Pro Bono Service, A Vital Tool For Realisation of Constitutionally Enshrined Citizens' Rights - Fashola
Apr 11, 2014 - Lagos State Governor, Mr Babatunde Fashola (SAN) on Friday graced the grand finale of the Pro Bono Law Week celebration in Lagos with an assertion that the rights stipulated under the Nigerian Constitution and the rule of law will mean nothing, if people do not have access to legal representation of some remarkable quality.
The Governor who spoke at the Lagos City Hall, venue of the Lagos Public Interest Law Partnership (LPIP) Dinner and Launch of the Pro-Bono Trust Fund before a gathering of lawyers, several of whom have bought into the Pro Bono initiative added that under no circumstance must people be driven from the seat of justice simply because they could not afford a counsel of their choice.
Against the backdrop of the theme of the week, "Building A Culture of Pro Bono in Nigeria", Fashola maintained that the idea of citizens' rights in civil and criminal cases enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution would not be a right if those rights cannot be fully ventilated in a most qualitative and quantitative manner probably because of the absence of a counsel.
The Governor said for those who have signed up to be part of the Lagos Public Interest Law Partnership, they have done a great thing which is indeed very noble especially going by the fact that the programme has recorded participation by 64 law firms with individual law firms in them.
He said with the feat, the largest law firm in Nigeria has been probably created and possibly in West Africa, adding that as it goes on, it would become a club for distinguished and eminent people with membership attracting some bragging rights which could also be worn as a badge of honour.
According to him, apart from the liberty and the defence of the rights of citizens that pro bono promotes, it also engenders the best promotion of the development of law through a partnership of honour.
Governor Fashola noted that the significance of the contribution of the lawyers participating in the Pro Bono partnership is underscored by the fact that they were giving to society in a way without self seeking publicity or any recognition as some people have done in some other areas.
He said that he has taken on board the advice of the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice for the launch of the Pro Bono Trust Fund but, however, suggested that the Fund must lean away from in its administration from any sort of recompense for lawyers, whether in terms of transport expenses or anything of that type.
Explaining his stand, the Governor noted that the essence of Pro Bono is in the fact that any lawyer participating in it really wants to do it and fund it, recalling that in his time as a junior lawyer in a law firm, he engaged in a lot of work which he should make claims from the Lagos State Government for, but by virtue of statute provisions now he could not claim anymore.
He also advised that efforts should be concentrated on getting law firms who are able to at least meet filing expenses which are not outrageous sums, adding however that the Trust Fund would do a lot of benefit in evidence gathering, witness protection, transportation of witnesses to and fro courts for those who would not ordinarily want to come to court because of the burden and so on.
Speaking earlier, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Ade Ipaiye said since 1999, Lagos State has been in the forefront of the drive for enlarged access to justice especially for the indigent less privileged in the society and this is exceptionally so because the legal system is not accessible to anyone who cannot afford a lawyer even if that person is well educated.
He added that the state sponsored assistance started with the Directorate of Citizens Rights and at some point there were so many issues leading to going to court and the State started the Office of the Public Defender which has grown and that office has grown enormously today catering to over 3000 at a time and so large that the state counsels in that office cannot cope and lawyers are being hired on contract basis to assist as project officers.
The Attorney General said the role of the government is to facilitate the restructuring of Pro Bono service in Nigeria and that Lagos is assisting to set up the structure and that was the cornerstone of the promise made in November 2012 when the Governor formally launched the programme.
"In the course of the following year, the success we have achieved has been very impressive and tremendous because over 60 law firms and this was before this pro bono week, we already had about 64 law firms signed on and not just signed on, they took assignments because the way these assignments came, from the Office of the Public Defender there were referrals and we also had walk in clients, so much that within that year, we had over 100 cases being handled by private legal practitioners at totally free of charges,"he said .
He added that there is a need for a Pro Bono fund to enlarge the circle so that a lot more lawyers would be able to buy into the programme while also addressing the concerns of those who think that Pro Bono takes away work from lawyers.
In a message of goodwill, Professor Edwin Rekosh recalled that 19 month ago when he attended a meeting of a small group of lawyers who talked about Pro Bono, the resultant progress that has been made has been phenomenal.
"I don't think I have seen such a rapid development of structuring Pro Bono into an institution and operating such an institution and actually operating that institution with so much impact not at the level that brings us here today", he said.
The event attracted several dignitaries including the Solicitor General of the State, Mr Lawal Pedro (SAN), lawyers and law firms that are participating in the Pro Bono law scheme and five major law firms were singled out for recognition for their contribution to the success of the programme in Lagos.