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BY HON. JUSTICE MARYANN ANENIH OF THE FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY HIGH COURT, ABUJA, NIGERIA
Access to justice is a fundamental right under the common law and general international human rights law. It is the availability to the aggrieved of avenues to seek and obtain a remedy through formal or informal institutions of justice in compliance with human rights standards.
Access to Justice refers to the extant substantive and procedural mechanisms in a society are designed to ensure that citizens have the opportunity of seeking redress for violation of their legal rights within the legal system.
It goes beyond courts and lawyers. It incorporates the entire process of resolution of disputes including Access to Information, identification of controversies, prevention and resolution of disputes.
The entire legal system operates on a presumption of equality for all. The truth remains however that a large segment of the society still views justice as an illusion which is only available for a privileged few. This, in my view, happens for three main reasons: (i) insufficient information on Access to Justice, (ii) poor communication of available information on access to justice to civil society and (iii) general distrust of the practical reality and sincerity of information on access to justice.
There can therefore be no gain saying that access to judicial and legal information (particularly for women) can be considered a very important prerequisite to access to justice.
It is indeed a truism that a person would naturally not seek to protect a right which he /she does not know exists. Neither would a person efficiently enforce a legal right the enforcement procedure of which he is ill-informed.
Thus, Access to Judicial and legal information is a sine-qua-non to Access to Justice itself.
It is injustice when available justice cannot be accessed. This underscores the importance of information on Access to Justice. Particularly, information on Access to Justice is a must for Women and other vulnerable groups in the society.
There is a litany of legislations and regulations on protection and preservation of rights in the formal justice sector. There is also the informal traditional system, other diverse disciplinary and remedial systems with legal, para legal and non-legal stakeholders.
The whole essence of proper information on access is to notify, impart, update, and transmit knowledge for the purpose of impelling or eliciting a response, reaction, action or even in some cases inaction.
Access to justice goes beyond mere access to legal resources and multi-disciplinary support services, it goes beyond court victories such that even when a case is decided in favour of the woman, the question as to how such success effectively improves and empowers the woman (economically, socially, politically, culturally) can and will be posed as part of the process.
The purpose would therefore be defeated where the available information does not operate to impel nor compel actions geared towards the attainment of judicial redress by the aggrieved. Proper information on access to justice for women can induce outcomes that engender pre and post judicial victory advantages. Conversely, this would also serve to discourage self-help and its inherent dangers to society.
Regular efforts must be upscaled to ensure that Access to Justice is not just mere rhetoric but that it actually aligns with the reality of the judicial system and remedial processes and mechanisms.
There ought to be regular review or updates of those laws and rules of procedure that create a clog in quick and efficient dispensation of justice.
There must be methods of public assurance that the system actually works. The narrative of trauma of victims and witnesses arising from investigative and adjudicatory processes should be shown to be the exception rather than the rule or norm of the system.
The practicality of the accessible mechanisms of judicial remedies must be constantly monitored and publicized. This would aid in ensuring that isolated traumatic experience of victims in their search for justice, is not perceived as the standard. If information is not promptly disseminated to correct such impressions, it can lead to significant distrust of general information on Access to Justice. This is particularly crucial in cases of redress for violence against women (VAW), recovery of debt, possession or ownership of land, sexual harassment and other gender related issues.
What kind of information is available to the ordinary woman on the street who has been assaulted or whose rights have been infringed upon? She may have opted to be silent solely for fear of further trauma or reprisal attacks. Sadly, and as ridiculous as it may appear, there have been reported cases where the complainant (victim) to her surprise, has turned up as the accused person in court. There have also been instances of costly consequences both in cash and kind, in the quest for justice.
When such incidents occur, it is important to immediately put messages out in the public domain to disabuse the minds of the general public against the belief that this is the standard. Failure to remediate such incidents by corollary sensitization information would most likely encourage victim and witness apathy.
Another area for necessary improvement is the basic comprehension of the legal processes and mechanisms available in the judicial system. For this improvement to be helpful long-term initiatives such as economic and educational empowerment of women can be undertaken. Undoubtedly, poverty and illiteracy play a key role in failure of access to justice.
There ought to be regular review or updates of those laws and rules of procedure that create a clog in the quick and efficient dispensation of justice and resolution of disputes.
There must be devised methods of enlightenment to show that the system actually works.
There is the need for continuous public orientation, awareness and sensitization. The relevant government bodies and non-governmental organizations could play a key role in this continuous orientation.
There is also the need to continually train the relevant stakeholders in the justice sector on how to carry out their duties. Where they fail to be gender sensitive especially in cases of VAW it can have far-reaching negative effect on the information available in the public domain on Access to Justice.
It is therefore proposed that future campaigns should go further than just information of the existence of Access to justice and its concomitant judicial remedies.
The campaign should include demonstrations, especially to the rural women and the grassroot levels, that the information is a reality and that it actually works, Efforts should be made to explain to the average or rural woman that access to justice is not usually a traumatic, dangerous nor expensive experience. That the deplorable experiences and bottlenecks sometimes associated with access to justice is not the norm. They could however be derivatives of insufficiency of resources, internal incompetence, or isolated instances of bad eggs in the investigative and adjudicatory process.
Ideally, Justice ought to be dispensed swiftly and fairly without bias, fear, or favour and without any form of discrimination. Studies have however shown that women are more likely to be marginalised and oppressed. Some of the factors responsible for this marginalisation and oppression as earlier observed amongst others are Illiteracy, culture, poverty, and lack of awareness.
These factors in turn generate into women barriers to justice, such as fear of reprisals, stigmatisation, social ostracization, distrust, trauma e.t.c.
It is axiomatic that there are defined and available legal system structures and mechanisms for justice. The belief in the adequacy and/or presumed sufficiency of these systems can sometimes becloud the necessity for adequate information.
Ultimately, proper information dissemination is the doorway to access the benefits of these legal structures.
The legal redress environment should not only be gender sensitive but promote, respect and support the rights and peculiarities of women and vulnerable persons.
Communications of information must be made to show the efforts of the law enforcement agencies to remedy lapses and make sure that women are no longer subjected to debilitating situation just because they spoke up for their rights.
It is imperative to ensure that the information on Access to Justice is readily available and put in the simplest form possible. That is, a form that is easily comprehended for the benefit of the less educated and less legally exposed, particularly the rural women. The most effective way to achieve this is proper communication and regular reviews and updates of information on access to justice.
We must keep up and improve on the good work. It is liberating when women and other vulnerable persons realise that they do have a voice, that they can speak up and that their voices can be heard.
____ ACCESS TO JUSTICE IN NIGERIA CRIMINAL AND CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEMS: C.C. ANI
___ A.G’S DEPARTMENT, AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT
___UNDERSTANDING WOMEN’S ACCESS TO JUSTICE: A BRIEFER ON WOMEN’S ACCESS TO JUSTICE. – OFFICE OF THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS (OHCHR) OFFICIAL WEBSITE.