Mrs Joy Bob-Manuel, the Director-General of Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, recently expressed concern about the rising cases of awaiting trials in courts resulting in the congestion of the prisons.
She recalled that the council was set up by the Federal Government in 1976 to provide free legal services to Nigerian citizens that could not afford the services of private legal practitioners to prevent prisons congestion.
She also said that the council, in its role in that regard, had been representing litigants in courts to ensure such speedy dispensation of justice.
“Irrespective of availability of funds to the council, it ensures speedy dispensation of justice to the less-privileged in the society through its lawyers.
“We are in collaboration with agencies under the justice system to speed up cases for dispensation of justice.
“Most of our cases come from awaiting trials and the council also engages in police bail,’’ she said.
According to her, the council has signed an agreement with the Federal Capital Territory chapter of the Nigeria Bar Association to ensure effective prisons decongestion.
She explained in an event in Abuja recently that the collaboration would enable the council to deliver its mandate which included visitation to vari¬ous prisons to identify prisoners in need of legal representation.
“Private lawyers who belong to Nigeria Bar Association are also desirous of representing indigent citizens,’’ she said.
She said that the council had defended 134 inmates on awaiting trials at the Keffi prisons in court for the purpose of prison decongestion, observing that the number of inmates on awaiting trial in the prison was worrisome.
Bob-Manuel said that the council was also partnering with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to acquire the necessary knowledge on its programme –Access to justice by the poor.
She also said that the council had strengthened partnership with more than 20 legal aid providers to assist pre-trial detainees in prison custody.
She explained further that an offender became a pre-trial detainee when he had no lawyer to represent him or her in court.
Bob-Manuel said the council had been receiving, on monthly basis, the update from all the prisons in the 36 states of the federation and Abuja, on the number of those awaiting trials.
She attributed prison congestion in Nigeria to the delay in dispensing criminal justice, stressing that the council would always embark on its mandate to decongest the prisons.
She also promised to facilitate more training for lawyers and non-lawyers of the council to handle civil matters, engage in dispute resolutions and intensive mediation for litigants through various partnerships with non-governmental organisations.
Irrespective of Bob-Manuel’s claim, Mr Hussain Obaro, a public affairs commentator, stressed the need for more pragmatic approach to methods of prison decongestion in Nigeria.
He observed that the dilapidated facilities in Nigerian prisons remained a source of concern to all stakeholders.
He further noted that corporate individuals had been seeking and proffering solutions and permanent ways to effectively decongest the Nigerian prisons.
“Some people have advised the transfer of the Nigerian prisons, currently subordinate to the Federal Ministry of Interior, to the Federal Ministry of Justice, to ensure proper supervision of trials and conviction.
“Others have called for elimination of the maximum and minimum security system currently implemented in Nigeria in favour of the decentralisation of the prison system,’’ he said.
According to him, the state of Nigerian prisons in which many inmates are awaiting trial has made it imperative for the government to apply extra measures to decongest prisons and further strengthen the criminal justice system.
“Nigerians are made to spend months and years in incarceration even without being proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction,’’ he observed.
He, therefore, pleaded with the government to adopt the parole system such as that of South African to restore sanity in the Nigerian criminal justice system.
In his view, a former Akwa Ibom State Director of Public Prosecution, Chief Harrison Ataide, said that the problem of prison congestion would remain until the criminal justice system was reformed to achieve efficiency.
“To decongest the prisons of awaiting trial persons, some of who stay for years behind bars without being charged to court, the police and directorates of public prosecution must work together more quickly and seamlessly,’’ he said.
According to him, this will be possible with a comprehensive overhaul of the remand process, investigation, arrest and issuance of legal advice by Directors of Public Prosecution.(NANFeatures)
Legal Aid Council, Prison Decongestion And Matters Arising