SUCCESS STORY FROM NIGERIA: Janet Gbam, a champion lawyer in pro bono legal service for underprivileged people
Thomas Jefferson, one of the Fathers of the American Democracy stated: ‘‘The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens’’. This statement that visitors can read inside the Virginia’s Capitol, where the statue of its author is floodlighting the hall, better highlights the importance of equal access to justice, including but not limited to equal access to legal assistance notwithstanding the status of the citizen. In Nigeria, the pride of Africa, where there are more than 197,490,221 inhabitants and a total inmate population which is close to 75,176, equal access to legal aid is a big challenge for underprivileged people. To address this issue, a young lawyer by the name of Janet Gbam is doing an outstanding job with her amazing team of dedicated pro bono lawyers.
Janet Gbam is a Lawyer and certified counselor. She offers pro bono legal service to underprivileged people in her community through her organization, Fortitude Attorneys. In the course of her three-year law career, she has successfully secured the release of about 25 persons standing trial without legal representation. Janet has over seven years of volunteer experience across several justice organizations, including the Brooklyn Defenders Services (New York).
Janet completed a six-week Civic Leadership Institute from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey from June to July 2017 as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders and also volunteered as Secretary/Legal Adviser of the Nigerian chapter of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni Association (MWFAA) 2017/2018 Executives. In addition, Janet has consulted for the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) on a US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded project “SMILE” aimed at helping families have a sustainable livelihood with the aim of preventing Human Trafficking and migration while helping Adolescents grow into healthy adults. She is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
Upon return from the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Janet was exposed to opportunities such as the Professional Practicum, Reciprocal Exchange and the Collaboration grant.
“My greatest asset from the fellowship is the network and opportunity to meet and interact with global leaders across Africa and around the world. It was through the funding from the USAID through IREX that I and two fellows in Nigeria are collaborating to implement the Lawyers in Pro bono leadership conference. The Fellowship has helped me horn my skills and work in developing relationships that have helped me personally and professionally. The impact of the MWF is better experienced than expressed.”Janet said.
Janet has been working on the “ Network of Pro Bono Lawyers ” Conference for the past three months, in collaboration with two Mandela Washington fellows Ahmad Adetola Kazeem and Katumi Oboirien through her law firm Fortitude Attorneys, a firm offering pro bono legal practice in Nigeria. The conference has convened a critical mass of legal aid workers and pro-bono lawyers under one umbrella which is the Network of Pro-bono Lawyers.
LIPIN’s first initiative was to bring together pro bono lawyers across Nigeria for a series of conferences titled ”Leadership and Capacity Building for Pro Bono Legal Service Providers,” this conferences held in three locations throughout Nigeria in August- October 2018 (Lagos-14-15th August, Abuja 18th-24th August 2018 and Kano 24th October 2018).
“The purpose of the project is to provide training and capacity building to pro bono direct legal service providers (i.e. legal aid) who serve indigent individuals and communities throughout Nigeria.”Janet added.
The primary target beneficiaries are NGOs, lawyers who are presently providing pro bono legal services and young Nigerian pro bono lawyers who need training and capacity building resources on how to most efficiently and effectively provide direct legal services to the poor, and by extension, legally vulnerable population groups within Nigeria. The young lawyers will be drawn from National Youth Service Corps; new wigs recently called to the bar; young counsel working in law firms who can hone their skills through the experienced garnered while offering pro bono legal services.
The project aims to impact 500 Nigerian legal service providers, including approximately 200 advocates in the West, 150 in the North Central and South, and 150 in the Northeastern regions of Nigeria. The project is expected to have a ripple effect of impacting more than 5000 underprivileged individuals who will be represented by the pro bono lawyers attending the conference. The Nigerian Legal system is constantly taking steps to ensure most awaiting trial person who do not have legal representation get legal representation, through this conference, Janet and her peer collaborators hope to attract more people who will take up pro bono matters and also ensure that individuals represented by the pro bono lawyers receive quality and more effective legal representation, resulting in long-term benefits for individuals, particularly indigents and the community at large.
Creation of a pro bono leadership network will serve to collectively harness power, foster collaboration & Referral, and increase the capacity of pro bono legal service providers. These conferences will bring together pro bono legal service providers along with key regional stakeholders to discuss current challenges facing vulnerable communities, share relevant interventions, and develop effective local strategies for service and advocacy collaborations.
The impact of the conferences has been to build the capacity of legal aid providers and human rights lawyers by:
- Training providers in providing effective and quality legal services;
- Providing practical tools for conference participants to monitor their impact and fundraise for free legal services in Nigeria; and
- Building a sustainable pro bono leadership network and blueprint for next steps, reinforcing participants’ capacity to continuously improve pro bono representation throughout Nigeria.
The benefits of these conferences will also bring about an improvement in the access to justice for underprivileged persons, promote the rule of law, give lawyers the opportunity to work on issues not involving their usual work and contribute to a lawyer’s reputation providing an edge over competitors while providing an opportunity to develop skills and gain additional experience.
Janet’s passion for pro bono service is the result of a personal and familial experience:
“My father and hero died when I was 15 years old, then life became unbearable. A few years later, I lost my mother. My single-minded resolve to put myself through university in pursuit of a law degree was inspired by my determination that underprivileged Nigerians may have access to justice and also to honor the memory of my mother who sacrificed so much for me and my siblings.’’ Janet said.
Janet choose this career path to provide access to legal representation for women, children and other disadvantaged persons in her community, awaiting-trial inmates relegated to untold hardship, as they languish in prison without any attempt at hearing their cases. Her work at Fortitude Attorneys also extends to reducing the risk of recidivism by providing education and support to inmates during incarceration and rehabilitation upon release. Since 2015, her law firm has secured the release of more than 25 inmates who are currently undergoing reintegration into their home communities.
Running a pro bono law firm is not easy for a mid career professional. It is challenging and one sometimes faces discouragement when difficult downs seem to destroy the spectacular ups of achievement recorded on the way.
“Growing FA despite holding down a full-time job, meager financial resources and limited staff has required sheer hard-work, oftentimes 20-hour days; persuasion skills in convincing lawyers to offer their time pro-bono; a long-term vision on how to scale-up a small but effective platform into a global champion of human rights that will outlive me; a fund-raising prowess to sustain the business and importantly, an ability to inspire my team towards achieving optimal outcomes. My journey thus far has been filled with spectacular highs and difficult lows. But my resolve remains unshaken, and my will to succeed unbowed. For me, these challenges offer me the rare opportunity in understanding what true leadership entails. These challenges inspired me to organize the Lawyers in pro-bono conference an Initiative that will onboard more legal aid providers to create access to Justice for more persons without legal representation.”Janet said.
In the next five years, Janet hopes to see a society where people are not deprived access to quality legal representation because of financial constraint, where human rights are upheld. Growing up in Nigeria, she experienced the impact legal representation has on women, Children and other disadvantaged groups in Nigeria.
Janet strongly believes that her ability to advocate for policies will not only protect women but also children by safeguarding their future. This dream can be achieved through the pro bono legal service initiative which she is building to become a global firm at the forefront of pro bono legal practice globally. Janet also believes that when lawyers collectively offer their time they will provide quality legal representation that is affordable for all.
“I also hope that in the near future, my work would have contributed to a society where people are treated fairly; human rights are upheld and given priority and people of all races, color and affiliation are treated equally because of their humanity”. Janet concluded.
Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why was Janet Gbam so successful?
Some key characteristics come to mind:
Although her father and mother passed away when she was still a teenager, Janet never gave up to struggle for a better future. She did find in her personal and familial tragedy an opportunity to understand the daily life of underprivileged people. Janet used the POWER OF EMPATHY to cumulate the motivation she needed to foster her academic record and earned the required degrees and certificates to join the bar with the ideal to do pro bono service for underprivileged people.
Janet believes that equal access to justice is one of the most sacred human rights. She also believes that a strong network of pro bono lawyers could act to upholding access to justice for underprivileged people on a global scale. Janet is willing to connect and to collaborate with open-minded legal professionals and civil society leaders from across the global to fulfill her leadership’s vision. Janet is a member of the Pan-African Online Platform for Justice and Ethics.
By Virgile Rivet SAMBA-MOUSSINGA
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