As with other developing countries in Africa, pro bono legal work in Nigeria has never been as attractive as it is today. The cause of the increase in participation in pro bono legal services cannot be identified with certainty, but might be attributed to the requirement that a person cannot be appointed to the esteemed rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria without having provided pro bono legal services. Another factor may be the sudden realisation of what some would describe as “our sacred call” as lawyers. Trying to decipher the reason for this sudden turnaround becomes seemingly inconsequential in view of the fact that pro bono legal service in Nigeria is still far from sufficient to match the country’s ever-increasing population.
The Nigerian government, in the past, has made efforts at providing a platform through which pro bono legal services could be accessed. An example is the Legal Aid Council, established under the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of 1976, which is responsible for providing legal aid in criminal proceedings to indigent persons in Nigeria. Such persons are defined under the Act as persons whose income does not exceed the national minimum wage. The scope of the Legal Aid Council’s responsibilities has, by virtue of the Legal Aid Act 2011, been expanded to include advice and assistance in relation to civil matters. The Legal Aid Act also establishes the Legal Aid General Fund which funds the Legal Aid Council’s pro bono legal representation of indigent people.
Today, however, the practice of pro bono is no longer primarily government-led. With the emergence of more non-governmental organisations (“NGOs”) focused on seeking out indigent persons in need of legal assistance and finding legal representation for such persons, and more corporate organisations and law firms dedicating more time and resources to pro bono activities, the scope and availability of legal representation has greatly increased in recent times.
The increased participation of private sector players in the pro bono space comes with its own challenges. Private sector players are now tasked with ascertaining the trustworthiness of the client, including checks that the client actually requires pro bono services and cannot afford regular legal representation. The need to ensure that people are not trying to take advantage of services that are meant for the underprivileged has contributed to a slower pace of growth of legal pro bono practice in Nigeria. While these private sector players, such as NGOs, corporate organisations and law firms, may have the best intentions, there is no publicly available or centralised means of verifying that a client is genuinely in need of these services. The alternative to this is conducting private (and most likely costly) investigations into each client to ascertain the veracity of their claims prior to providing the pro bono legal services.
Despite the fact that these challenges are an unfair reality in Nigeria (and, no doubt, in other parts of the world), the merits of pro bono legal service outweigh the challenges. It is often said that “justice delayed is justice denied”, and this is true even in a non-dispute resolution context. The provision of pro bono legal services ensures that justice for the indigent/underprivileged is not delayed and therefore, not denied. It is for this reason that despite the aforementioned issues, law firms in particular are taking proactive steps to offer pro bono assistance to clients within trusted networks or platforms, and growing their pro bono practice. In Nigeria, pro bono work in law firms is, for the most part, voluntary work. However, we do not believe that this makes it any less important. This belief has influenced our pro bono practice at Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie as we make sure to deliver the same quality and standard of service as we would for our paying clients.