Those who believe in an- gels say they come in different forms. Angels, they argue, can come in form of friends, bosses or family members. What makes them different from other people one interacts with daily is that they come at the nick of time. When hope is lost and it seems one has been pushed to the end of the world, an angel can appear in any form to render help.
That is exactly the case with the many people who should by now be languishing in jail but whose angels visited at the time of their need in form of an organisation called Legal Access Foundation International (LAFI). The organisation handles free legal services for persons who lack legal aid.
One of such people the organisation has visited like an angel is Dorshima John (not real name) who was sent by her mother in Makurdi, Benue State, to live with her aunt in Jos, Plateau State. The aunt assured her mum that she would be sent to school. No sooner had she arrived the coal city than the story changed. The aunt, who had earlier promised her heaven and earth, introduced her to prostitution at the age of 13. She therefore started making money for her aunt.
She later became tired of it and decided to leave her aunt. Then she met a guy who she erroneously believed is her angel when he offered her accommodation. One thing led to the other and she became pregnant within weeks. She started having altercations with the guy up until she was arrested and charged to court for public disturbance.
She was about to be sent to jail when LAFI came into the scene. The organisation did not only provide her with free legal service, it also paid the fine slammed on her by the court. The organisation later handed her over to one of its partners, who saw to it that she got sheltered and got medical care until she was delivered of her baby.
Samson Eze (not real name) is a middle-aged father of four. He came to Abuja from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and was stranded. Rather than take to begging to raise transport fare back home, he approached a phone shop where he stole two phones. He sold the phones and used the proceeds to travel back to his base.
One year after, he returned to Abuja and was walking freely around the area where he had committed the crime during his first visit. Luck, however, ran out of him when some of the people, who were present on the day he committed the crime, recognised him. They apprehended him and handed him over to the police.
He was charged to court where he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Again, luck smiled on him as LAFI appeared on the scene and provided him free legal service. The court fined him N23,000 and the organisation also paid the fine on his behalf.
Pa Paul Sule (not real name), 81-year-old grandpa, had a similar experience. He was about to be sentenced to long years in prison when LAFI intervened. The organisation paid his N4,000 fine and en- sured that he was reconciled to his family members who had earlier lost hope on him.
These are just a few of the 700 cases that this group of some selfless lawyers led by Chidi Dimgba, have handled in the past four years of the organisation. Their efforts had led to a considerable decongestion of prisons in the country.
He said LAFI provides free legal services to indigents, with concentration on prison inmates. Over 72,000 in- mates are awaiting trial in the country.
He disclosed that his team is work- ing with the Comptroller General of Prisons and deputy comptroller generals in the states: “We meet and inter- view them (inmates), from their stories we can assess if the person is telling the truth or not. We check to see if the person deserves to be represented. We do not offer our services to people we know are criminals so that it will not seem as if the foundation is encouraging criminality.
“We only offer our services to those who are there out of poverty, because they couldn’t secure the services of a lawyer. Once we take up a case, we see it through to the end no matter the cost. We are in 14 states and have been do- ing this for the last four years.
“In terms of assistance, sometimes what the society thinks, even lawyers is that the only way to get inmates out of prison is through court processes. Some think when you reel out these figures they think you are lying and just being sentimental. That is why we educate them on the various ways to secure release of inmates.
“It can be done through regular court processes which can go on for the next two years or more. There are situations where you have convicts who are in prisons and are given option of fine which may be N20,000, N30,000 according to the offense they committed. When we visit the prisons, get the records and see how much fine there is, we pay them off.
“For instance, one of us did it in Kano and paid off for 100 people. When the chief judges pay visits to prisons, we apply for prison inmates after we have met with them, inter- viewed them, check how long if they had gone through the normal trails, they would have spent in prison. So when we are applying we make these arguments and allow the judge to use his prerogative of mercy and release them.
“We have assisted over 700 across Nigeria in the last four years. When we met with the DG Legal Aid Council recently, he was shocked that the group had been in existence without them knowing. I told him we have been working with the council in other states but not in Abuja.
“Before now we were not publishing our activities because we were concern with stigmatization. But it was after we reviewed that these are public records which can be retrieved, that we started publishing on our website but we protect the identity. So we have verifiable records of what we do.
“We are 120 lawyers and we fund from our pockets. This is a reflection of an assignment God gave me in 2000 and God has blessed me with people with similar passion across the nation. It is a commitment even if the case is expensive, we won’t back out. Criminal aspect is cheaper than civil because in criminal case, the government takes them to court. We want to start taking up civil cases not as in defending people but people whose rights are trampled upon because they don’t have money to get representation.
“We handle all kinds of cases other than politics. We don’t take up cases when it is evident that the accused per- son is not repentant, when we see that you have shown remorse. We don’t go to court to say you did not do it. There is what is called a plea of allucotus, is a plea that you have been found guilty you make a case before he is sentenced. “Our representation doesn’t mean we will help you buy your way out, you have offended the law and the law must take its cause. We make that plea if we weigh the options. We work with partners to take care of rehabilitation but we monitor the progress.
“We have had only one regret. One indigent we represented stole, and the matter was struck out and was freed. Two weeks later, we were in court for another matter only for us to be informed he had been rearrested and he is back in prison. We regretted it. It was a big blow to me personally. Sometimes we pay to locate their families, pay the court officers to trace the family of such people. We had thought that was one less out of the 72,000 in- mates awaiting trial.
“We can tell when one is lying. A young man we pleaded with to say the truth stuck to his guns and only for us to get to court and be confronted with weighty evidence. We had to call the prison and withdrew from the matter.
“This is a passion God gave me that he wanted me to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves free of charge. It will be wrong to encourage criminality in the name of speaking for those who can’t afford representation. You have to convinced us that you are truly remorseful for us to take up your case.”