Paul Usoro Challenge: A Bold
Initiative at Advancing the Pro Bono Culture Though life was not perfect for
24-year old Jimi Oladapo, at least he managed to get by. A graduate of
Accounting from the University of Benin, Oladapo eked out a living working as a
machine operator in a plastic production factory. After three fruitless years
of job hunting, he was forced to swallow his pride, put away his impressive
university degree and take up his present job. While the job was hardly his
preferred option, it was, at least, a stop-gap measure that guaranteed him
daily bread.

However, the young man’s
relatively stable life came crashing down after he was arrested for allegedly
murdering his landlord’s son. Oladapo maintains that he acted in self-defense.
According to him, he was attacked by the deceased and his brother and in a bid
to defend himself, he killed the young man.

One year after the incident
and Oladapo is still languishing in prison even as he waits for the matter to
be taken to court. Bereft of legal representation, abandoned by family, friends
and the society as a whole, Oladapo’s fate mirrors the pathetic situation of
Awaiting Trial Persons (ATP) in Nigeria.

He is not alone. According
to a fact sheet released by the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action
(PRAWA), a Lagos based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO); over 70 percent of
inmates in Nigerian prisons are ATPs. They are left at the mercy of a legal
system that simply has not lived up to its responsibility of guaranteeing much
needed access to legal services for indigent citizenry. In truth, Oladapo and
thousands of ATPs that are wasting away in prisons all over the country reflect
the sad state of the Pro Bono culture in Nigeria’s legal space.

The obvious dearth of Pro
Bono, that is, the provision of free legal services for indigent people, is not
limited to the criminal law scene in Nigeria. It also spills into civil disputes.
Incidences of widows who are deprived of their late spouse’s estates, workers
whose employments are terminated without receiving benefits due to them,
amongst others, make headline news daily. A number of these cases go unresolved
simply because the victims cannot afford the high cost of engaging counsel.

Interestingly, Nigeria’s
legal space has witnessed a number of initiatives put in place to provide legal
support for indigent people. For instance, the Legal Aid Council (LAC), a
department under the Federal Ministry of Justice was established in 1976, to
provide free legal services to indigent Nigerians.  In 2012, the Lagos State Government announced
the establishment of the Lagos State Public Interest Law Partnership (“LPILP”)
a partnership initiative between the State Government and over 100 law firms,
to provide free legal assistance to indigent members of the public.

In 2009, came the Pro Bono
Declaration for Members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the Umbrella
Body of Nigerian lawyers, which requires each member to provide more than 20
hours or three days of pro bono legal services per annum. In 2015, NBA took its
stance on Pro Bono a notch further by encouraging law firms and lawyers to
provide free legal services to at least five indigent families yearly. In
addition to the aforementioned, several other NGOs like the Prisoners’
Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) have been in the forefront of
providing pro bono services to people who cannot afford legal services.

So, why has the culture of
pro bono not gotten traction in Nigeria despite these laudable moves? The
reasons are not farfetched. Quite simply, there are not enough lawyers and law
firms stepping in, to provide free legal services to indigent people. With the
exception of a few established law firms, a significant number of lawyers and
law firms in the country are too enmeshed in the bread and butter struggle, to
keep afloat, to bother about providing free legal service. True, the economic
situation may well be a good reason for the dying culture of Pro Bono in
Nigeria. However, is this excuse really tenable given that pro bono service in
itself remains a sacrosanct responsibility which the legal profession prides
itself in?

James Etaghene runs a law
chamber in Abuja. He admits to cutting down on his pro bono work to focus more
on his business. “My brother, I have to look out for myself and my business
before I think of helping others. In any case, the pro bono work would be
funded by my business and things have not exactly been rosy with my firm, hence
the decision to leave pro bono work for now,” he explained.

All may not be gloom
however, as legal luminary and foremost communications law expert, Paul Usoro,
SAN announced the donation of N600, 000 as prize money to six lawyers in a new
initiative tagged Paul Usoro Challenge. The Paul Usoro Challenge, a novel idea
from the distinguished lawyer, is a social media driven campaign set up to
recognize and encourage young lawyers to buy into the pro bono culture. The
Challenge called on lawyers, between 1-10 years of practice, to send in short
videos of their pro bono work which would be assessed by a special panel
comprising top legal practitioners (members of PBC panel). 

According to Usoro, the
Challenge is a platform to celebrate the efforts of lawyers who were giving
back to society through pro bono legal services and encourage others to join.
He said: “From our experience in doing pro bono work, we realized that there
are lots of young lawyers out there who are doing so much for the society,
through free legal services. The Pro Bono challenge is a platform for us to
share the fantastic stories of these young lawyers and challenge not only their
peers but the entire legal space to emulate them,” he said.

Speaking on Pro Bono
practice in Nigeria, Mrs L. Y. Salau, Deputy Director, Legal Aid Council,
stated that “Pro Bono is a way veritable way in which lawyers can give back to
the society. Unfortunately, most lawyers shy away from this area except when
they want to meet the requirements for the rank of SAN. A lawyer who genuinely
does pro bono cases will a have sense of fulfilment.

The second edition of the
Paul Usoro challenge is already underway with modifications to its scope. Head
of Chambers, Paul Usoro & Co, Munirudeen Liadi revealed that this edition
has been packaged to accommodate a broader spectrum of pro bono services.
Contestants have also been extended to include lawyers between 1 and 15 years’
experience at the bar. Specifically, lawyers who have handled pro bono cases in
areas of law enforcement agents’ brutality, domestic violence, gender related
issues, child abuse can now participate in the Challenge.

Speaking on the notion
behind this, Liadi said that “Our aim is to cover more areas of pro bono work.
Based on experience, we’ve been convinced of the need to open the opportunity
to lawyers handling these cases and also expand the scope in terms of years of
practice. It is no secret that abuse of human rights is rife in Nigeria. In one
breath, we’re encouraging pro bono work and as well helping to get more hapless
Nigerians out of difficult situations,” he said.

The current Challenge is
expected to run from 9th of February till 9th of April. Six Lawyers with the
most compelling cases, after evaluation by a designated panel of judges, will
be rewarded with N100, 000 each for their efforts. Interested lawyers are
advised to visit the PUC website, for modalities on
participation or via the learned silk’s social media pages; Facebook: Paul
Usoro SAN, Twitter: @paulusorosan, Instagram: @paulusoro