Lawyers in Nigeria have scaled up the push for the decriminalisation of petty offences in the country to curb unwarranted imprisonment of poor and indigent citizens over minor issues.
This was the thrust of a one-day brainstorming session on Petty Offences, organised for lawyers and human rights activists in Abuja by Lawyers Alert, a Human Rights Organisation.
The President of Lawyers Alert, Rommy Mom, said the move becomes necessary given the huge number of indigent citizens languishing in prisons across the country for matters that should ordinarily not lead to imprisonment or taken to court.
Mom said Lawyers Alert recognises that there are certain crimes that directly put indigent people at a great disadvantage.
He said: “These crimes, which still attracts arrest, range from hawking to wandering, breach of promise, insult on constituted authority among others.
Mom stated that these acts, termed petty offences, are highly common among the poor and lack of resources to afford legal representation, often send the offenders, either as awaiting trial inmates to prisons or sometimes lead to outright conviction.
He added that in most instances, failure to pay fines leads citizens to spending months or years in jail.
Mom termed these offences as having the face of poverty aimed at the poor and should be decriminalised, or courts begin to make use of non-custodial sentences as against imprisonment.
The LA’s Director of Legal Matters, Bamidele Jacobs, said Lawyers Alert free legal services programme will be deepened and expanded to bring in more vulnerable groups, especially those accused of petty offences so as to decongest our prisons.
He added that since its incorporation in 2004, Lawyers Alert has impacted the lives of over 250,000 households directly and one million lives indirectly.
This, Jacobs added, owes to the fact that Lawyers Alert over the years has partnered with various organisations and agencies to carry out her activities and projects.
Ellen Onugha, a Lawyer with Lawyers Alert, said the brainstorming session was aimed at identifying most effective strategies lawyers will and can employ in meeting the challenges of petty offences, whether as individual cases or strategic impact litigation.
Onugha said the session was also to identify the impacts of legislations on the issues for possible amendments or repeal.
The Chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association, Abuja Branch, Folarin Aluko, lauded Lawyers Alert for the move.
Aluko said NBA members are also carrying out pro bono services.
He further stated that most of the people who needed legal services are not aware that they require it.
It is of note that Lawyers Alert is in partnership with the Open Society Initiative West Africa in carrying out decriminalisation efforts of petty offences in Nigeria.