Public Defenders Office brings needed legal services to Kano residents

  16/03/2020

For 11 years, Mallam Magaji Dankaka had been going to the courthouse, attending mandated appointments and awaiting a ruling on a holding charge from 2007. The proceedings began when, upon taking a second wife, Dankaka was accused by his first wife of armed robbery. After the initial arrest and pending charge, Dankaka’s record and indeed, his life, was thrown into limbo.

This 11-year holding period would soon come to an end. In late 2019, Dankaka tuned in to 93.1 FM, the Arewa Radio Station broadcasting throughout Kano state, just in time for a special segment from the newly opened Kano Public Defenders Office. As listeners called in with questions, the Public Defenders Office representatives told them how to find the office, how to seek legal services, and what rights citizens had when faced with lengthy and confusing legal proceedings.

Dankaka reached out to the office whose lawyers, after hearing his case, filed for the enforcement of his fundamental rights to be given a timely trial and verdict. After review and noting that the respondent, his first wife, had been absent throughout the entirety of his court proceedings and never completed the charge filing, the court ruled to dismiss the case. After more than a decade, Dankaka was at last free of charges and free to move forward.

Barriers to legal services and access to justice

Cases like this are not unusual in Kano state or, indeed, throughout Nigeria.

Nigeria’s justice system suffers from complex and multi-dimensional challenges, particularly in terms of access to legal aid and defense representation. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, limited access to medical services, and few opportunities for prisoner education and rehabilitation are among the many problems inside detention facilities, and petrial detention is widespread. According to the World Prison Brief, nearly 70 percent of Nigeria’s prison population of 74,000 is awaiting trial.

Cell quarters in Kano.

The Kano State Legal Aid Council Zonal Office employs only four full-time lawyers. Prior to the 2017 opening of the Public Defenders Office in Kano, a relatively remote northern state, there were no avenues for residents to access public or low-cost legal representation or gain knowledge of their rights under the law.

Most individuals who are jailed as suspects do not have access to justice and remain in pretrial purgatory, despite not having been found guilty of a crime. Like Dankaka, many citizens who end up in pretrial detention are not aware of their bail rights and are often asked to pay a “holding charge,” which can be lawful in specific circumstances but is more often abused by courts to extort money.

Legal services where they are needed most

The Greater Access to Defense and Justice in Kano State project is changing this dynamic. The project works with lawyers, judges, advocates and government officials to improve coordination within Kano’s judicial system, advance criminal justice reform and, through the state’s first ever Public Defenders Office, provide quality legal services—including litigation, mediation, legal writing and referrals—to citizens who can’t otherwise afford them

Staff of the Kano PDO meet with citizens to discuss their rights during a July 18 community event.

Since its launch in June 2017, the office has assisted hundreds of accused individuals in need of civil, criminal or Sharia-based legal aid and recorded several high-profile successes. The office recently won a groundbreaking case involving the rape of a 6-month old child. The first case of its kind in Kano, the ruling in favor of a minor established a strong legal precedent for future child rights cases.

To ensure citizens in need of services know where and how to get them, the Public Defenders Office regularly carries out community outreach campaigns, including legal clinics and the radio share where Dankaka first learned of the office.

The Greater Access to Defense and Justice project is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and implemented by PartnersGlobal, Partners West Africa Nigeria, the Democratic Action Group, and New-Rule LLC.

Preparing for the future of legal aid

To date, the Public Defenders Office has provided more than 700 Kano residents with legal services and reached thousands more with information about of their rights under the law. However, the need for quality, free and low-cost legal services in the state is still great. To continue to serve citizens in need, the Public Defenders Office, with support from the Greater Access to Defense and Justice team, is currently finalizing a long-term sustainability plan, including formally becoming part of Partners West Africa Nigeria.

From identifying new sources of revenue, partners and clients to developing case studies and stories to communicate the office’s successes, the team’s efforts are focused on one thing: ensuring no Kano resident goes without legal representation.