‘We defend people who cannot afford services of a lawyer’
Mrs. Omotola Rotimi is the Director of the Office of the Public Defender (OPD), Lagos State. A trained lawyer, accredited mediator and forensic scientist, she spoke with TOBI AWODIPE about the work of the OPD and how it has helped indigent citizens access justice.
Can we meet you?
I am Omotola Rotimi, the director of the Office of the Public Defender, Lagos State Ministry of Justice.
What exactly does your agency do?
We defend the public, the indigents of Lagos State, people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer. We represent them in court and basically what we do is to render free legal services to indigents of Lagos State and also protect the social economic rights of women and children, especially as they are more vulnerable.
Our free legal service also covers representation in court, offering free legal advice, advocacy to the public and sensitising the public to their rights especially women and children. We also showcase what Lagos State and its government have on ground to assist the poor people in Lagos to ensure that they have access to justice.
This agency was carved out from the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago. What makes it different from the ministry seeing that both have similar responsibilities?
Our jobs do not overlap and we are still part of the Ministry of Justice, but the kind of legal services we render is different from what other departments do. For instance, the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, they go to court to prosecute criminals and people that have run contrary to the law. We defend strictly and that is the difference. Not everyone can afford to get a lawyer and the constitution stipulates that everyone must have equal access to justice and the person must be represented, either by himself or a lawyer. People that do not have money to get a lawyer, who will represent them in court? That is where we come in; our office defends on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
There are several other departments and agencies within the Ministry of Justice and everyone has their scope of duty. Sometimes, we instigate action when necessary, especially in employee-employer cases, where the employee was sacked indiscriminately without being paid entitlements and or benefits. Such an individual cannot afford a lawyer and may want to take the company to court and if he comes to the OPD, we would assist in ensuring the case goes to court, thereby instituting action on his behalf.
In the case of divorce, battery or abandonment, if a woman comes to us for help, we would institute action on her behalf and make sure the case concludes logically.
How successful has your agency been in cases that have been brought before it?
In the last four months alone, 2372 cases have been brought before us, so you can imagine the number we deal with in a whole year. We have several police matters, rescue missions and cases still pending but we try our best to handle each case to favourable completion and we have been quite successful so far.
You are also an accredited mediator, how does this help in cases?
Yes, mediating helps a lot, especially employing the ADR mechanism (Alternative Dispute Resolution) is a method we use in dispute resolution. Not all cases go to court. Two people might be feuding on a matter and after consideration, we might decide that the best way to handle it is by trying to settle it among them either by mediation or negotiation. In cases of employer/employee, if there is a breach of contract or dispute over salary, benefits and entitlements, we can sit both parties down and negotiate between them. We use the best practice we feel can solve any case at any given time with the only exception being criminal cases. If the case is civil in nature, we try to resolve it amicably by mediation instead of going to court. 90 per cent of the members of staff of the agency are chartered mediators because for you to be able to mediate successfully in a case, one must have undergone training in mediation and be certified.
Does your background in Forensic Science play a pivotal role in helping you resolve cases?
Certainly. There is hardly any aspect of law in this day and age that does not need some form of forensic science, one way or the other. For instance, in a criminal matter, when a crime is committed, you have to perform forensic investigation to get to the root of the matter. This comes in handy especially in cases like rape when you have to conduct examination on the woman to determine the criminal responsible, especially when he wants to deny having carnal knowledge of her.
The need for extra and specialised knowledge motivated me to study forensics as well because I want to understand what is going on especially when there is dispute in the case. Science does not lie even when people do. It helps to ensure every client gets the justice they truly deserve. In cases of murder, fraud, forgery, paternity struggles and so on, forensics is extremely important and there is hardly any part of the law that it is not applied to. Forensics help in resolving crimes quickly these days compared to the olden days.
Apart from employment issues, divorce and civil cases resolution, what other cases does your agency handle?
We also handle sexual abuse case, child molestation, in fact, we handle all cases, either criminal or civil. Civil cases cover cases like divorce, matrimonial issues, family cases, domestic violence, breach of contract, employee/employers, while criminal cases include rape, murder, sexual abuse and so on. The only cases we don’t handle is land matters because we believe that for you to have land in Lagos, you must have some money and can afford the services of a lawyer.
What if the land was passed on to one?
If you got the land by way of inheritance, the OPD can come in. If maybe your parent died and left a will, we would assist in getting you a letter of administration from the court but if the person died intestate, we would refer the case to the Office of the Administrator General and Public Trustee and they would decide on the matter but we would follow you to ensure that the matter goes well. But where the matter cannot be resolved, we would have to file it in court on behalf of our client, or go and represent our client if the other party files a petition bypassing mediation.
Before we represent any land matter, we have to be sure that the person truly cannot afford a lawyer and the land was gotten through inheritance. We represent all cases in court apart from cases of rape and or defilement and the reason is because most of the time, before an offender comes to request our service, we are already in contact with the victim and we cannot represent both the victim and the alleged rapist; it would be conflict of interest. We usually refer such cases for pro bono or legal aid.
How do you determine an indigent person that really needs help?
We have the mints test we apply to every client. We have a form every petitioner must fill that tells us about you. If you come to us and tell us you are indigent and you live in a three bedroom flat in Ikoyi or Lekki and you pay the rent, you are obviously not indigent. We used to be defenders of the poor but now we are defenders of the defenseless and helpless. A lot of people are caught in the web and cannot afford a lawyer, even despite earning some income and these are the people we want to help.
However, there is a proviso: if you are working and you come to us for help, we must see evidence that you have been paying tax in Lagos State. This office is run with taxpayers’ money and no matter how little the tax is, we just want to see evidence that you are doing what you are supposed to do as a citizen. We would also ask for your LASRAA number to be sure that you are a resident of Lagos State, and not coming from another state to enjoy the benefits. However, we wouldn’t turn you down because of this but encourage you to go register.
Recently, there has been an increase in spousal killings and battery, child molestation and rape. Why is this so, and can this be as a result of weak laws?
No matter how stringent laws are, some people would break it. Probably, tougher punishments might serve as deterrent to others, but laws are not scarce in this country. Implementation and enforcement has always been our problem here. Our laws in Lagos State are one of the best set of laws you can get anywhere in the world.
Personally, I think so many men are frustrated and tend to take it out on their partners and children, leading to the increase in crime we see these days.