The Rivers State Min
istry of Justice is saddled, with the responsibilities of providing legal services and advice to the state government and the people of the State.
This ministry is made up of core departments namely Civil Litigations, Public Prosecutions, Legal Drafting, Citizens’ Rights, Estate Administration/Public Trustee, among others, for ease of administration and better service delivery. The departments are saddled with specialised responsibilities which they perform professionally for the holistic development and progress of the State. The services provided by the Ministry of Justice helps to facilitate efficient justice delivery even as it brings about the realization of the rule of law and human rights ideals in the State.
The Directorate for Citizens Rights, created in 2002, is concerned basically with the provision of “Alternative Dispute Resolution” mechanism (ADR). Specifically, it is assigned the responsibility of resolving disputes through mediation between disputants without necessarily passing through the rigours of conventional court processes and procedures.
The Ministry of Justice, realizing that only a negligible few of the populace can seek redress in the law courts when aggrieved due to the cost implication of engaging the services of lawyers, set up this directorate to cater for the needs of all classes of persons, who may not be financially equipped or empowered to access the courts, so that such persons do not resort to self-help or uncivilized means of settling their disputes.
According to the .Director in charge of the directorate, Barr (Mrs.) Veronica Eyingha Benson, the directorate is viable in the numbers of disputes it has amicably settled since its inception. It has successfully settled well over eight thousand cases.
Mrs. Benson stated that the directorate settles disputes between parties, ranging from family matters, landlord/ tenant matters, business relationship matters to others civil matters. According to her, the directorate is created to fill the gap in the justice delivery system, in the sense that the services rendered by the directorate has helped to reduce to an appreciable level, incidences of restoring to self-help which could have led to a breach of societal peace or increase in criminal acts.
The Citizens Rights Directorate, which is composed of lawyers in the ministry who have served or worked in different departments and offices, offer its services of mediation, dispute resolution, legal advice and counseling, among others to the public at no cost. It is these experienced lawyers that serve as facilitators in mediating and reconciling parties in disputes by affording them the opportunity and forum to settle all disputes.
How then does this Directorate handle its matters so as not to allow the dispute to degenerate or escalate out of control or for the parties to still have faith in the mediation offered by the directorate?
Mrs Benson said the ministry makes use of the tool of mediation. Mediation entails bringing the feuding parties to sit and reason together, even as the mediator tries at all times to douse fear, grievances and tension while nudging the disputants to the direction of peace and amicable resolution and settlement.
A note-worthy modus operandi of this directorate is that the lawyer or facilitator that receives and records the complaints of any complainant will not be the one to mediate and record the matter or issues of the disputants. Different lawyers or facilitators are usually assigned to hear, mediate, and make the necessary recommendations on cases or matters heard or recorded by others. This system builds confidence in the minds of the disputants that the facilitators will not be biased or compromised.
The Citizens Rights Directorate helps in no small measure in the promotion of rule of law and free access to justice by preserving the rights of citizens through timely mediation, and forestalling and redressing infringement on the rights of the citizenry involved in disputes. Whenever a matter that is outside the scope of the directorate is brought before it, the directorate takes necessary steps to see that such matters get properly channeled to the proper quarters without allowing such matters to escalate. The directorate also gives free legal advice and counseling, if necessary.
The directorate does not only deal with matters involving individuals alone but institutions alike by insisting they do the right things at all times. In pursuing the settlement of the matters it handles, the directorate does not follow the rigorous and laborious procedure and process of a conventional court which is usually time consuming, expensive, stressful, and sometimes, froth with twist of justice.
The facilitators are allowed to look beyond strict legal methods and use other avenues to appeal to the sensibilities of the disputants in the settlement of disputes so that there can be reprieve and lasting peace to matters which can ordinarily degenerate and escalate to affect families and communities if there is no timely intervention.
Unfortunately, in spite of the advantages the citizenry and the State stand to benefit from the services of this directorate, most residents and citizens of the State hardly know of the existence of such a directorate and the array of services freely offered that can help to mitigate disputes that could possibly lead to chaos or clash.
Sadly too, the police and other security outfits who are aware of the functionality of the directorate are not maximising this window of opportunity created for “Alternative Dispute Resolution” to its fullest. If they do, it will aid the reduction of crime in the polity and the decongestion of our prisons because certain disputes can conveniently be settled in this directorate without necessarily taking the disputants to a conventional court where they will be made to await trial. Despite the seeming beneficial functions the directorate carries out, it has a lot of challenges facing it. Some of them include inadequate publicity, the need for improved working environment and tools needed to carry out the assignment, logistics for sending and receiving mails, and other incentives to the facilitators.
There is need to support the directorate to carry out sensitisation to all parts of the State to inform the people of the existence of the directorate and the array of services offered by the ministry. It is also proper to intimate and encourage the people of the State to embrace amicable settlement of disputes rather than resorting to self-help and jungle justice.
Most of the cases of insecurity in the State are reportedly due to supremacy war among cult groups which have led to bloody clashes over time. This can be reduced, if not totally averted, if people who feel aggrieved are aware of the existence and services offered by this directorate where their disputes can be handled professionally without any form of expenses incurred by them.
Without mincing words, Rivers State Ministry of Justice, through its Directorate of Citizens Rights, is blazing the trail for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism that is cheap, totally free of charge, accessible and affordable, more time saving than that of a conventional court, less formal, and more often than not, using tools that create a ‘win win’ situation for those involved in disputes.
The system has worked tremendously in making parties in disputes have settlement as the directorate has entertained about a lot of cases since inception in 2002. It is only advisable. that people of the State who are engrossed in disputes should seek the services of the directorate rather than go the untoward ways of getting involved in criminality or taking laws into their hands.
The Directorate of Citizens Rights provides alternative dispute resolution mechanism for aggreived persons in dispute who do not want to take the matter to a conventional court, to lodge his/her complaints and grievances so that the professionals employed by the State ‘government can assist in settling the disputes in such a way that will engender peace of mind, quick access to justice, saving of time and money, creating less emotional stress for the people, and bringing about a secured State.
Oruigoni is an Information Officer, Rivers State Ministry of Justice.