Chibueze  Ngozi: What Lawyers can do to improve access to Justice for Children in Nigeria

Chibueze Ngozi: What Lawyers can do to improve access to Justice for Children in Nigeria

In Nigeria, May 27 of every year
(today) is dedicated to celebrate children. Ironically, children and young
people have been the most vulnerable to the country’s socio-economic challenges
and are constantly exposed to incidents of poverty, exploitation, abuse and
poor health conditions which inhibit their overall development. The
UNICEF recently reported that no fewer than 10.5 million Nigerian children
are out of school. Also, over two years ago, a terrorist group, Boko Haram
abducted over 200 female children, and till date, the government has been
unable to locate them.

These unfortunate circumstances,
among others can be associated with an unmet need for accessible justice for
the Nigerian child. 
As a legal concept, access to justice
historically refers to a right of access to a court or tribunal to obtain
remedy for the violation of legal rights. However, over the last few decades,
the term has come to more broadly focus on everyday legal and social problems
that people experience from the viewpoint of the people experiencing them. It
advocates a range of proactive approaches to manage these everyday issues, and
encompasses the availability and effectiveness of the necessary institutions,
resources and services to anticipate and resolve civil and legal problems
fairly and efficiently.
Generally, the CRA constitutes the
definitive legal framework for the administration of justice system for
children in Nigeria, and it defines a child as a person below the age of 18
years. There are also other national laws and applicable international
conventions and regulations which guarantee the rights of the Nigerian child.
However, the CRA attempts to consolidate the laws applicable to children, in
order to create a dedicated justice system, which affords them better
protection than under general law. 
Indeed, in order to realize an effective
access to justice for any group of people, the peculiar needs and circumstances
of that group should be of utmost consideration. To this extent, the CRA
provides that in every action concerning a child, whether undertaken by an
individual, public or private body, institutions or service, court of law, or
administrative or legislative authority the best interest of the child shall
be the primary consideration
The implication of this provision is
that in each material case, the best interests of the child become transformed
into enforceable rights, which must be identified and determined by the
relevant authority. Consequently, the best interest principle signifies
an essential prerequisite for the protection and promotion of all other civil,
cultural, economic, political and social rights of the child. And so, in any
action or proceeding involving a child, justice would mean the primary
consideration of his best interests, and access to justice may be construed
Yet, in reality, this also means that
access to justice would often prove to be a measure of how far the overall
system will go to resolve the daily normative conflicts pitched between the
otherwise legitimate interests of wider society and the best interests
of children. It also raises the fundamental question as to what actually
constitutes the best interests of the child, and a further query as to who has
the competence to make that finding – judge, guardians, experts or the society.
 Lawyers have a huge capacity and
responsibility to facilitate access to justice for children, even beyond the
courtroom. However, in order to achieve this, they need to be deliberate in
their efforts to make the required difference. 
The influence that lawyers can exert in
this regard will be considered as follows:
1.     Lawyers in Private
2.     Lawyers in Public
3.     Law Teachers
4.     Judges (Lawyers on
the Bench)
5.     The Nigerian Bar
1.     Lawyers in Private
General Ethics and Professional Conduct
Counsel should be aware of and adhere
to applicable professional ethics when dealing with children, especially in
proceedings where they are unrepresented. Counsel should be respectful and, to
the extent possible, avoid the use of complex legal language or procedural
technicalities. Counsel on both sides should act with diligence and promptness
to effectively resolve any judicial or administrative proceedings involving the
Free Legal Representation
For most children, especially those in
conflict with the law, pro bono services would be their only hope of accessing
legal advice or representation. Legal practitioners can devise strategies
either acting alone or in concert, to provide organized and effective pro bono
representation to children where needed.
 Sensitization of the General
In addition to arguing cases involving
violations of children’s rights, they should be actively engaged in mass
enlightenment and mobilization with a view to sensitizing the generality of the
people towards the realization of justice for children. 
Providing Consultation to NGOS
The efforts of organized group acting
in concert often prove more effective in human rights advocacy than the
isolated exertions of individual actors. There is no doubt that NGOs or volunteer
welfare associations play important roles for access to justice across the
nation. These groups are often active in providing some forms of legal aid,
such as legal assistance, creating legal awareness, legal training and advocacy
work. When contrasted with the legal aid initiatives provided by state agencies
and the legal profession, the support program offered by NGOs are usually much
more accessible for the children, especially the poor and vulnerable living in
rural areas. 
2.     Lawyers in Public
Policy formulation and enforcement of
existing laws
Legal practitioners working in the
civil service or sectors of the public service either as politicians or public
administrators are well positioned to initiate and manage relevant policies
which will promote the best interests of the child. This can be achieved using
legislative or administrative channels. The incorporation of international
principles applicable to the child and a harmonization of national and regional
laws should be given priority in the formulation of legislation touching on
children’s rights and freedoms. 
Legal drafting
Lawyers responsible for drafting laws
and policies which would clearly affect the rights or obligations of children
should ensure that the language used is simple and unambiguous with a focus on
the consistency and certainty of the overall legal framework. 
3.     The Law Teachers
(Lawyers in the Academia):
 The child justice system in
Nigeria is a developing area of law and law teachers should be relied upon by
the justice system to continue to clarify the emerging definitions of access to
justice for children in ways which translate to real meaning in their everyday
lives. This may necessarily involve collaboration with other disciplines of the
social and behavioral sciences to build capacity for access to justice
4.     The Judge (Lawyers on
the Bench):
 The role of the judge in the
interpretation of what constitutes the best interests of the child in each
given case is very critical to enhancing access to justice for children. 
In order to advance the interests of
the child, judges ought to simplify the applicable rules of proceedings and
give broad and progressive interpretations to applicable legal principles. In
doing so, a judge would do well to take advantage of the guidance offered by
international and comparative law principles applying the same where required
to domestic judicial decision. 
Also, judges should have high
expectations of the attorneys who appear before them in any proceedings
involving the child. 
5.     The Nigerian Bar
Although the Nigerian Bar Association
(“NBA”) as a professional association arguably has the most influential
advantage to promote access to justice and the rule of law, it has not been
very effective in this regard. 
Facilitation of Knowledge Sharing 
The NBA can organize periodic continued
legal and judicial education for lawyers and judges respectively; and
specialized trainings for law enforcement, welfare officers and policy leaders
on the current laws and standards applicable to the administration of the child
justice system. This would also be a good opportunity to expose the weaknesses
in the system with a view to managing or eradicating them. 
In addition, the NBA can provide
leadership by working with the education authorities, to ensure that children
are taught their civil rights in a simplified form, as part of their academic
Engaging National and Regional
The critical role of the national and
regional governments in promoting access to justice for the children can be
galvanized and strengthened by the NBA through support efforts and awareness
campaigns to improve the quality of local regulations and consistency with the
international standards. 
The concept of Access to Justice for
children in Nigeria is broad and encompassing and aims at realizing the best
interests of the child. As the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) agenda sets about the attainment of new global development goals and
targets, there is greater appreciation and understanding of the role that
access to justice plays in guaranteeing basic rights to education, food and
health, and in supporting other dimensions of sustainable development for
The lawyer is widely regarded as the
expert in access to justice issues. This expertise provides him with the
leverage and responsibility to promote access to justice for children in
various professional capacities. His role in this regard is undoubtedly
critical and requires the effective deployment of management skills and
resources in order to achieve any success.
Ed’s Note: This article was originally published by the author here