80% of inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial even though the whole process of a court trial should not take more than 180 days as stated in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. The bulk of people in Nigerian prisons have remained in cells for years, waiting for justice to happen. Gavel, founded by Nelson Olanipekun, is seeking to rewrite the script of justice delivery in Nigeria, using technology and innovative solutions.
Gavel provides Nigerians access to an effective justice process by tracking cases, giving inmates the opportunity to connect with free legal aid lawyers and also fostering an open justice initiative. The civic tech organisation uses various civic tech tools that aid in attaining its vision and engaging the public.
It tracks people awaiting trial via a tech tool named Justice Clock. Gavel also creates a timeline of cases that are being tracked by them to inform the public about the cases and create social media engagements and advocacy for these cases.
The digitisation of courts cause list has been initiated by the organisation to enable it measure the performance of the Nigerian court system, identify areas of inefficiency, and recommend as well as advocate an improved system.
Even though this digitisation is still in its early stage, Gavel is working with over 30 courtrooms to make their activities open weekly. These cause lists, among other things, afford people the opportunity to have prior knowledge of cases to be tried in courtrooms, their status, which judge is presiding over the cases and much more.
Since most of the people gavel seek to provide justice to cannot easily access the tools the organisation provides, they have to reach out to the people themselves. The organisation also employs social media to collate complaints from people whose rights are being breached. These people are then contacted by them and instructed on how to create a case (make a complaint) on their platform.
This online approach also helps Gavel spread the word on their work. Gavel also jump on trends that align with their work such as #EndSARS, #ReformPoliceNG, #EndPoliceBrutality to reach out to people and provide support.
Increasing the pace of justice and reducing the number of awaiting trial persons in a country where the rule of law isn’t regarded is no small feat to take on. Gavel reaches out to people who need their help by contacting prisons and courts to get information about inmates who have no lawyers and enter it into their online platform.
The bulk of cases which Gavel handles are people who are less-privileged. They represent them in court because some of these accused have lost contact with their families while in prison or have been neglected.
Since June 2017, when Gavel was founded, it has provided access to the schedule of court cases in over 30 courtrooms online and has since then published over 1000 cause lists. The schedule of court cases is published beforehand and provides some information on the status of each case in court, which aids litigants, lawyers, and other stakeholders to know when cases are to occur and how to prepare.
Gavel has filed a class action suit for over 538 awaiting trial inmates against the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Public Prosecution and the Prison Service and the Commissioner of Police for Oyo State. These 538 persons are awaiting trial in a prison facility in Agodi, Oyo State and have not been charged to court so far.
After an accused person is taken into custody by the police, they are either released on bail or taken to the magistrate court which is meant to prosecute simple offences. The magistrate court then gives an order to remand them in prison pending when legal advice from the Ministry of Justice will be prepared for a charge against them. The feedback from the ministry of justice should ordinarily not be more than 28 days but it tends to take a very long time sometimes leading to several years.
Where the main holdup occurs during this process is at the Ministry of Justice where they either simply forget or are extremely lethargic. Even despite the intervention of a lawyer, it still takes up to six months to undertake the required action. Those who don’t have a lawyer tend to be doomed, as they become forgotten cases.
The people at Gavel believe that by tracking the time spent by awaiting trial persons, they will be able to effectively engage with relevant authorities to comply with 180 days provided for court trials as provided for in Section 396 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and 14 days for remand orders as provided for in Section 296.
The deplorable prison conditions where these inmates reside in is another big issue inmates face. Prisons ought to be reformation centers for these inmates but in Nigeria, they have become life stealers.
Although according to Gavel’s lead person, Nelson Olanipekun, Kirikiri Prison showed better promise than other prisons as the living conditions are much better compared to others he had visited. He specifically mentioned the Agodi prison which is really overcrowded and most of the inmates don’t have a space to sleep in at night. Some of them don’t even take their baths, while some have skin diseases and other infections as a result of the poor hygiene levels in the prison. Nelson also affirmed that the most common offences among these inmates are minor offences such as stealing.
Gavel picks the cases they want to handle by working closely with the Prisons Service to give them cases with an understanding that the organisation will only interview inmates with no lawyers. They try to take simple cases with little burden financially. Gavel funds the bail of cases they take up from their pocket with support from the fellowship. The average bail costs at least ₦30,000 per individual, while for the same service other lawyers take ₦70,000. The organisation is also yet to have a case of an inmate running away.
The organisation is also looking at ways to use data to improve coordination in the justice system and also accelerate prosecution. They have a court list which comprises cases scheduled for hearings in courts weekly. This grants them data on the number of divorce cases, rape cases, and other cases. Leveraging this data, Gavel can analyze areas where there are gaps in the justice system value chain and draw insights that they can use to improve the justice system.
Gavel is also looking at integrating the legal clock into the justice system for judicial officers. To help facilitate speedy justice dispensation and also help with free legal aid for the poor. It is giving Nigerians access to justice, while using tech to scale. With a class action, over 13 releases, over 5000 digitised cause lists and currently with 52 lawyers on their network handling the cases they cannot handle in-house, it’s only fair to say Gavel are disrupting the Nigerian justice system, one case and legal action at a time.