By Miracle Enuji
The Delta State Office of the Public Defender Bill on Tuesday, July 11, 2017 passed its second reading on the floor of the State House of Assembly.
The Bill which seeks to provide limitless access to legal representation for the downtrodden and indigent Nigerian citizens in Delta State, was brought before the House by the State Government.
Moving the motion for the second reading of the bill and its subsequent debate, Majority Leader, Hon. Tim Owhefere said that the bill as presented seeks to establish an office to defend members of the public who may not have the finance to access legal representation.
“We are all aware that most times, we are unable to enforce our individual rights not because we do not know them but we do not have the wherewithal because litigation is expensive. In most cases, even when we know that we are right because the person on the opposite side has more financial muscle than us, we go home and sleep, and sleep on our rights”.
Owhefere noted that the bill is built on Section 17 (1&2) of the 1999 constitution as amended which states that everyone is equal before the law in Nigeria, adding that the constitution was very clear on the rights of individuals which the right to legal representation is one of which. “One of those rights as enshrined in the constitution, is the right to fair hearing as captured in Section 36 (6c) of the Nigeria Constitution which states clearly the right to legal representation if anyone is being charged with a criminal offence, that person has the right to legal representation”, he emphasized.
He averred that the bill seeks to cure the ill of financial limitation which is the major challenge to having legal representation. “Everyone should have access to legal representation. This law empowers you to be defended because even the poorest of men can seek justice.”
The Majority Leader described the functions of the Public Defender to include free legal aid and advise to those who need it, admission of complains from individuals and carrying out of public enlightenment campaign on the activities of the office.
He added that a Governing Council will be ordained for the office with a Chairman who will be a legal practitioner of more than 15 years standing at the bar to be appointed by the state governor on the recommendation of the Attorney General of the State. Other council members will include, a representative of the Civil Society, a representative of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (IFWL), a representative of the Controller of the Nigerian Prison Services (NPS), a representative of the Commissioner of Police and a Director who must be a state Counsel not below the rank of a Chief State Counsel. “These appointments by the Governor are subject to the approval of this House”.
Speaking further, Hon. Owhefere pointed out that those eligible to enjoy this free litigation service as stated in Section 16(1) of the draft bill, are individuals resident in Delta State and earning less than the National Minimum wage or its equivalent and the offence committed must be within Delta State.
He also revealed that section 26 (1) of the bill, states that the court and the police have a duty to inform a suspect that he is entitled to legal representation. “When the suspect says that I don’t have money to get a lawyer, it is the duty of the court or the police to notify the office of the Public Defender if the suspect so desires so that he can be properly defended.”
The majority Leader added that the Public Defender Lawyer has an unrestricted access to the suspect being represented no matter where he is confined and present during interrogation.
However, the bill stipulates a penalty of 6 months imprisonment or a fine of #10,000 or both when found guilty of providing a misleading information to the Public Defender’s Office.
House members who also added their voice in support to the bill, adopted the submissions of the Major Leader who clinically described the essence of the bill which subsequently received the affirmation of the Speaker’s gavel.
The bill was thereafter referred to an adhoc committee chaired by Hon. Daniel Mayuku with Hon. Pat Ajudua, Hon. Azuka Azaka,Hon. Evance Ivwurie and Hon. Daniel Yingi as members.