High Courts of the target states. A draft practice directory to waive court filing fees and fast track cases emanating from the clearinghouse has been submitted. The clearinghouse team is working with the office of the Chief Judge to ensure this is signed and issued.
With the establishment of National Clearinghouse in the Abuja, we at the early stage of building a robust commitment to pro bono services within the legal community. The initial successes are remarkably positive: 500 lawyers signed on to provide free legal services; fifteen law firms currently signed to take up pro-bono cases; 89 pre-trial detainees from Abuja, Kaduna, Osun and Sokoto are beneficiaries of the free legal services; 110 cases presently being handled by the clearinghouse with over 28 cases brought to completion.
The team has also secured the buy-in of key stakeholders, which include the Judiciary, Law Enforcement Officers (the prisons), the Nigerian Bar Association, Legal Aid Council, Human Right Radio, Human Right Commission, Public Complaint Services, International Women Lawyers Federation (FIDA), non-profit agencies in the target states and a partnership with Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI). The partnership with NULAI is to further foster the culture of pro-bono among a new generation of young lawyers; who have a better understanding of the framework for providing pro-bono services and would have seen the impact of pro-bono services in expanding access to justice.
Early indications are therefore that pro bono in Nigeria, if supported and facilitated well, could be a major factor in reducing barriers to justice for citizens across the country.