Legal aid simply means the provision of free legal services to the indigent, impecunious or underprivileged members of the society.
Access to justice simply refers to the substantive and procedural mechanisms existing in any particular society designed to ensure that citizens have the opportunity of seeking redress for the violation of their legal rights within that legal system. Access to Legal Aid is regarded as very imperative and central in providing access to justice and fulfilling the constitutional mandates of equality before the law, right to counsel, and right to a fair trial.
Consequent to the fact that lack of access to justice ultimately plays a devastating role in undermining equality in society, the National Assembly enacted the Legal Aid Act 2011 thereby giving effect to Section 46 of the 1999 Constitution, as well as to bringing the practice of provision of legal aid services in Nigeria at par with International Standards. The Act is intended to cure the absence of legal empowerment and deter the general lack of confidence in the Nigerian judicial system.
This article examines Nigerian citizens’ right to Legal Aid, the role of the Legal Aid Council, and other instruments available to Nigerian citizens for the protection of their human and fundamental rights in Nigeria. Furthermore, this article looks at the reality of the Nigerian situation and posits that there are a number of obstacles to the realization of access to justice in the country. Thereafter, it inquires as to the prospects for improvement of access to justice in Nigeria.
Citizens’ Right To Legal Aid And Access To Justice In Nigeria
In a bid, to remove this major barrier of accessing justice, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria was established in 1976. In 2011, the Legal Aid Act was amended. The amendment repealed the old Act, which is, the Legal Aid Act, and Cap. L9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004. According to section 1 (1) of the new Act, the Legal Aid Council was established to provide legal aid and access to justice to the less privileged members of the society.
The Legal Aid Act of 2011 provides for the establishment of legal aid and access to justice funds. Through the fund, financial assistance is made available to the Legal Aid Council on behalf of indigent citizens for the prosecution of claims in accordance with the Constitution.
The Act further empowers the Legal Aid Council with responsibility for the operation of a scheme for the grant of legal aid and access to justice in certain matters or proceedings to persons who are impecunious or lack inadequate resources.
The Act provides that legal aid shall be provided to persons whose income is below the national minimum wage. It further provides that the Governing Board could, however, grant legal aid on a contributory basis to persons whose earnings exceeds the national minimum wage up to ten times. This is an improvement on the earlier provision of the old Act.
The Council is empowered to provide legal aid and access to justice in three major areas namely: Criminal Defence Service; Civil Litigation Service as well as advice and assistance in Community Legal Services, provided the persons concerned are indigents.
Under the Criminal Defence Service, the Council shall be responsible for assistance to indigents involved in a criminal investigation, representation, or advice. Criminal offenses which fall within the scope of the Council as listed in the second schedule of the Act are: murder (also known as culpable homicide punishable with death), manslaughter (also known as culpable homicide not punishable with death), and malicious or willful grievous hurt (also known as wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm). Others are, assault occasioning actual bodily harm (also known as criminal force occasioning actual bodily harm), common assault, and affray. Others also include stealing; rape, armed robbery, and aiding and abetting the commission of any of the afore-listed offences.
The Civil Litigation Service shall assist the indigents in accessing justice, legal advice, representations in courts/tribunals for the purpose of their defense; enforcement, and protection of their rights, obligations, and interests as guaranteed by the laws of the land. The scope of the responsibilities of the Council when it comes to civil litigation service are: civil claims in respect of accidents including employee’s compensation claim; claim covering breach
According to section 46 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Council is funded mainly by the Federal Government of Nigeria through funds appropriated annually by the National Assembly. In addition to that, there are also funds allocated to legal aid as well as access to justice by states of the Federation, including the Federal Capital Territory. It can also accept donations from individuals and bodies apart from the general funds allocated.
Also, Non-governmental organizations, the National Youth Service Corps Legal Aid Community Development Service, and university-based law clinics under the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI) have continued to play vital roles in the rendering of pro bono legal services to indigent members of the Nigerian society and promoting access to justice. Some of their activities include providing amicable resolution of civil disputes, providing counseling services, regular prison visits and facilitating the release of pre-trial detainees, securing the release of detainees at police stations as well as representing clients in both criminal and civil cases before courts and tribunals.
As much as there are a plethora of obstacles and setbacks as regards the Legal Aid Council, it is still empowered by Law and financed by the government to carry out regular inspection of police cells, prisons, and other places where suspects are detained to review the circumstances surrounding their detention and render every possible aid to them at no cost. Therefore, it is pertinent that Citizens who are indigent or impecunious endeavor to always exercise this constitutional right where need be.
On the other hand, the Nigerian Government should ensure that the Legal Aid Scheme is positively refurbished so that there would be meaningful access to justice which will impact positively the quest for the protection of human rights in the country. Also, the threshold of the scheme should be expanded to cover the most vulnerable, especially rural area residents. In addition, there is a need for a wide range sensitization of the Nigerian citizens generally as to this right to Legal Aid, the importance of this cannot be overemphasized particularly considering the level of illiteracy and poverty which are considered on the high side in Nigeria.
 Legal Aid 2011 Section 8(2)
 Ibid, at s. 8 (3) and (4)
 Ibid s. 9
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