A bill that will radically change the face of criminal justice administration in Nigeria is currently before the House of Representatives.
In Nigeria, it is easier for the courts to set free an armed robbery suspect, hired assassin, rapist or corrupt government official who has embezzled huge sums of public funds than for the victim of these crimes including the Nigerian state to obtain justice.
Court cases drag so long that plaintiffs often forget their complaints and defendant their lines of argument to extricate themselves. Many aggrieved citizens have shunned the courts because they do not think their case could be disposed off in their life time let alone, get justice.
For several decades, Nigerians have lived with the unpleasant yoke of a sluggish criminal justice system. A system that seems programmed to deliberately slow down the wheels of justice and convert the energy and resources so saved to fuelling fast trains that convey criminals and their accomplices to safe islands far removed from the long arms of the law.
From the police stations to the courts and the prisons, the system has delivered everything but justice and the society has been worse for it.
A lot has happened since Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar ascended the throne as Chief Justice of Nigeria, the first female to have achieved that feat in the history of the country. Mukhtar has led the National Judicial Council (NJC) to take some radical decisions to instil discipline in the ranks of their lordships, the judges and make them better stewards in the Temple of Justice.
However, some experts have said that the suspension and dismissal of a few judges found to have breached their oaths and betrayed the trust of society is like removing a few rotten eggs from a farm of wild birds afflicted by a major epidemic. More foul smelling eggs will be waiting to be harvested daily because the farmer has only confronted the symptoms of the disease and not its roots.
Recently, the House of Representatives took up the challenge to confront the real issues at the foundation of the crisis in the criminal justice system. The journey actually started several years ago but it took the dexterity of the Chairman, House Committee on Justice, Hon. Ali Ahmad to get the task off the drawing board and now running.
The vehicle for the revolution is the Administration of Criminal Justice Bill 2013.
According to Ahmad, the bill has gone through a lot of metamorphosis since the days of Chief Akin Olujinmi as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation. It was Olujinmi, who in 2005 presented an embryonic document of this bill to a National Working Group on the Reform of the Criminal Justice Administration.
The current Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, sealed the final version of the document through the Panel on the Implementation of Criminal Justice Reform (PIJR) which he constituted to study the earlier drafts of the legislation.
The bill seeks to repeal the Criminal Procedure Act Cap C41 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004; the Administration of Justice Commission Act Cap A3 Laws of the Federation 2004 and enact the Administration of Justice Act applicable in Federal Courts and Courts of the Federal Capital Territory.
The primary objective of the proposed legislation to ensure speedy and efficient administration of criminal justice in Nigeria. It seeks to bring together the Criminal Code and Penal Code in one body of law so as to promote uniformity, protect the society from crime as well as protect the rights and interests of defendants and victims of any criminal proceedings in courts across Nigeria.
As Ahmad observed at the public hearing on the bill, “we all have a collective destiny not only in making the justice sector more efficient, but also in bequeathing to future generations a modern, democratic and virile legislation that guarantees speedy dispensation of criminal justice to all and sundry.”
The bill deals fundamentally with the problem of delay in the dispensation of criminal justice, which unarguably remains the most perturbing aspect of criminal justice delivery. It contains several innovative ideas and promises to significantly improve the criminal justice system in Nigeria.
It makes provisions for speedy trial such as trial from day-to-day after arraignment, restriction on number and interval of adjournments and electronic recording of trials to reduce the problems associated with trial de novo of part heard matters.
The legislation seeks to establish clear guidelines for the implementation of plea bargain and measures to avoid abuse of the process. In addition, it proposes sentencing guidelines to avoid abuse of judge’s discretion and the corruption.
The bill prohibits the arrest of family members or associates in lieu of the person suspected to have committed a crime. It also prohibits torture and all inhuman treatments of arrested persons.
As a way of halting the practice of torture of suspects in police custody in the process of extracting statements and evidence, the new law imposes a duty on the Police to electronically record or video the making and taking of confessional statements from suspects.
The proposed law provides that it is the duty of the arresting officer to generate full record of arrest with dates and photographs of the person arrested for proper documentation.
In the light of this, the bill also provides for the establishment of a Central Criminal Record Registry at the federal level and Criminal Records Registry at every State Police Command where this record of arrests would be kept. It also imposes a duty on Court Registrars to transmit court decisions in criminal trials to the Central Registry within 30 days or face disciplinary measures by the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
The bill also contains a provision for quarterly reports by all authorities and agencies having power of arrest to the Attorney General of the Federation. Section 29 states thus: “The Inspector General of Police and heads of every agency authorised by law to make arrests shall remit quarterly to the Attorney General of the Federation a record of all arrests made with or without warrant in relation to federal offences within Nigeria.
“The Commissioner of Police in a state and head of every agency authorised by law to make arrest within a state shall remit quarterly to the Attorney General of that State a record of all arrests made with or without warrant in relation to State Offences or arrests within the state.”
Besides, there are provisions and mechanisms for accountability in respect of Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs), including time protocols for remand orders.
One of the high points of the bill is the inclusion of concrete measures for checking prison congestion, including mandatory monthly visits to Police Stations and other detention facilities by Chief Magistrates to ensure that suspects were not detained for periods longer than necessary.
Section 34 states inter alia that : “The Chief Magistrate or where there is no Chief Magistrate within the Police Division, any Magistrate designated by the Chief Judge for that purpose, shall, at least every month conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within his territorial jurisdiction other than the prison.
“During a visit, the Magistrate may call for and inspect the record of arrests; direct the arraignment of the suspect; where bail has been refused, grant bail to any suspect where appropriate if the offence for which the suspect is held is within the jurisdiction of the Magistrate.”
Other clauses of interest include the provision of mechanism for improving prosecution by ensuring that only legally trained persons prosecute; mechanism for improved regime for the protection of victims of rape and other sexual offences and rule on convicted pregnant women. All things being equal, there will soon be alternatives to imprisonment such as community sentencing, parole and suspended sentence for minors and first time offenders.
The bill makes provision for compensation or restitution for victims of unlawful arrests and illegal detention.
Above all, the bill seeks to establish an Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee who shall oversee the criminal justice system and publish an Annual Report on the situation to keep every player abreast of developments in the sector.
No doubt, the bill has been applauded by various stakeholders. At least there is a consensus that the criminal justice administration has suffered a lot of abuse and there is the need to reform the system. However, institutions such as the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have criticised some of its provisions and offered suggestions on how to fine tune them to serve the ultimate goal of speedy and efficient justice delivery to the citizenry.
In all these, we must remember that Nigeria had never lacked the capacity to make good laws. What has been lacking is the will to put life into the letters of our laws such that they are activated any time there are breaches no matter who is caught in the web. The criminal justice system might never change for the better if our attitudes towards what goes on around the police stations, courts and prisons remain as they have always been in the past years.