This Day (Lagos)

2 November 2012

Nigeria: Defending the Defenceless

opinion

Created in 2000 by the former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the state's Office of the Public Defender (OPD), was geared towards rendering free legal services to all regardless of one's status especially the less- privileged in the society.

With special focus on cases like domestic violence and child abuse, the OPD is however not restricted to that as it continually evolves to mediate in cases of compensation, unlawful harassment of civilians and wrongful dismissal amongst other cases.

In a riveting interview with THISDAY recently at the new OPD headquarters in Surulere, the Director, Mrs. Omotola Rotimi, noted that from inception the unit had handled 37, 000 cases and had gotten as compensation for their clients the sum of three million, nine hundred and fifty eight thousand, one hundred and seventeen naira (N3,958,117).

With its enviable success record which includes handling wide variety of cases, ranging from debt-recovery to murder, domestic abuse and police harassment amongst others, the unit also boasts of handling the case of Miss Uzoma Okere, who won N100 million in damages after she was assaulted by the escort of a senior naval officer in 2008.

Driven by the OPD motto 'All persons irrespective of means should have equal access to justice', Rotimi said the unit means different things to different people; for some it was the voice for the voiceless while for others, it was the hope for the downtrodden.

"I want the public to see OPD as their partner; a place you can come to and you are sure of qualitative free services. It is a place you can lay your complaints and leave with smiles as promised in our logo.

"We assist people in ensuring they get justice and it is imperative that people know that it is their right under a democratic regime to get free legal services, whether they are rich or poor," she said.

While stressing that their services are free, she cited incidences of abuse as one of the most reported cases. According to her, cases of abuse are of great concern to the OPD and the Lagos State Government because abuse generally either domestic violence and rape amongst others are on the increase.

She said, "We are trying to find a way to curb all these excesses and the only way is to preach justice. It is not just our responsibility, or that of the state government but a collective one for everyone in the society to be his neighbour's keeper.

"When such cases occur in one's neighbourhood, it would go a long way to help the case if people can preserve the evidence. In cases of rape, what we have done is to ensure the person gets proper medical attention and if there is still evidence the hospital can collate, it would ensure that the culprit be prosecuted in court."

She however admitted that some of the victims shy away, probably because of the stigma often associated with it. To solve that, she noted that the OPD person in charge of the case ensures that it is strictly confidential.

Speaking on the thorny issue of divorce, she said some of their clients come to the OPD after family mediation might have failed. According to her, when two people come for divorce, the issue of child maintenance is woven into it and is a major influence on why such cases go to the family court.

"The first thing to do is iron out the issue of how to take care of the children, because under the law, even under the child right law these children are entitled to have their own lawyer in any matter.

"Therefore, we have the interest of the children at heart. The issue of child maintenance is the first thing we deal with. Most of the time, we can even separate it by going to the family court and our social workers in the family court file an issue of maintenance.

"At times, we can call them and intercede but most of the time, the men refuse to cooperate but by the time we intercede and counsel them, they too will be willing to maintain the child's support.

"Some of them even come to the OPD to pay the child's support, probably, because he does not want to have anything to do with the other party. The other party then comes here to take the money and we issue them a receipt."

Speaking on some of their achievements, she said the OPD visits the prisons every three months. According to her, there are a lot of people awaiting trial who either do not have access to justice or have the finances to a afford lawyer.

In retrospect, she said they visited the prison in May and took up over 400 cases of awaiting trial inmates all in one day, who do not have lawyers and have never been to court. She disclosed that they filed an application for about 300 of them for violation of human rights.

She said, "We filed an application for them in court and almost 80 to 90 people were released from police custody through that method. Again we visited the prison with the Chief Judge of Lagos State and over 232 people were released from police custody and these were people that we had filed applications for in court. They we are happy their release."

Speaking on the abuses meted out against the female folk, she said the OPD handles all aspects of it including counseling and in most cases mediation. Citing a typical example of such cases they had handled, she recalled a man that had complained that the wife denies him of sex. In such cases, she noted that counseling comes into play.

She said, "When you go to court, sometimes you discover that there are some underlying factors like when a husband laments that the wife denies him of sex. We call the woman for counseling and sometimes the denial would be because the man refused to give her money for a project.

"At other times, you find out that most of these problems boils down to communication breakdown. During counseling, we often discover that the issue at hand is not really the matter but something deeper."

She also cited the issue of contraception as another hurdle faced by the feminine gender. She lamented that although there are some laws protecting women like the United Nation law and that of the Beijing conference, it has not been domesticated in Nigeria.

Rotimi said the non-domestication of the law was to be blamed for the belief by the male folk that they can treat the opposite sex especially their wives any way they chose since they paid the bride price on them.

"Where a woman says she has her right as a woman but the man is infringing on it, we intervene and go to the court and get a pronouncement. If the woman says she doesn't want to live with the man again but the man persists in abusing her, we get a restraining order."

She also disclosed that they have success stories when it comes to fundamental human rights. According to her, a case in point was the success in sending three parents to prison for violating the rights of their children by inflicting injuries on them. She further cited the example of a boy that had AIDS whom the parents refused medical attention preferring the orthodox treatment. She said the OPD intervened by counseling the parents who later saw reasons.

Although inefficient human resource is often touted to be the bane of any organisation but Rotimi gleefully disclosed that she presides over professionals who are passionate in service be it the counselors, PR, the social workers and the child psychologists amongst others.

She said, "Asides their salaries, workers in OPD are given some monetary allowance for transportation, so there is no way they can collect bribe. If any of them defaults, he or she will go in for it."

According to Rotimi, despite the joy of ensuring justice for their clients, the job is however fraught with challenges such as a client reneging on an arrangement especially in cases of domestic abuse. However, in all, the ultimate satisfaction for her lies in satisfying the client.

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