BY DOTUN IBIWOYE
OMOTOLA Rotimi is the Director, Lagos State Office of the Public Defender, OPD. The organisation was established in the year 2000 to render free legal services to indigent persons, especially women, children and the physically challenged. An astute lawyer who does not mince words in her fight against injustice in the society, Omotola, in this interview, bares her mind on OPD’s activities among sundry issues.
What’s exactly is the essence of the OPD?
OPD was established to alleviate the difficulties that indigents in Lagos State face while trying to access justice. Hence, our mission statement says that everybody, irrespective of religion, sex and tribe, must have equal access to justice, whether rich or poor. Actually, a lot of people in Lagos State could not access justice because of the cost and for that, some of them resulted to self-punishment one way or the other. Injustice was perpetrated steadily with impunity and this was a source of worry to the government. The former state governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, therefore, established this office in the year 2000 to cater for the poor, downtrodden, especially the vulnerable groups which are women, children, physically-challenged, retirees and the aged.
To properly safeguard these people, do you conduct research on the intensity of the abuse or number of persons in need of legal assistance?
Yes, we have a research team. We do research in determining who gets our services. What we do is, when people come with their petitions, we interview them through our application forms. Even without asking too many questions, from their experiences, job types, and living conditions noted down, we discern their social standing and ascertain whether they are eligible for our services or not. Meanwhile, there are still some who, though might be earning about N100,000 a month, would still need our help because of the high financial requirement of their litigation. Maybe they need to spend N150,000 each month and cannot afford it because it is above their income. Of course they would still have responsibilities at home to fulfil. That’s why we say we are not only fighting for the poor but also for the defenceless.
Is the organisation not under political influence and manipulation, considering the fact that it was established by government?
OPD got its autonomy in 2003. That is why we can sue and be sued. We are a statutory body and we have our own law regulating us, though the Attorney General still plays a supervisory role. We try to put professionalism into what we do. OPD Lagos State is the first and still the first of its kind in the whole of West Africa. Some others have been in existence in some states and nations but have been quite epileptic. That’s why Lawyers and students from South Africa come here to understudy us on a regular basis. I was sometime ago in one of the South West states, to help them revive theirs and I told them the Lagos State experience. OPD is %100 per cent funded by the Lagos state government because we must offer quality services, but still, we cannot be influenced. If we can take government agencies to court, whether state, federal or local, definitely, it shows that we cannot be politically influenced. NGOs also come to us for assistance because, sometimes when they go to the police on cases of defilement like rape, they meet a brick wall. We collaborate strongly with them to get justice in such cases.