Citizen is a column that explains how the government’s policies fucks citizens and how we can unfuck ourselves.
It was October 2020 and 35-year-old Murtala* was ready to receive the gains from an investment he made earlier that year. He had invested in the company in March, but when it was time to cash out, the company seemed unwilling to come through on their end of the deal.
“Instead of being honest, the company was trying to be cunning. When it became obvious that small talk wasn’t going to do it, I had to bring a legal practitioner in.” Murtala says. While it was his first time trying to sue someone, Murtala studied Law in university and already had a sense of the relative difficulty involved in taking legal steps in Nigeria.
“I had exhausted all ‘civil’ ways to settle the issue,” he says. “ So after gathering a lot of evidence that would do reputational damage and also enhance my case in court, I called a lawyer friend and briefed him. He took the case and explained all the ingredients. The amount it would cost, what I could recover, and other damages After getting all our facts right, we sent our claims to the other party and gave them time to either respond or meet in court. Within the given time-frame, their lawyer responded, asking for a resolution and seeking to avoid the court process. After months (because these things can be slow) of going back and forth, they fixed up and settled me.”
Important points to note when taking legal steps
A crucial factor to consider before suing someone to court is making sure that only a legal action will bring a resolution to the matter at hand. “Before you sue, the law requires lawyers to try and settle amicably out of court if it is a civil case, not criminal. It is a condition you must fulfil or else your case will be struck out.” A senior lawyer at Pearl Pearson LP, who prefers to stay anonymous, tells us. “It is also important that your lawyer takes your case to the right court because where your lawyer sues in the wrong court, your case may be thrown out without the merits being looked into at all.”
The next step to take after that is to gather evidence to help bolster the case you are pursuing. As another lawyer, Ridwan Oke explains further, “You need to have cogent evidence of the issue complained of. Clients that document stuff make the job of the lawyers easy. No one can help you if you don’t help yourself,” he says.
“For example, talking about contracts, where the terms are clearly written and signed by parties, if any issue arises, it makes it easy for your lawyer to enforce. Where it is not, you first have to prove that such a term exists and then seek to enforce it. That doesn’t make the job easy. The same thing is applicable to a rape victim. You need to make a report and ensure to get a medical report ascertaining that it happened immediately after the incident occurs. It helps you to get justice. After you have played your role, the next step is to get a good lawyer. If you can’t afford lawyers, there are several NGOs that may be interested in your case. Approach them and let them take it up and fight on your behalf.
How easy is it to sue someone in Nigeria?
“I would say it’s not easy to institute an action in Nigeria, especially for a country that has millions of citizens below the poverty line. The stress, the resources, means of getting a lawyer, cost of litigation, as well as the time needed due to various adjournments, turns people off. It takes a really angry person or a determined soul to institute cases in Nigerian courts,” Mr. Oke says.
Being the world’s poverty capital, it makes sense that privilege, in terms of wealth, access to information, and connection to good legal resources, plays a huge role in instituting legal actions in Nigeria, so more people are opting for mediation and arbitration processes, which involve settling disputes privately and out of court.
“[To minimize resources and avoid lengthy court proceedings] people are now looking into mediation and arbitration. The Lagos State Judiciary is really doing a great job in this regard. The courts try to refer cases to mediation where necessary and litigants are now embracing the idea. However, there are several cases, due to their peculiarity and the nature of the parties, that can’t be resolved this way. Litigants still approach the court, but some people would rather let go instead of going through the hurdles, and I don’t really blame them.”
What options are available for Nigerians who still need to go through court proceedings?
For Murtala* who has the privilege to gain immediate access to legal counsel and representation when he needs it, it has been easier to settle disputes and ensure his interests are protected by the law. “One thing I will advise Nigerians to do whenever they can is to always involve a lawyer in their dealing, especially before signing contracts. A lot of things seem very simple on the surface but when litigation is involved, they can become really complicated. All my properties and investments are either managed through my lawyer or I ensure that they are at least subject to the country’s regulations, so that if kasala burst, I can easily bring my lawyer in.” He says.
Mr. Oke believes that people with limited access can take advantage of the Office of the Public defender which takes up cases for people as an option.
“Everyday Nigerians can also take advantage of the opportunities provided by the NBA branches around them. Most NBA branches have committees that take up Pro bono cases. There are Lawyers who take up Pro bono cases too. You only need to identify them and if your case fulfills their requirements, they will always help. Also For each area of Law, there are NGOs who show interest in taking up these cases and render professional service free of charge. For example, cases of rape have different NGOs who are interested in them. Human rights violations also have the same. There are several instances like that. People only need to ask questions and help will most definitely come”
We hope you’ve learned a thing or two about how to unfuck yourself when the Nigerian government moves mad. Check back every weekday for more Zikoko Citizen explainers.