Celebrating a decade of Clinical Legal Education in Nigeria: It is not yet Uhuru!

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

By Kevwe M. Omoragbon, Northumbria University, UK.

It has been ten years of the introduction of clinical legal education in Nigeria. It can be said that the country has benefitted from the tidal flow of the global clinical movement. There has been a steady growth in the number of law clinics bringing it to fourteen law clinics which are situated within the universities and some campuses of the Nigerian Law Schools. The main goals of the clinics are to train law students in the practice of law as well as provide free legal aid to less advantaged citizens. A recent legislative change to the Legal Aid Act now legally recognizes law clinics as being engaged in the provision of legal aid.

Despite the gains of CLE, several challenges are still being faced by the law clinics. The focus of this paper will be to address the legal impediment which prohibits anyone who has not yet been called to bar from appearing in any court of law, this out rightly excludes law students. This paper argues that the practical training of law students is incomplete without a measure of appearance in some courts and/or tribunals.

The methodology of the presentation will involve the use of an ethnographic case study to highlight these challenges, and then go on to discuss what can be done to address these problems especially through law reform as  well as identify who the actors and stakeholders are in the drive towards the reform.

Clamour for reform of legal education in Nigeria began after the return to democratic rule in 1999. Consequently, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal studies organized an all-stakeholders conference to discuss the fundamental issues concerned in legal education in Nigeria. The conference resolved on the need to refocus legal education for the Nigeria of the twenty-first century. After the conference, the Nigerian Bar Association set up a committee on legal education to liaise with all legal education institutions with a view to improving legal training. Moreover, the Nigerian Bar Association Summit on legal education held in May 2006 passed a resolution calling for the adoption of clinical legal education for all law programmes in Nigeria.

In a bid to develop and institutionalize clinical legal education in Nigeria, the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions, Nigeria (hereinafter referred to as NULAI) was established in 2003 as a not for profit organization. Its membership is open to legal clinics/Legal Aid Institution of Nigerian Universities and Law schools. Its activities include, promoting clinical legal education, reforms of legal education, access to justice and legal aid by organizing colloquiums, training workshops and giving grants for the provision of financial and material resources to law clinics.

At the time of this presentation, there are fourteen law clinics located in Faculties of law of Nigerian Universities as well as campuses of the Nigerian Law School. Most of the law clinics started as general interest law clinics with the exception of the Women’s Law Clinic, University of Ibadan. Over time, they have become more specialist focused especially in the area of prison decongestion. For example, the ABSU Law Clinic, Maiduguri Law Clinic, Akungba Law Clinic, EBSU Law Clinic and UNIUYO Law Clinic who started by providing legal advice, ADR and human rights education, commenced a prison service in 2009 and presently are working to assist over 550 pre-trial detainees. The Women’s Law Clinic from inception started out as a specialist law clinic and deals with cases of domestic violence, matrimonial issues including divorce and child custody, succession, employee-employer as well as tenancy disputes. It has handled over one hundred cases out of which seventy-four were successfully concluded. All law clinics also benefit from grants, several capacity building workshops and participate in an annual client counseling skills competition.

The country has also seen a law reform which now legally recognizes law clinics as providers of legal aid. The Amended legal Aid Act (attached) recognizes law clinics.  The Legal Aid Act, 2011 (Part IV Section 17) provides that “The Council shall maintain a register of non-governmental organizations and law clinics that are engaged in the provision of legal aid or assistance to persons who are entitled to legal aid under this Act”.

Despite this feat, the clinics cannot rest on their oars as there are challenges militating against the access to justice which need to be urgently addressed. The following case study brings to light some of these challenges which hamper the provision of legal aid by law clinics.

Case study

This case study is an example of the type of case the law clinics will deal with and the common problems they encounter. Yetunde is a mother of four children ages 11, 8, 5 and 8mths. The first three children are female while the last baby is a male child. Her marital problems started after the birth of her third female child. Cultural values are attached to male children as an average Nigerian man wants an heir who will bear his name and take over his inheritance after his demise. Yetunde was sent out of her husband’s house shortly after the birth of the last child having being accused of adultery and witchcraft which is a clog in his progress. Her husband also denies the paternity of the last child and won dissolution of their marriage from a customary court who awarded custody of the first three children to her husband and a monthly maintenance allowance of N1,500 (which is equivalently £6) for the last child. This dissolution was done in a customary court despite being married under statutory law after traditional marriage. In Nigeria, there are three legally recognized types of marriages- the statutory marriage or marriage under the Act, the marriage under native law and customs or the traditional marriage and the Islamic marriage. Many couple combine at least two of these types of marriages creating the practice of ‘double deck’ marriages. Double deck marriage is rife but so long as there is a statutory marriage after the celebration of a traditional marriage, the statutory marriage takes precedence and can only be dissolved in a High Court and not a customary court. A customary court only has jurisdiction over marriages which are solely conducted under local native law and customs.

Yetunde had to rent a studio apartment with her savings as a yearly tenant but just six months into her tenancy, she was issued a notice to quit the property within six months. She was informed by reliable sources that her husband had mounted pressure on the landlord to evict her whilst also accusing the landlord of committing adultery with his wife. Yetunde then approached the law clinic for legal aid in respect of two main issues:

  1. Custody and maintenance of her first three children which she claimed are being maltreated by her husband’s new wife.
  2. Reversal of the notice to quit given by her landlord as she is of good character and has paid her rent in full for one calendar year.

The clinic immediately swung into action by conducting further investigation which showed that as regards the first issue of divorce and custody, Yetunde was statutorily married under the Marriage Act and therefore only the High Court had jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage. The clinic gathered that Yetunde did receive the court summons but due to fear of being arrested and detained, she did not attend. However, the customary court went ahead to issue a verdict in her absence and a copy of the judgment was sent to her by post which stated that her husband will have custody of the first three children while she takes care of the baby until his 6th birthday, she is not allowed any access to her daughters and is also barred from going to their school or the locality where they reside. The allegation of adultery was not proven beyond reasonable doubt and a monthly maintenance award of N1,500 (which is equivalently £6) was insufficient to meet the baby’s needs, neither had she received any in the last three months.

The clinic first attempted to mediate between Yetunde and her husband although this proved problematic. Though he ignored the letter of invitation twice, he however honoured the third letter but still maintained his initial stand of upholding the divorce and adding that he has now re-married and his new wife just had baby boy. He also informed the clinic never to write anymore letters.

The clinic needs to institute an action in the High court to declare that the customary court has no jurisdiction over statutory marriages and, to file for custody and maintenance for all her children and herself. However, law students in Nigeria have no rights of appearance in any tribunal or court, the clinic is finding it difficult to find a pro bono lawyer within reasonable time who will take up the case and there is also slow progress in finding a suitable agency to refer a case of this nature.

As regards, the second issue on her tenancy, the clinic confirmed that being a yearly tenant, Yetunde is entitled to six clear calendar months notice. However, the notice to quit is three days less than the required six months which makes the notice of ineffective. Despite writing to the landlord to explain this legal requirement, he went ahead to re-issue a seven days notice of owners intention to recover possession of his property at the expiration of the notice.

The clinic needs to institute an action with the rent tribunal in order to get an injunction restraining the landlord from recovering possession. However, as there are no student practice rules in Nigeria, students have no right of appearance in any tribunal or court. The clinic was unable to find a pro bono lawyer who will take up the case within the seven day time frame. The landlord employed the use of bailiffs to recover possession at the expiration of the seven days notice. Yetunde was assaulted in the process and is disappointed that the clinic could not do anything to stop the landlord from throwing out her stuff.  

Cases such as this are rarely concluded as the client looses interest in the case and seldom shows up afterwards. This clearly shows an example of some of the cases where the clinic’s hands are tied by the law which restricts law students from appearing in any court or tribunal. It is apparent that students would have learned much more if they had the opportunity to prepare further paper work, file a case in the relevant tribunal or court and represent their clients. The reputation of the clinic is also sometimes at stake as clients find it difficult to understand these legal requirements. For instance, some of the cases before the Women’s Law Clinic are never concluded due to setbacks such as this.

It is the position of this paper that a mere ‘recognition’ of law clinics by the Legal Aid Council and their inclusion in a register as provided by the amended Legal Aid Act 2011is not enough to ensure access to justice. Therefore, it is my recommendation that the way forward for law clinics’ in Nigeria, is to have Student Practice Rules which will give students limited rights of appearance in some courts and tribunals. Nigeria, through networking in a conference like the IJCLE, can learn from other developed jurisdictions where this has produced better equipped law graduates in countries such as here in the UK as well as the US. This willalso ensure access to justice for citizens whilst fulfilling the objective of training law students in the ‘practice’ of law.

It is also my recommendation that there needs to be an increase in the number of law clinics. The present 14 law clinics’ is still a far cry out of over 40 public and private Universities in Nigeria. In order to achieve the desired law reform, many more universities need to embrace clinical legal education. The National Universities Commission as well as the Council for Legal Education in Nigeria should make it mandatory for all universities to have law clinics attached to their law faculties or have other forms of clinical programs such as street law or externships. This would replace the ambiguous NUC drafts benchmarks and minimum academic standards in law of 2005 which prescribed as mandatory the introduction of a community based course in the fourth year LL.B programme.

There also needs to be more student and faculty engagement in this regard as many clinics all over the world emerged through student activism and their demand to participate in roles similar to the ideals and vision of law practice. This can be done through the Law student societies in the universities as well as the student union and the National Students Association.

If all these machineries are put in place, there will an enabling environment as well as a learning opportunity for students whilst ensuring access to justice for the less advantaged Nigerians. I welcome comments from colleagues in other jurisdictions with or without student practice rules to share their experience on how they have overcome some of these challenges.

Thank you.

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