Law students are helping innocent inmates to regain freedom

Zubairu Adam*, an inmate at the Suleja correctional centre in Niger State in the North-Central region of Nigeria, has a mental illness that makes him wander onto people’s premises. One day, he rambled into the compound of a high-ranking police officer. He was arrested and charged with trespassing, mischief and attempt to commit theft.

In March 2022, two months later, 400 to 500 undergraduate students who are part of the law clinic of the University of Abuja (UniAbuja) came across Adam when they visited the Suleja prison as part of the Reforming Pre-trial Detention in Nigeria project. They presented the case to their pro bono lawyer at a case conference. Subsequently, the lawyer successfully applied for bail.

After several court hearings and adjournments of the case, it was eventually struck from the roll and Adam was freed, thanks to the intervention of students of the UniAbuja law clinic.

Haliru Shuaibu* of Niger worked as a security guard in Nigeria when he was arrested by the police for allegedly stealing wiring from a house worth NGN860,000 (about US$1,868).

Like Adam, he was charged with criminal trespassing, mischief and theft after also losing his job. He signed a confession at the police station, despite the fact that he couldn’t read and understand the content of the document.

The clinic took up the case in June 2022 after he had spent 10 months in prison because he couldn’t pay his bail. On 7 February, the case judge was transferred to another court and the case started afresh. But Shuaibu was released on 7 March because the complainant did not want to proceed with the case.

Shuaibu and Adam are part of the estimated 100 inmates who have been released, thanks to the students, since the inception of a law clinic in 2008 – 15 of them since January 2022.

Law clinic

The law clinic, which operates as a club of the university’s faculty of law was established to offer a wide range of free legal services to indigent inmates and to serve as a laboratory for law students to learn practical skills.

The clinic, in turn, emanated from the introduction of clinical education in Nigeria, which is a system of teaching and learning that makes sure the clients [the inmates] receive priority in legal practice or process. The theoretical aspect of the course ‘legal practice’ is taught in class while the practical aspect is taught through the law clinic.

The club has been partnering with the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI-Nigeria) which brings the project to the UniAbuja law clinic for execution. There have been various funders since the inception of the project. The MacArthur Foundation funded it in 2008, the Open Society Justice Initiative in 2014, and, for the past four years, so has the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Data from the Nigerian Correctional Service shows that there were 52,745 total awaiting trial inmates in 2022, while the number of total convicted inmates in 2022 was 22,890.

Additional data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that at least three-quarters of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving terms without having been sentenced.

What students are doing

The first step the students take to get freedom for detainees is to write to the prison authority to request permission to visit them. If permission is granted, the students would be grouped into five teams with at least 15 students in each team for them to interview the inmates and get their records from the penitentiary.

“We will do case verification from the prison to verify the statements of the inmates and we would come to the faculty to open files for those cases and a case conference would be conducted between us [the students], the supervisor and our pro bono lawyers.

“We verify cases in court by obtaining the details of the cases and confirming if there is an existing lawyer on the case. We often apply for records of proceedings to find out the progress of the case before going into legal representation,” Abiola Ayoola Ayodele, a fifth-year law student and the clinic head, told University World News.

Becoming a lawyer in Nigeria takes seven years. The first five years is spent in any accredited law faculty in Nigeria, one year will be dedicated to the National Youth Service Corps and another year of law school to the study of the practical aspects of the Nigerian legal system before candidates can go to the bar as barristers and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Dr Nasiru Mukhtar, the director of clinical legal education at the University of Abuja, noted that the students perform most of the tasks, ranging from case verifications, fixing meetings and conferences, communicating with clients, attending and following up cases in court and working hand in hand with lawyers to ensure the completion of the cases.

“The students would go to court to get the date for the hearing and the lawyer will do legal representation. All other work like entering pleas and preparation of documents, including motions, would be done by students and they would continue till they either get an acquittal, strike out the case, get bail or a conviction,” he said.

“We have learned about the Nigeria criminal justice system and it makes students familiar with the legal procedures which include case filing, drafting of motions, knowledge of clients and interviewing,” he said.

The club is providing access to justice to inmates, strengthening the administration of the criminal justice system, reducing the high rate of pre-trial detention in correctional centres, and bringing awareness about the pre-trial and trial rights of citizens.

“It has helped the judges to provide access to justice for inmates who would have otherwise been incarcerated and has enabled the law lecturers to impart teaching skills to learn and impart it on the society and students,” Mukhtar said, adding that it has compelled the judges, correctional institutions and security operatives to be active, competent, and disciplined.

Making an impact

Beyond gaining freedom for inmates, the club has executed impactful projects which include community-based intervention to protect the citizens and educate them on their civil, political and human rights.

They also carried out a lawyering street project in 2021 after the #EndSARS protest call for justice for victims of police brutality, organised town hall meetings to educate citizens on police brutality, the need to take advantage of the panel of enquiry set up to address police brutality and the need to report any case of brutality to it.

They also execute a freedom of information project by which they sensitise the community members about the Freedom of Information Act 2011 which gives a person, group, association or organisation the right to access information from government agencies, parastatals, the federal civil service, private and public-sector organisations providing public services, and how to utilise the legislation to hold the government accountable.

The club also has projects focusing on rape cases, migration and human trafficking and the need to enlighten the victims on the need to come forward to speak against them and report to the authorities.

Mukhtar says the inmates are getting access to justice, a fair hearing, a fair trial and free legal service, noting that the students’ consistent visits to correctional centres allow the inmates to receive the fair treatment they deserve.

“The project is benefiting the university and faculty because the students get training on the practical aspect of their profession and it has earned the university a good reputation. There are many publications about the whole project and it makes the Vice-chancellor, Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, happy whenever he hears the clinic has freed an inmate.

He added that it helps the students to compete with students all over the world through competition on legal interviewing and counselling, citing the previous competition involving India, the United States and the Caribbean, which brought funds and equipment the faculty’s way.

Monday Paul, one of the pro bono lawyers of the club, told University World News that the association has helped inmates who cannot afford the service of lawyers and has helped to reduce the number of detainees in congested prisons.

The challenges faced by the club range from delays in verifying the cases, delays in the Nigerian judicial system, the lack of diligent prosecution, the lack of funding to pay fines for inmates – and the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities.

* The names of the inmates have been changed to protect their identities.