Over the past year, I have read some heart wrenching and infuriating stories through social media and news media. Often, the stories involve the loss of life and/or property or change in circumstances owing to the negligence of another individual, private body or public institution. There have also been allegations of criminal conduct levelled against people and debated extensively on social media. Some of these stories are shared with the stated objective of “seeking justice.” Unfortunately, the media cannot deliver justiceexcept maybe by bringing a situation to the attention of a lawyer or public advocate who is interested in assisting the injured parties in seeking redress through the justice system. While I think that it is sometimes useful to bring public attention to certain situations with the aim of creating awareness or gaining public sympathy, it seems to me that few people take the necessary step to achieve justice.In recent days the public has been privy to exhibits, and counter exhibits in a child custody dispute that is best settled in the courts or other venues designed for handling such disputes.Nigeria does not have a jury system so the public really has no role in adjudicating disputes between parties, claim for rights, etc. In this country that is solely the duty of the judges, arbitrators and mediators – depending on which door to justice a citizen knocks on. What happens in court or other dispute resolution venues is a vindication of our constitutional right to a fair hearing.The right to a fair hearing consists of several elements including that when one is accused of a wrongdoing, they will be given an opportunity to present their case or challenge the case against them with access to the evidence being relied on against them, a chance to cross-examine witnesses, etc, etc.The enforcement of our right to a fair hearing usually plays out in court and for criminal cases, where a guilty verdict could mean life behind bars or worse, the quality of legal representation for the accused is just as important, as the quality of the prosecution. While we do not want any guilty people to escape punishment, we also do not want any innocent people being punished for offences that they have not committed.Civil justice for the most part remains an elusive concept to the poor in Nigeria. As much as the judiciary in Nigeria has tried to institute reforms and institutions to ensure thateveryone has access to justice, and no person is taken advantage of because of their lack of resources, the sentiment that access to civil justice, in other words, the civil justice procedure, is expensive, time-consuming, incomprehensible and unpredictable still exists.Some would argue that the adversarial nature of the English law, which is the basis for our legal system in Nigeria, encourages the imbalance that plagues the system.One of the ways that the judiciary around the world, Nigeria included, has tried to deal with this is through the institution and practice of ADR methods. ADR refers to ways of resolvingconflicts and disputes between two or more parties without resorting to litigation; keeping the matter out of court and, some say, out of the hands of lawyers who complicate simple matters (yes, some lawyers go overboard with their legal manoeuvring, but you would do well to appreciate the usefulness of lawyers in society, and I will talk about this some other day). The Arbitration and Conciliation Act specifies how ADR procedures are to be carried out in Nigeria.Lagos State has the Lagos Multi-Door Court House (LMDC), a Public-Private Partnership that was established in 2002; there is also the Office of the Public Defender; the Public Advice Centre; and the Lagos Court of Arbitration. The Legal Aid Council also has offices across the country for those who cannot afford their own private legal representation. I read an article sometime ago where the Legal Aid Council reported that very few people sought their assistance – maybe because few people know they exist, how they assist, and how to locate them.Sometimes the wheels of justice turn slowly and people do not want to be bothered with institutional processes, but I do hope that we all challenge these institutions to improve theirefficiency and effectiveness by at least trying out their services, if not for ourselves, for thosewho need them, before we fall through the cracks of despair and/or self-help.Trying cases in the media is not the usual route to a fair hearing. The truth is usually defined by who has the deeper pockets and better public relations machinery. Often, the real truth stays between the accused and God, until Judgment Day. Until then, let us make theeffort to pursue justice in the venues provided for that purpose.


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