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Are there any in-built legal mechanisms that can be deployed to ensure the attainment of access to justice in the country?


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  • Access to Justice and Human Rights Protection in Nigeria.

What has been the response of successive governments to the quest for the enforcement of basic rights through increased access to justice? This paper purports to examine these questions and to chart a new course in the quest for the promotion and protection of human rights in Nigeria through enhanced access to justice. We will first discuss the concept of access to justice and its relationship with human rights, before proceeding to examine the various substantive and procedural obstacles conspiring against effective access to justice.

The concluding part of the paper will deal with how the legal system can be made more responsive to the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians by guaranteeing that individuals and groups will have access to justice in the country, and consequently enhance human rights protection. Access to justice can be looked at from two main perspectives: the narrow and the wider senses. In the narrow sense of the term, it can be said to be co-extensive with access to the law courts while in the wider connotation it embraces access to the political order, and the benefits accruing from the social and economic developments in the state.

One may therefore say that, generally speaking, access to justice implies access to social and distributive justice. It is however important to underscore the point that these perspectives are not necessarily disconnected since the extent to which one can have distributive justice in any system is largely determined by the level and effectiveness of social justice in the country. The consequence of this is that any discussion of one aspect of the concept will necessarily entail a reference to one or more components of the other.

This is because without access to justice, it is impossible to enjoy and ensure the realization of any other right, whether civil, political or economic. Thus, while this paper will emphasize the concept from the narrow perspective, the wider conception of the term will also be incorporated in the analysis. Bearing this in mind, one may therefore say that 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.

It focuses on the existing rules and procedures to be used by citizens to approach the courts for the determination of their civil rights and obligations. It entails more. It has been said that access to justice is not limited to the procedural mechanism for the resolution of disputes but includes other variables like the physical conditions of the premises where justice is dispensed, the quality of the human and material resources available thereat, the quality of justice delivered, the time it takes for the delivery of justice, the moral quality of the dispenser of justice, the observance of the general principles of the rule of law, the affordability of the cost of seeking justice in terms of time and money, the quality of the legal advisers that assist the litigants, the incorruptibility and impartiality of operators of the system.

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It is therefore apparent that access to justice is a charged concept that embraces the nature, mechanism and even the quality of justice obtainable in a society as well as the place of the individual within this judicial matrix. It is also important to underscore the fact that access to justice is undeniably an important barometer for assessing not only the rule of law in any society but also the quality of governance in that society.

This brings to focus the present refrain about transparency, accountability and good governance as an effective panacea for socio-economic development. Moreover, to enhance access to justice in any society it is necessary for certain basic infrastructures to be put in place and the requisite number and quality of the personnel involved in the scheme. For instance, where the courts are not sufficiently manned, or manned by men and women who are morally depraved, then such a State can hardly guarantee social justice to its citizens. Indeed, corrupt judicial officers may very well act as serious impediments to the attainment of justice even where the infrastructures and legal instruments are well-wrought and structured.

The relationship between access to justice and human rights protection stems from the fact that it is only when individuals have access to the courts that they can espouse and seek for the protection of their basic rights. In other words, the legal and institutional structures existing in a system may be such as to preclude the citizens from having access to the courts, who are therefore unable to seek for the enforcement or protection of their basic rights. While some of these legal and institutional mechanisms may have been put in place to achieve particular objectives, they may indeed constitute formidable obstacles to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Yet other obstacles may be traceable to the structure and composition of the political and economic systems operative in a given country. In the case of Nigeria, it does appear that a combination of the obstacles in the first and second categories has led to a systemic inability of the legal order to guarantee access to justice in the country. The importance of this second class of obstacles stems from the fact that for a third world country such as Nigeria, where the level of illiteracy is unacceptably high, and the conditions of existence extremely difficult for people to eke out a living, issues concerning human rights protection necessarily take a secondary position in the scheme of things.

Professor Claude Ake put the importance of these obstacles in their proper context and perspective when he observed as follows: For reasons which need not detain us here, some of the rights important in the West are of no interest and no value to most Africans. For instance, freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not mean much for a largely illiterate rural community completely absorbed in the daily rigors of the struggle for survival … if a Bill of Rights is to make sense, it must include, among others, a right to work and to a living wage, a right to shelter, to health, to education.

That is the least we can strive for if we are ever going to have a society which realizes basic human rights … in Africa, if liberal rights are to be meaningful in the context of a people struggling to stay afloat under very adverse economic and political conditions, they have to be concrete. Concrete in the sense that their practical import is visible and relevant to the conditions of existence of the people to whom they apply. And most importantly, concrete in the sense that they can be realized by their beneficiaries. Indeed, to a large majority of citizens, issues of human rights protection appear to be luxuries that they can hardly afford.

A number of obstacles conspire against access to justice in Nigeria. While some of these obstacles are substantive in nature, others are procedural and yet others have their roots in the present political and economic system in the country. We shall here examine some of these factors to see how they have continued to inhibit access to justice in Nigeria. That there is inordinate delay in the administration of justice in Nigeria is a pedestrian statement.

What is however difficult to understand is how Nigerians have been able to live with this phenomenon for several decades without proffering a lasting solution to it. Very often, we see ordinary cases of unlawful termination of employment or even those for the enforcement of fundamental rights lasting between three to five years or even more.


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The bottom line is that today it has almost become an accepted fact in Nigeria that cases must last several years in court before they are concluded. There is no doubt that such delays not only erode public confidence in the judicial process but also undermine the very existence of the courts see Oputa, op. The Supreme Court however had cause to define this phrase in the case of Gozie Okeke v.

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The State. What is reasonable in relation to the question whether an accused has a fair trial within a reasonable time depends on the circumstances of each particular case, including the place or country where the trial took place, the resources and infrastructures available to the appropriate organs in the country. It is, therefore, misleading to use the standard or the situation of things in one or a particular country to determine the question whether trials of criminal cases in another country involves an unreasonable delay … A demand for a speedy trial, which has no regard to the conditions and circumstances in this country, will be unrealistic and be worse than unreasonable delay in trial itself.

There are many causes of delay in the judicial process: some of these are endemic in the system like highly technical and complicated rules of procedure, while others are caused by operatives of the system, those who serve court processes, the lawyers who ask for unending adjournments of cases, and judges who lack the virtue of promptness see Oputa, op. In this connection, the courts should consider seriously the issue of applications for adjournment of cases, and it may be suggested that adjournments designed to aid the due process of litigation should be considered, while those dictated by sheer laziness or a failure to grasp the real issues in dispute should not be entertained.

This is because the court has a discretion to grant or refuse an adjournment. However, even as we insist on the desirability of speedy disposal of cases, one must bear in mind the need to give all parties the opportunity to present their cases before final decision by the court. Thus in this case where the trial court refused to give the defendants the opportunity to give evidence in the case, with the purpose of avoiding undue delay, it was held that the action violated the requirements of fair hearing and a retrial was ordered.

This is because the doctrine of fair hearing is one of the immutable and fundamental principles of Nigerian Constitutional Law, and any other rule which offends it, no matter how well-intentioned, must necessarily take a secondary position. It is a well known fact that, relative to the economic situation in Nigeria, the cost of litigation in the country is so high that the ordinary Nigerian can hardly afford adequate legal representation when he has a legal matter to pursue.

This is all the more so if one considers that the vast majority of Nigerians are constantly preoccupied with how best to make a living for themselves and their extended family. Perhaps in order to enhance their own economic standing, legal practitioners in Nigeria have devised the method of collecting not only their professional fees but also transportation fees each time they go to court, thus invariably adding to the financial burden of the litigants.

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When this is considered against the background that a particular case could last up to four or five years, then the enormity of the financial burden on litigants can better be appreciated. As if this were not enough, filing fees in some courts are so high that it is often impossible for majority of Nigerians to have access to the courts.

This is particularly so in the case of the Federal High Court, where the filing fees are related to the amount of monetary claims made by litigants. The result is that Nigerians, especially those from the Niger Delta region who are the usual victims of oil spillages, pollution and other environmental hazards, find it extremely difficult to exercise their legal rights when these petroleum-related activities adversely affect their normal activities.

Moreover, for matters requiring survey plans and valuation reports, the Nigerian citizen, rich or poor alike, is required to ensure that these are already attached to the Statement of Claim at the time of filing, even when it is known that the payment of these professionals could very well be beyond the financial capability of the litigants. It is ironical that some of the constitutional provisions basically designed to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights, unwittingly have the effect of precipitating delays in the judicial process.

In this connection reference must be made to some provisions of the Constitution. Article 36 6.

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The guiding principle has been to ensure that an accused person is allowed to utilize the available opportunities to properly present his defense in a criminal case. This implies for instance, that if an accused person is arraigned in court and does not have a counsel, the court will oblige him with an adjournment to enable him secure the services of one. Law is an inherently technical subject and this technicality is manifested in the various rules and procedures in place.

It is also important because today the study of law cannot ignore the process of globalization, which is multifaceted and thus calls for inter-disciplinary skills and perspectives. Indeed, as globalization deepens, legal institutions at the national level are influenced and shaped by rules, practices and ideas drawn, imposed or borrowed from abroad. Learn more….

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Marginalized Communities and Access to Justice

New in Paperback : Hardback : The relationship between access to justice and human rights protection stems from the fact that it is only when individuals have access to the courts that they can espouse and seek for the protection of their basic rights. In other words, the legal and institutional structures existing in a system may be such as to preclude the citizens from having access to the courts, who are therefore unable to seek for the enforcement or protection of their basic rights.

While some of these legal and institutional mechanisms may have been put in place to achieve particular objectives, they may indeed constitute formidable obstacles to the promotion and protection of human rights. Yet other obstacles may be traceable to the structure and composition of the political and economic systems operative in a given country. In the case of Nigeria, it does appear that a combination of the obstacles in the first and second categories has led to a systemic inability of the legal order to guarantee access to justice in the country.

The importance of this second class of obstacles stems from the fact that for a third world country such as Nigeria, where the level of illiteracy is unacceptably high, and the conditions of existence extremely difficult for people to eke out a living, issues concerning human rights protection necessarily take a secondary position in the scheme of things. Professor Claude Ake put the importance of these obstacles in their proper context and perspective when he observed as follows: For reasons which need not detain us here, some of the rights important in the West are of no interest and no value to most Africans.

For instance, freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not mean much for a largely illiterate rural community completely absorbed in the daily rigors of the struggle for survival That is the least we can strive for if we are ever going to have a society which realizes basic human rights Concrete in the sense that their practical import is visible and relevant to the conditions of existence of the people to whom they apply.

And most importantly, concrete in the sense that they can be realized by their beneficiaries. Indeed, to a large majority of citizens, issues of human rights protection appear to be luxuries that they can hardly afford. Factors inhibiting access to justice in Nigeria. A number of obstacles conspire against access to justice in Nigeria. While some of these obstacles are substantive in nature, others are procedural and yet others have their roots in the present political and economic system in the country.