We interview our service volunteer Ajibike Babalola about her work with GMLC, her experiences working for the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria and the state of access to justice in different legal systems.
Would you like to outline a little of what you’ve been doing as a volunteer for GMLC?
As a Triage/Enquiry Volunteer with the Greater Manchester Law Centre, my duties include:
- Reception and welcome desk, being positive and helpful to incoming callers and making members of the community and clients feel supported;
- Provision of client services, such as signposting and referral;
- Answering telephone calls and email enquiries and transferring them if appropriate to the relevant member of staff or volunteer;
- Maintaining a client database;
- General office duties including answering email, phone calls and dealing with voicemails;
- Providing professional and prompt responses to queries made to GMLC;
- Supporting staff and other volunteers with enquiries and casework.
At the moment, I am undergoing intensive training with the Welfare Benefits team in order to help with form filling and other benefit-related claims.
What sort of work did you do while you were working with the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria?
I worked with the Legal Aid Council (LAC) of Nigeria for many years before moving to the United Kingdom. I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2009 and started working with LAC in 2011, where I rose from being a Legal Aid Officer to an Assistant Chief Legal Aid Officer. The Legal Aid Council offers pro-bono services to indigent citizens.
My duties as a Legal Aid Officer involved representing people in both criminal and civil litigation. The criminal cases involved defending people who have been accused of but not limited to murder, manslaughter, assault and affray. Our duty at LAC was not to see that the guilty weren’t punished for their offences, but to defend them to the best of our ability and see that justice is done at all times.
I also worked on civil cases, such as claims in respect of workplace accidents and breach of contract between employers/employees, and civil claims to cover breaches of fundamental rights guaranteed under Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. A full description of what Legal Aid Council of Nigeria does is contained in the Legal Aid Act 2011. I also carried out such ancillary duties like giving legal advice, mediation services and prison decongestion work (visiting various correctional facilities on a weekly basis to take applications from inmates who did not have legal representation to try to represent as many as possible so as to reduce the number of people in the facility).
In terms of your experiences in both Nigeria and England, are the systems similar? What are the main differences you’ve noticed?
Well, from what I’ve seen so far and from books I’ve read, there isn’t much difference between the two legal systems, largely due to the fact that Nigeria is a common law jurisdiction and most of our laws are from English law.
However, some of the differences I’ve noticed can be seen in the different approaches to constitutions, the solicitor/barrister system and the welfare benefit system in England.
Nigeria has a written constitution, sometimes referred to as the “Grundnorm”, which is superior to all other laws and statutes. If any law is made that is contrary to the constitution, the constitution prevails. In contrast, England has an unwritten constitution, which means that there is no single written authority from which its laws are derived.
In Nigeria, lawyers get called to the bar as solicitors and barristers, both fused into one. This means that, once you’re called, you can act as both a solicitor and a barrister, performing both functions side by side – with the exception of in-house or corporate solicitors who aren’t allowed to appear in court except as witnesses or observers. This is quite different from what happens in England, where a legal practitioner can either be a solicitor or barrister and there are different academic routes to each qualification.
The welfare benefit system is an area that is completely new to me: a system that makes provisions for its vulnerable citizens of all ages, thereby reducing poverty and the crime rate to some extent, is something I hope Nigeria emulates.
Has Nigeria had any changes to their legal system similar to LASPO, which narrowed the scope of Legal Aid in England and Wales over the last decade? What are the barriers to free and affordable legal advice in each place?
When I started working with GMLC, one of the first things I heard about was the cut to legal aid funding through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) and I felt “oh, it’s the same everywhere”.
Nigeria has not narrowed down the scope of legal aid, it has widened the areas of law that the council can take up. Irrespective of this, however, the legal aid system in Nigeria is riddled with so many challenges, from inadequate funding to lack of information to the public on their right to access justice for free. There is also an inadequate number of legal practitioners, especially when compared with the number of inmates we have in our correctional facilities and the number of people who require legal advice.
With respect to England, from the little I’ve seen so far, I think there are barriers to affordable legal advice because of the cuts to legal aid and lack of personnel (using GMLC as a yardstick). These two barriers are interwoven, as the cuts to legal aid have obviously affected the financial structure of Law Centres, which has in turn reduced the number of paid/professional staff Law Centres would be able to employ. This has also affected the number of cases that can be handled at a time. It means we can’t take on every case they would like to as it would overwhelm the staff who are available.
Do you think it’s useful to have experience in the legal systems of two different countries?
Yes, I do think it’s very useful to have experience in the legal systems of different countries. Apart from the opportunity to practice in these countries, it exposes you to diverse cultures and more career changing opportunities.
What sort of enquiries do you see a lot of at GMLC?
My role at GMLC allows me to interact with lots of people on different issues. Housing and welfare benefit issues are the most common enquiries I come across. Immigration enquiries often come in too, but, unfortunately, it’s not an area we cover so we have to signpost those people to other organisations. Employment enquiries also come in but not as often as housing and benefits.
What do you find enjoyable and/or challenging about volunteering for GMLC?
What I find most enjoyable has to be the people I work with and the continuous training we get. I get to exchange so many emails with different people, most of whom I haven’t met before, but the interaction often makes me feel like I know them. Such loving and welcoming people, and I felt at home right from the first day. I also like the fact that I can work from home, enabling me to have a good family and work life balance. There are no major challenges for now, except maybe some little technical hitches when using online applications.
What are your future plans for your career?
I am very happy and most grateful for getting the opportunity to volunteer at a place like GMLC. As I build up my experience in the legal aid sector in England, I hope to be able to qualify as a solicitor here in the near future, hopefully focusing on areas like human rights, immigration and family law.