“Social change through public interest litigation”September 25th, 2013
Society demands action on issues including civil liberty, labour rights, and protection of the environment, writes Musa Temidayo, 23, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Nigeria, who argues that public interest litigation can provide access to justice.
When rights that existing laws guarantee are not followed in practice, public interest litigation can intervene.
Time and the vagaries of governance result in a multitude of issues that call for legal resolution – civil rights, civil liberties, women’s rights, students’ rights, academic freedom, labour rights, governance, environmental rights.
This necessitates the reform of existing laws that hinder or prevent members of these interest groups from participating fully and fairly in society.
Public interest litigation is about social action litigation. It relies on notions of social justice and a desire to see law become a tool for social change and social engineering.
In practical terms, public interest litigation provides broader access to justice. Organizations and individuals use public interest litigation to galvanize law reforms through test cases or cases which impact on large numbers of people. It emphasizes the need to provide legal services to those living in poverty or politically oppressed. Simply put, it fights for the little man and the vulnerable segments of the society.
Through public interest litigation, the courts are urged to substantiate or redefine rights in constitutions, statutes, and treaties to better address the wrongdoings of government and society and to help those who suffer them.
One significant factor in the social justice litigation movement has been the major roles which individuals have played in their personal capacities, or by deploying platforms as vehicles for their crusading roles.
In pursuit of their aims and objectives, several of these groups and individuals have mounted legal challenges to enforce the civil and political rights and increasingly, the economic, social and cultural (ECOSOC) rights contained in the constitution, federal and state laws and international instruments.
“Able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected their obligations to use their powers to protect the people…” Louis Brandeis (1905).
In The United Kingdom a notable public interest activist is Raymond Blackburn, a former Member of Parliament. He has chosen to litigate, usually in person, issues of concern to members of his immediate community in the Greater London Area. In 1968, he brought a mandamus application to compel the police to enforce the gaming laws, as he had found evidence of a deliberate police policy to overlook all but the most blatant gaming offences. He also complained about the easy availability of pornography materials even to minors.
In Nigeria, public interest litigation has been used as a tool to effect change and influence legal development, notably by Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN. A foremost forensic lawyer and ingenious legal mind, he, more than any individual, has stamped his influence on the public interest litigation terrain in Nigeria.
In a developing legal and political system such as Nigeria, many legal distortions or inequities abound which may not be obviated except as individuals or groups with a social conscience and a crusading spirit are able to pick up the legal gauntlet and aim to achieve some end of social justice or equity.
In the particular case of Nigeria, for about three decades, the political space was monopolized by some politically depraved elements within the military establishment who seized the reins of governmental power and abused their monopoly of power to deprive the citizens of their basic human rights, in particular their inalienable right to a government of their choice.
There are lots of persons out there ranging from a rusticated student without a fair hearing, to sexually assaulted teenage girls, unpaid workers, unlawfully detained persons, those maltreated in the hands of security forces, and who have become “faceless” due to the fact they couldn’t get financial resources to advocate their rights, or get legal counsel from lawyers who decline to work pro bono.
Public interest litigation and litigators have been and will remain vital to holistic change strategy if we continue to have a large number of legal minds who can see it has as a tool to effect social change.
I am from Nigeria, currently studying International Relations at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife Osun state. I’m also the Deputy Editor-in-Chief for the department. I love travelling and singing. I have interest in Management and Developmental Issues.
Aside from studying, I also work with I-Koncept-as a Director of Logistics, and also the Chairman of my department’s magazine. I want to be a Manager-Human Resource & Conflict Management, and also hope to serve in the Nigerian Foreign Service.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
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