Making Legal Aid Work in Nigeria’s Police Stations

During its first year the project reduced the number of pretrial detainees by 88.4 percent in Imo; 86.2 percent in Kaduna; 30.5 percent in Ondo; and 61 percent in Sokoto.

In February 2012, nearly 80 percent of Nigeria’s prison population was awaiting trial; nearly a quarter of those detainees had been held for at least one year. For a country of 160 million, having almost 50,000 people locked in 227 prisons might not sound like too much of a problem. However, the unacceptably high proportion of unconvicted persons in prolonged prison confinement is very definitely a cause of concern.

Most of these detainees are held on a “holding charge”—a preliminary charge brought by the police and designed to extract a remand order from a local magistrate’s court, which in turn enables the police to hold a suspect while criminal investigations continue. There are good reasons for this practice. Often, investigations are not completed within the maximum 48 hours of detention allowed under Nigeria’s constitution. The police are undermanned, over-worked and ill-equipped. Crime suspects may interfere with investigations, tamper with evidence or threaten witnesses.

But the actual practice of the holding charge in Nigeria makes a mockery of these reasons. Under the law, suspects may only be admitted to a prison on the orders of a court. But when a magistrate issues a remand order, the warrant does not include a date on which the suspect is to be brought back before the court by the police. Effectively the detainees may be held at the pleasure of the state for indeterminate periods. This explains why many detainees languish in prison for years. Two recent cases illustrate this.

Sikiru Alade was arrested as a 30 year-old in March 2003 and detained awaiting trial on the orders of a Magistrate in Lagos, Nigeria. For over nine years thereafter, Sikiru was detained in a prison without being returned to Court for a trial or review of his detention.  In June 2012, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) invalidated his detention and ordered his release, in a case brought on his behalf by the Open Society Justice Initiative. He was finally released in October 2012, nearly 10 years after his initial detention on a holding charge.

Sikiru is not the only victim of this unfortunate travesty of justice. In 1990, Ernest was arrested and remanded on suspicion of involvement in an armed robbery. He was 18. Although the alleged victim of the crime did not exist and there were no witnesses, he remained incarcerated until one of our partners in Nigeria, the Rights Enforcement and Public Law Centre (REPLACE) intervened to secure his release in 2008.

In both cases, as is usual in most criminal cases in Nigeria, the suspects allegedly committed a crime under state laws. The Nigeria Police Force, a federal institution, investigated the crimes. State magistrates courts remanded them in federal prisons. The interface between these federal and state institutions has traditionally been ill-defined. As a result it is all too easy for detainees to fall between the cracks and end up forgotten by the justice system.

This does not have to continue. Nigeria’s 1991 Administration of Justice Commission Act theoretically created both state and national bodies tasked with improving links between the different criminal justice institutions. The national administration of justice commission includes the chief justice, the federal attorney general, the minister of internal affairs, the inspector general of Police, the director of prisons, and the president of the Nigerian Bar Association. Each state committee is similarly constituted by state level officials. The primary mandate of these bodies is the “general supervision of administration of justice,” which extends to ensuring maximum cooperation amongst justice institutions; the reduction of congestion in courts and prisons; and remarkably, ensuring that “persons awaiting trial are, as far as possible, not detained in prison custody.” Regrettably, neither the national commission nor the state committees have ever been established as envisaged under this law.

In an effort to address some of these issues, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria and the Open Society Justice Initiative launched a project in 2004 aimed at reducing the number of detainees awaiting trial as a proportion of the prison population. It also sought to ensure effective coordination between the Legal Aid Council, the police and prosecutorial authorities with a view to reducing the time it takes for the department of public prosecutions to issue legal advice. Realizing that the police are the gateway into the criminal justice system, the project focused some attention on the police with the establishment of the Police Duty Solicitors Scheme in 2005.

This scheme, developed with the support of the federal police, made available 16 young lawyers (duty solicitors) on compulsory national service in designated police stations across four of Nigeria’s 36 states: Imo, Kaduna, Ondo and Sokoto. Their mission was to offer legal aid and assistance to crime suspects within the first 48 hours of their arrest. The duty solicitors interviewed suspects; they contacted families and lawyers, where available; they applied for police bail on behalf of suspects; and they represented suspects appearing in court on arraignment. In its first year, the scheme resulted in the release of 1,255 people awaiting trial, against a previous annual baseline of 3001 detainees in custody, representing a 41.7 percent decrease in the number in custody. The project also diverted 636 persons away from indefinite pre-trial detention. During its first year the project reduced the number of pretrial detainees by 88.4 percent in Imo; 86.2 percent in Kaduna; 30.5 percent in Ondo; and 61 percent in Sokoto.

The project has now been running for seven years. It has released over 10,000 persons and expanded to two additional states, Edo and Kebbi. Two of the project states—Ondo and Sokoto—now have judicial instructions that limit the length of pre-trial detention to not more than nine months. The project has also attracted external funding from the Macarthur Foundation, which supports two more states, Plateau and Rivers. In 2011, Justice Initiative initiated an external review of the project preparatory to possible takeover by Nigerian authorities.

The review covered the first five years, from 2005 to 2010, and sought to assess the impact of the scheme and to identify continuing challenges. It concluded that the scheme had, among other things, resulted in a significant reduction of influx of minor offenders into the prison system, as well as increased government attention to the problem of pre-trial detention.

The Police Duty Solicitors Scheme is a low-cost but effective tool that focuses on the entry point into the criminal justice system, and that engages with the system through to the point of imprisonment. While the scheme was designed to address needs in Nigeria, the model underlines a broader message: that this kind of administrative innovation can both ease the burdens on an overcrowded justice system, and address  the excessive and unnecessary use of pre-trial detention.



This is a good. With time and funding, I hope the project gets to other states considering that police detention is prevalent every where in Nigeria. Should we not be moving for the abolition of "holding charge" and ensure Nigerian government is accountable for its obligation to provide efficient justice system? The cases from the ECOWAS court will serve as precedence for enforcement of other rights e.g "prohibition of torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment" especially by the police. However, there needs to be more awareness on the rights of persons to appear before the ECOWAS court for enforcement of Fundamental rights, since it now has such powers and he African Commission or Court of Human Rights. Most Nigerians are not aware that they can enforce their rights in regional courts, after exhaustion of local remedies. The ECOWAS Court and the African Commission or Court of Human Rights should as much as possible ensure that the Council of Ministers or Commissioners as the case maybe monitor their judgments to ensure implementation by states; and states who do not enforce judgments maybe suspended. This practice is used by the European Committee on the prevention of torture to ensure European Countries found in violation comply with its judgments or rulings or be suspended from the Council of Europe.

Dear Barbara,

Thanks for reading the post and making those interesting comments. I think abolition sounds good but it may not happen immediately so we're trying to deal with the reality we have today while hoping that we'll get a better deal tomorrow.

The ECOWAS Court is a "first instance" court in that ECOWAS citizens can approach the court without the need to "exhaust local remedies." It is different with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights where you have to demonstrate that you have exhausted local remedies or couldnt do so because they do not exist or cannot serve the ends of justice.

In terms of implementation, i should make clear that state parties to the protocol establishing ECOWAS Court undertook to designate an institution with responsibility for ensuring the implementation of the court's decisions. Interestingly, Nigeria has designated the Federal Attorney General's office as that institution.

I'd be delighted to exchange a bit more on the subject, if you think necessary.

The Article is worth reading and I commend the writer. I note however that the REPLACE/OSJI initiative achieved tremendous success because of the cooperation of the state agencies. I wish the article had laid a little more emphasis on the non-implementation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (1991) That Act, if deligently implemented would need no effort from anyone to reduce to the barest minimum the time spent on pre-trial detention in Nigeria. May I plead that the project be contnued and expanded to other states, especially high population density capitals in Nigeria.

Thanks Saka. We're mindful for the potential long term benefit of having the AJC Act activated as soon as possible. We're working with partners (hope your organization can join us) to make this happen.

Well done Dr Stan.
I sincerely commend your effort. I‘m particularly delighted to know that the review was conducted, and achieved tremendous success.
From the survey of the scheme, one can confidently imply that, the PDSS is a laudable and low-cost effective tool that can ease the burden of overcrowded Justice System and use of pre-trial detention as you stated.
However, what is the position now? How soon can it get to other states? How is OSJI intending to achieve more, or maintain the success?
All passed committees on prisons and police reforms have not made significant result on the criminal judicial system. The Federal and State Criminal Institutions can barely do little or nothing because they have failed to realize the need for investigation before arrest. Everything falls back to us, the CSOs, and others.
I would suggest continuity of the project and expansion to other states, as soon as possible. OSJI could invite other funders into the scheme, work closely with CSOs that are willing to monitor and influence the scheme in other states, and in collaboration with the Legal Aid Council.

Thanks for your comments and questions Ivy. We've scheduled a set of meetings in december 2012 to discuss some of the questions you raised in your commentary. You're welcome to join us on december 16 in Abuja or send any ideas you might have to enrich the discussions.

Not just Nigeria. I know a young man arrested and held for 14 months in New York City's Rikers jail in a cellblock reserved for murderers and the most violent gang members. When he could only afford an overworked legal aid lawyer, he had no way to prove his innocence. When he got money for a private lawyer, that lawyer and two pro bono lawyers got access to evidence that showed he was not guilty... and a NYC jury acquitted him 100% of 12 counts. But those 14 months, including time in solitary for having bootleg cigarettes, made him suicidal and traumatized when he finally was freed.

Thanks for reading, Ann, and for your comment. You may know that the Open Society Foundations also works in the U.S. on the kind of criminal justice reform issues that you cite. Our U.S. Programs’ Criminal Justice Fund backs groups who seek "to reduce mass incarceration, challenge extreme punishment, and promote justice system accountability in the United States by promoting public investments in effective, community-based strategies that increase public safety".

Jonathan Birchall, Communications Officer, Open Society Foundations

Thanks Ann and Jonathan.


Thanks Michelle.

I like what Open Society is doing in the name of the Law. I'm really trying to see how I can get paralegals in Kenya to do some grass-root justice as I saw in Sierra Leone and the Philippines. I hope to couple this with trauma healing and psychosocial support for people like the man Ann Tares speaks of in her comment above, who was incarcerated for 14 months, including time in solitary for having bootleg cigarettes. I hope the trauma healing & psychosocial support can help heal such victims from suicidal tendencies, trauma suffered and reintegrate them into society

Well done Stephanie. As you may know, Open Society Foundations has an office in Nairobi, Kenya to which you may turn with justice reform ideas. Justice Initiative partner, TIMAP for Justice, is an excellent organization to discuss paralegalism with. They've done incredible work with paralegals in Sierra Leone. Happy to make the connections if you're not already connected.

I am writing from Bamenda-Cameroon. Is it possible for you to extend your activities to other prisons in Cameroon? I am very impressed with your Godly and humane activities. I sincerely trust and hope you could through your activities let those who have been deprived of their legal rights be compensated accordingly. Keep up the fight and be good and merciful to the downtrodden. May God bless you and your work.

Thanks for writing Asongwe. I'd say no. As you may have noticed from my article, we're in transition with the project at the moment. I'd like to think there are legal aid projects in Cameroon that might be responsive to your perculiar needs. However, if you do not know any, i'd be happy to link you up with our partner organization in Cameroon. Please inbox your details.

Stan, your article is a narrative of the destruction and distortion of young and old lives within our criminal justice system and this nightmare has refused to go away, The darkness that is the holding charge sorting system, has become an acceptable processing vehicle that those who should know better, use in dealing with issues they do not want but its forced on them. You know Stan, i doubt if things will change.. why should it.. after all the rich don't sleep in police jails nor prison cells, so pray tell me how or why should things change. Stan do we have Jonathan Birchall's programe here in Nigeria?? More industrial grease to your elbows Stan!!!. Mrs Hassan Baba, former D.G Legal Aid Council Of Nigeria.

Thanks DG Hassan-Baba. Our project owes its initial success and continuing institutional support to your vision and exemplary leadership. Jonathan is my colleague. He directs communications at the Justice Initiative. If i understood correctly, you wanted to know if the programme he describes is available in Nigeria. The programme is designed for the US like we've designed Africa programme to suit our perculiar criminal justice needs. Happy to explore with you any elements you think might be useful for us.

Delighted to see injustice addressed, wherever it exists.

Thanks Leon.

Dr Stanley lbe deserve appreciation and acknowledgement for raising the voice in
Nigeria with the support of OSF . It is expected that the leaders and the organizations should come forward to redress the grievances of the people. Please keep it up......!!!

Thanks Ramesh. Please note that i do not have a least not yet.

Nigerian government need deliverance to do the right thing at right time. 40% of inmate are innocent citizen and 50% is from poor family who has nobody to speak on their behalf. Only poor goes to prison. Innovation is needful for those that love change and ready to work for change in Nigeria .

I feel its a wonderful movement go ahead with other state.

Dear Stanley your idea and project is highly commendable. It would appear that the Nigerian government and indeed all others who do not give serious attention to access to justice and the imperative of legal aid do not appreciate the need for all citizens and non citizens whether poor or rich to have access to the legal system and have confidence in the judicial process. The alternative is ultimately anarchy. Well done my brother.

Thanks Prof.

Dear Sir I am gravely concerned for my Wife a Becky Rose Schuman who has disappeared and I feel tha she has fallen into the hands of the police perhaps and that she may be being detained in one of the Womens Prisons she is a beutiful natured Women but she may be co- ersed into the signing of a guilty plea but she My wife is innocent and she went missing seventeen days ago and I have not heard any thing fron her since our last conmunication. my nabme is David. Becky is 30 years old and we want to start a family of our own and nothave her suffer these injustices I believe that she has been inteerrigated and if so she will hold out for as long as she can but she is only a young girl. Please can some body please help us PLEASE.

Felicitaciones y muchas gracias por el gran trabajo que realizan y especialmente por la publicación, difusión y respuestas.

Stanley,salute your industry in this write up.The much talked about 1991 Administration of Justice Commission Act eventhough i have not taken pain to read thru it made much reference to the AG. Stanley often times the AG has no much business except his employer is interested.What happens to the Director of Public Prosecution who is the person that gives advise on the frivolous charges.
However the PDSS is a good step which with adequate funding should be extended to all the states in Nigeria and in terms of Manpower the members of the NYSC scheme will be available.Stanley,your Organisation in conjunction with SPIDFEL can actually do a conference on the Legality of this illegal regime tagged "HOLDING CHARGE".Stanley wish you the BEST.Please tell us about your PH D.i bin think say we be friend.

Dear Cornelius, thanks for the comment, and apologies for the delay in replying! (as noted by Stanley, he doesn't actually have a PhD)

Dear Stanley, we would like to include information on this project in a joint publication of UNODC and UNDP on early access to legal aid. could you contact me via email to discuss? many thanks, Miri.

Thanks for contacting us, Miri. I've forwarded your email to Stanley. Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall

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