Apr 11, 2018

Paul Usoro Challenge: A Bold Initiative at Advancing the Pro Bono Culture

Paul Usoro Challenge: A Bold Initiative at Advancing the Pro Bono Culture Though life was not perfect for 24-year old Jimi Oladapo, at least he managed to get by. A graduate of Accounting from the University of Benin, Oladapo eked out a living working as a machine operator in a plastic production factory. After three fruitless years of job hunting, he was forced to swallow his pride, put away his impressive university degree and take up his present job. While the job was hardly his preferred option, it was, at least, a stop-gap measure that guaranteed him daily bread.

However, the young man’s relatively stable life came crashing down after he was arrested for allegedly murdering his landlord’s son. Oladapo maintains that he acted in self-defense. According to him, he was attacked by the deceased and his brother and in a bid to defend himself, he killed the young man.

One year after the incident and Oladapo is still languishing in prison even as he waits for the matter to be taken to court. Bereft of legal representation, abandoned by family, friends and the society as a whole, Oladapo’s fate mirrors the pathetic situation of Awaiting Trial Persons (ATP) in Nigeria.

He is not alone. According to a fact sheet released by the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), a Lagos based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO); over 70 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are ATPs. They are left at the mercy of a legal system that simply has not lived up to its responsibility of guaranteeing much needed access to legal services for indigent citizenry. In truth, Oladapo and thousands of ATPs that are wasting away in prisons all over the country reflect the sad state of the Pro Bono culture in Nigeria’s legal space.

The obvious dearth of Pro Bono, that is, the provision of free legal services for indigent people, is not limited to the criminal law scene in Nigeria. It also spills into civil disputes. Incidences of widows who are deprived of their late spouse’s estates, workers whose employments are terminated without receiving benefits due to them, amongst others, make headline news daily. A number of these cases go unresolved simply because the victims cannot afford the high cost of engaging counsel.

Interestingly, Nigeria’s legal space has witnessed a number of initiatives put in place to provide legal support for indigent people. For instance, the Legal Aid Council (LAC), a department under the Federal Ministry of Justice was established in 1976, to provide free legal services to indigent Nigerians.  In 2012, the Lagos State Government announced the establishment of the Lagos State Public Interest Law Partnership (“LPILP”) a partnership initiative between the State Government and over 100 law firms, to provide free legal assistance to indigent members of the public.

In 2009, came the Pro Bono Declaration for Members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the Umbrella Body of Nigerian lawyers, which requires each member to provide more than 20 hours or three days of pro bono legal services per annum. In 2015, NBA took its stance on Pro Bono a notch further by encouraging law firms and lawyers to provide free legal services to at least five indigent families yearly. In addition to the aforementioned, several other NGOs like the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) have been in the forefront of providing pro bono services to people who cannot afford legal services.

So, why has the culture of pro bono not gotten traction in Nigeria despite these laudable moves? The reasons are not farfetched. Quite simply, there are not enough lawyers and law firms stepping in, to provide free legal services to indigent people. With the exception of a few established law firms, a significant number of lawyers and law firms in the country are too enmeshed in the bread and butter struggle, to keep afloat, to bother about providing free legal service. True, the economic situation may well be a good reason for the dying culture of Pro Bono in Nigeria. However, is this excuse really tenable given that pro bono service in itself remains a sacrosanct responsibility which the legal profession prides itself in?

James Etaghene runs a law chamber in Abuja. He admits to cutting down on his pro bono work to focus more on his business. “My brother, I have to look out for myself and my business before I think of helping others. In any case, the pro bono work would be funded by my business and things have not exactly been rosy with my firm, hence the decision to leave pro bono work for now,” he explained.

All may not be gloom however, as legal luminary and foremost communications law expert, Paul Usoro, SAN announced the donation of N600, 000 as prize money to six lawyers in a new initiative tagged Paul Usoro Challenge. The Paul Usoro Challenge, a novel idea from the distinguished lawyer, is a social media driven campaign set up to recognize and encourage young lawyers to buy into the pro bono culture. The Challenge called on lawyers, between 1-10 years of practice, to send in short videos of their pro bono work which would be assessed by a special panel comprising top legal practitioners (members of PBC panel). 

According to Usoro, the Challenge is a platform to celebrate the efforts of lawyers who were giving back to society through pro bono legal services and encourage others to join. He said: “From our experience in doing pro bono work, we realized that there are lots of young lawyers out there who are doing so much for the society, through free legal services. The Pro Bono challenge is a platform for us to share the fantastic stories of these young lawyers and challenge not only their peers but the entire legal space to emulate them,” he said.

Speaking on Pro Bono practice in Nigeria, Mrs L. Y. Salau, Deputy Director, Legal Aid Council, stated that “Pro Bono is a way veritable way in which lawyers can give back to the society. Unfortunately, most lawyers shy away from this area except when they want to meet the requirements for the rank of SAN. A lawyer who genuinely does pro bono cases will a have sense of fulfilment.

The second edition of the Paul Usoro challenge is already underway with modifications to its scope. Head of Chambers, Paul Usoro & Co, Munirudeen Liadi revealed that this edition has been packaged to accommodate a broader spectrum of pro bono services. Contestants have also been extended to include lawyers between 1 and 15 years’ experience at the bar. Specifically, lawyers who have handled pro bono cases in areas of law enforcement agents’ brutality, domestic violence, gender related issues, child abuse can now participate in the Challenge.

Speaking on the notion behind this, Liadi said that “Our aim is to cover more areas of pro bono work. Based on experience, we’ve been convinced of the need to open the opportunity to lawyers handling these cases and also expand the scope in terms of years of practice. It is no secret that abuse of human rights is rife in Nigeria. In one breath, we’re encouraging pro bono work and as well helping to get more hapless Nigerians out of difficult situations,” he said.

The current Challenge is expected to run from 9th of February till 9th of April. Six Lawyers with the most compelling cases, after evaluation by a designated panel of judges, will be rewarded with N100, 000 each for their efforts. Interested lawyers are advised to visit the PUC website, www.paulusoro.com for modalities on participation or via the learned silk’s social media pages; Facebook: Paul Usoro SAN, Twitter: @paulusorosan, Instagram: @paulusoro