The Problem of Lack of Public Access to Legislation in Nigeria by Leesi Ebenezer Mitee
Copyright © Leesi Ebenezer Mitee
Updated 3 March 2014
Like most developing countries, Nigeria lacks adequate public access to every aspect of legal information. That was the indisputable finding of my Master of Laws (LLM) dissertation at the University of Huddersfield (United Kingdom) titled, “Public Access to Legislation and Its Inherent Human Rights: A Comparative Study of the United Kingdom and Nigeria.”
The cost of access to legislation is prohibitive in Nigeria. Beyond the few pieces of legislation on the National Assembly website, there is no official online legislation database in the country and no public depository library programme where members of the public may access legislation free of charge. The result is that Nigerians must buy statute books and every copy of the Official Gazette containing legislation in order to know the laws in existence.
My dissertation (and personal experience as a lecturer and lawyer in Nigeria) revealed that most Nigerian lawyers cannot afford the high cost of buying statute books (the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria or those of the different thirty-six States)! If it is so with lawyers, one does not need Solomonic wisdom to know the utter plight of Nigerian citizens with regard to acquiring access to enacted laws.
In my dissertation, I identified and proposed public access to legislation as a category of human rights in accordance with Articles 6(c) and 7 of the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1999. The doctrine that ignorance of the law is no excuse (because everybody is presumed to know the law) places a parallel duty on every Government to provide adequate public access (timely, comprehensive, and free of charge) to all legal rules and regulations in its jurisdiction. This is necessary because access to legislation is a major determinant of access to justice.
The three-point Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law 2002 (amended in 2003) made by Legal Information Institutes (participants in the Free Access to Law Movement) is a major expression of this philosophy. It states:
- Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity. Maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law;
- Public legal information is digital common property and should be accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge;
- Independent non-profit organisations have the right to publish public legal information and the government bodies that create or control that information should provide access to it so that it can be published.
In order to solve the perennial problem of lack of public access to legislation in Nigeria, there are two indispensable requirements that must be fulfilled:
- the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (federal legislation for the whole country);
- and the complete abrogation of government copyright in legislation (necessitating repeal of the offending provisions of the Nigerian Copyright Act 1988).
The right of access to public information is the parent right of public access to legislation, because legislation is an integral component of public information. Regrettably, it took an unbelievably long time for the Nigerian Freedom of Information Bill, which was introduced to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly in 1999, to be enacted into law. The unenviable story behind the Bill is akin to the story of a series of aborted pregnancies. There was no political will to enact it, and it never saw the light of day, despite spirited campaigns by numerous non-governmental organisations, pro-democracy groups, and media associations within and outside Nigeria. Finally, the Nigerian National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) passed the Bill, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan assented to it, whereupon it became the Nigerian Freedom of Information Act 2011. Oh, what a day of rejoicing that was!
The enactment of the Nigerian Freedom of Information Act 2011 should, naturally, pave the way for abrogation of government copyright in government publications, including legislation. But that can only happen if there is the political will to embrace the philosophy behind freedom of information. It is hereby recommended that government copyright in legislation at all the three levels of law-making (Federal, State, and Local Government) be abrogated forthwith to usher in the necessary mechanics for public access to legislation in Nigeria.
Mitee, Leesi Ebenezer: The Problem of Lack of Public Access to Legislation in Nigeria