The concept of Legal aid in Nigeria can be said to have been birthed in 1961 when Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the Chief Justice of Nigeria at the time, during the African Conference on the Rule of Law held in Lagos, pointed out the hollowness of a constitutional right to a fair hearing, if the financial aspect of access was ignored.
That statement was the first official public acknowledgement of the need and desirability for legal aid in Nigeria.
This led to a Bill prepared by the then Honourable Attorney-General, Dr. T.O. Elias, entitled Legal Aid and Advice Act 1961 for Parliament, in order to formally establish legal aid in Nigeria.
The Bill sought to make provision for the establishment and operation of a scheme for the granting in proper cases, legal aid and legal advice, to people with low income, who could not otherwise afford to procure them for the enforcement or vindication of a legitimate right or for obtaining a just relief. Unfortunately, due to the Nigerian Civil War the Bill did not see the light of day.
This effort later gave rise to the birth of the Nigerian Legal Aid Association. The Association was made up of legal luminaries who took it upon themselves to champion the cause of providing legal aid for poor Nigerians.
The Association was inaugurated on February 6th 1974. One week after the inauguration saw the launching of the East Central State Branch of the Association in Enugu. Thereafter, Branches were also launched in Lagos, Plateau, Oyo and Cross River States.
The initiator of the Association was Chief Chimezie Ikeazor SAN, other members were Chief Debo Akande SAN who was the Director of Operations of the Organization, Chief (Dr) Solomon Lar C.O.N. was the Secretary General of the body. Other active members of the association include Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. Chief Adebayo Ogunsanya, the then President of the Nigerian Bar Association was one of the national patrons.
The Association got immense support from the Bench during the launch of the Association’s state branches. Amongst the eminent jurists that attended the various occasions were Hon. Justices Dr. T.O. Elias, G.S. Sowemimo, Dan Ibekwe, M.O. Balonwu, Mohammed Bello, Ayo Irikefe and S.M.A. Belgore C.O.N.
The efforts of the Association later culminated in the promulgation of the Legal Aid Decree or Legal Aid Act No. 56 of 1976. This Act formally introduced the legal aid scheme into law and it eventually was incorporated into the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The Legal Aid Act No. 56 of 1976 was promulgated by the Head of the Federal Military Government, General Olusegun Obasanjo on 10th November 1976. This was during the tenure of the Hon. Mr. Justice Dan Ibekwe, as Attorney-General of the Federation.
By section 19(1) of the Act, the Legal Aid Act was to come into force on such a day as the Attorney-General may, by order appoint. By the Legal Aid Decree (Appointed Day) Order 1977, L.N. 30 of 1977, it was Dr. Augustine Nnamani J.S.C. then Attorney General of the Federation, who brought the provisions of the Legal Aid Act into force, on the 2nd day of May 1977. He thus established the first Legal Aid Council, in accordance with the provisions of the Legal Aid Act.
Chief Executives Officers of the Council
The Council had as Chief Executive, Mr. C.U. Osakwe, as the first Director of Legal Aid in appointed in 1977, assisted by Mr. V.O. Achike, who later succeeded him in 1987 as Director-General. In 1992, Mr. Osikoya was appointed as Director General and Mrs. Wonu Folami became Director General from 1994 to 1997. Mr. Osikoya took over in 1997 and later Mrs Uju Hassan Baba was appointed in 1999. Mrs Letitia Akinlami was Director General from 2007 to 2010 when the current Director General, Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel was appointed.
THE COUNCIL’S OPERATION
The LAC began its operations in a one (1) room office on the 4th Floor of the Federal Ministry of Justice, at Marina Lagos, with a staff strength of about Twelve (12) persons. Since inception, it has undergone series of changes and relocations of its administrative base. After its initial take-off the next headquarters of the Council was situated at the Constanzer House, 72 Campbell Street, Lagos State. In 1992 it was relocated to the old National Assembly Complex, Lagos, and once again it was relocated to No. 10, Okotie Eboh Street, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.
In 1998, the Council was relocated from Lagos to Abuja. This was in line with other MDA's moving to Abuja to begin operation as the seat of government had relocated to the new Federal Capital. Its new office was located at Ademola Adetokunbo Street, Wuse II, Abuja.
The movement of its administrative base did not end here.
In 2005, the Council was moved to the Federal Secretariat Complex (Phase I). During this period, the staff strength grew to over two hundred percent of its original size. In 2009, its administrative headquarters was thus further moved to 22 Okemesi Crescent, off Oro Ago Street, Garki II, Abuja.
In 2012 the Council moved to where it is currently situated at the Head of Service Building, Federal Secretariat Phase II with annexes in the Federal Secretariat Phase I and the FCT Education Board Building in Area 3, Garki, Abuja. We can thus say that within a period of thirty-seven (37) years, the Council has changed office locations seven (7) different times.
The Council finally moved to its permanent Headquarters Building located at No. 22 Port Harcourt Crescent, off Gimbiya Crescent, Area 11, Garki, Abuja in May 2016.
Justice for All
LEGAL AID COUNCIL HEADQUARTERS:
No.22 Port Harcourt Crescent, off Gimbiya Street, Area 11, Garki Abuja, Nigeria.