Access to Justice Is One of Our Core Drives

By Barr. Jude Ogbunkwu

The collection of activities that is termed as Access to Justice programme at Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Centre (HRCRC) in Abakaliki constitute the foremost works that the organization do right from its inception. They include prison/police cell welfare, facilitation of Gaol delivery, pro bono legal services, and general legal services for the less privilege. At the time, the organisation was nursed in late 1980s, Fr. Kevin O’Hara (SPS), was the Parish Priest of Corpus Christi Parish Umuhuali where he witnessed an unlawful detention of one of his parishioners, one Peter Nwekeoga. In attempt to intervene to see to the release of Peter, he discovered the unspeakable and terrible state of prisoners and the prison service in the town. He immediately felt moved to do something; it was this that opened door to series of interventions targeting ameliorating the conditions of lives in the prison which became a drive for the formation of an organisation that aimed at advancing justice for all, especially the most vulnerable ones in the society.

In the different phases of the organisation, firstly Human Rights Commission (HRC), then Institute for the Enhancement of Human Dignity (I.E.D), HRC again, and then HRCRC, the organisation has kept Access to Justice as a core programme in the Centre. The programme offers free legal services to victims of Human Rights Abuses. The Centre is grateful for the support it has enjoyed from partners to carry out its functions of widening the scope of justice for the vulnerable of our community. Some of these partners who have supported us in the past include Misseror, Manos UNIDA, Cordaid, Catholic Reliefs Services, St. Patricks’ Society, Irish Aids and Misean Cara being the last sponsor of our project titled: “Enhancing the Child Rights in Ebonyi State” which lasted between 2015 and 2017.

Access to Justice department of HRCRC has helped many people who left to circumstances of odds in our nation’s justice system are greatly disadvantaged to access fairer treatment in legal struggles. HRCRC team at the department offer legal advices, prepare legal documents and interventions and represent individuals in court; that is, those who are disenfranchised by the justice system so that they can have fair hearing and have their noble rights respected. During the course of the project, “Enhancing the Rights of the Child in Ebonyi State” (lasted from Jan. 2016 to March 2017), a total of 130 persons who were unfairly detained in prisons and police cells were released through the effort of the department.

Most of the beneficiaries of our interventions are the poor who can hardly afford the high cost of accessing justice in the Nigerian context. Consider Mrs. Blessing Okechukwu for instance. She was a pregnant and nursing mother who was charged for stealing cocoa yam worth of four hundred naira (N400) from a local market in her small community. Upon her arrest, she was remanded in prison custody at the Nigerian Prison in Abakaliki alongside her little baby for six months without trial. When she was discovered during our routine checks and monitoring of prisons across the state, our legal team took up the matter before a magistrate who upon hearing struck out the case for lack of diligent prosecution of the matter by the complainant. One of the motivations for our intervention has to do with her little child who had to suffer untold hardship for no fault of his.

Inability of persons going through legal struggles to afford ‘cost of justice’ in Nigeria is a contributing factor to prison congestions in Nigeria. Justice is quite expensive in our society. You only have to consider what it takes to get records of proceedings on any case or information, to file motion for appeal or bail and the several journeys to the court of arraignment or trial that a lawyer have to make, and you may excuse legal fees that lawyers charge. This is not to speak of sharp practices by some lawyers and other elements within the justice system. Here at HRCRC, we are committed to serving the interests of justice so that more people can lead happier lives.

Access to Justice Is One of Our Core Drives

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