For two days last week, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) brought together judges, magistrates and journalists to examine salient provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJ) 2015. Eric Ikhilae reports.
The challenge of delay in justice administration and how to effectively address it engaged legal experts for two days last week in Kaduna.
Several brain-storming sessions saw participants examine some hypothetical cases of corruption, rape and human trafficking.
It was agreed that the effective application of the Act will curb delays in criminal trials.
The event had the theme: Orientation workshop on the ACJA 2015 for judges and magistrates.
Judges and magistrates from the Judiciary of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and private legal experts both from private practice and the academics were present.
The event, which held between September 28 and 29, was organised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with funding from the European Union (EU).
Participants were taken through the various provisions of the ACJA, beginning with an overview of the Act, which Prof. Yemi Akinseye George (SAN) of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Abuja. Other issues examined under the Act included arrest, detention and bail; protective measure for vulnerable witnesses and victims; plea bargaining and plea generally; restitution and forfeiture of proceedings; regulation and management of non-custodial punishment, and sentencing consideration.
Addressing participants, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed noted that the ACJ Act is the culmination of the long held desire to improve upon the administration of criminal justice and to bring the rules of criminal procedures in Nigeria in line with global best practices and the need of the 21st Century.
He added that the objectives of the Act, as contained in its Section 1, include to promote efficient management of criminal justice institutions, provide of speedy dispensation of justice and protect the society from crime, while defending the rights and interest of the defendant and the victim.
“These indicate a deliberate shift from punishment, as the main goal of criminal justice to restorative justice, which pays attention to the needs of the society, the victims, vulnerable persons and human dignity,” the CJN said, while stressing the various beautiful provisions in the Act,” Justice Mohammed said.
The CJN, who was represented by Justice Ibrahim Tanko cautioned judges and magistrates to be cautious in handling plea bargain agreement brought before them by parties in cases before their courts. He also advised judicial officers to accord human face to criminal justice proceedings by considering other alternatives to custodial sentences in view of the inadequacies of the nation’s prison system.
“Another important innovation, which I shall only mention, is plea bargaining. Suffice it to say that you must be very careful. And I repeat, you must be very careful in accepting a plea bargain agreement that is before you and ensure that its use is indeed judicious and not malicious.
“Similarly, I call on you all to be aware of the provision of other alternatives to custodial sentences, which will assist in ensuring that justice is done, with a human face and in consideration of the capacity of our prisons to cope with incarcerated persons,” he said.
The National Judicial Commission (NJC) in April 2013 suspended Justice Abubakar Mahmud Talba of the FCT High Court for one year on the ground that he wrongly exercised his discretion in deciding a plea-bargained case.
The NJC, in its decision said Justice Talba “did not exercise his discretion judicially and judiciously with regard to the sentences he passed on one of the accused persons, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf in the Police Pension case of FRN vs Esai Dangabar and five others.”
Justice Talba had, in his judgment in the case, awarded a fine of N750,000 as fine against Yusuf, who pleaded guilty to the theft of over N23billion. Justice Talba, who has since resumed duties, was listed, in the programme of event, as a discussant and participant at the workshop.
The Chief Judge of the High Court of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello, the President of the Customary Court of Appeal of the FCT, Justice Moses Bello and the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS), Prof Adedeji Adekunle, commended the various innovative provisions contained in the ACJA 2015.
They were confident that the law, when properly applied, was capable of revolutionising the nation’s criminal justice system and eliminate the current delay associated with criminal trials.
The FCT High Court CJ said the workshop was intended to help judges, magistrates and other players within the criminal justice system understand the ACJA with a view to ensuring the effective operations of the system.
Justice Bello proceeded to highlight some major flaws in the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) and Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which were in use before the introduction of the ACJA.
“Both laws (CPA and CPC) were consistently applied for years during which period, no significant improvements were made to them. The obvious consequence of the application of these archaic legislations, which unfortunately, is still being applied by some states, was that the criminal justice system, overtime, lost its capacity to respond quickly to the changing needs of society.
He noted that the convoluted and intricate nature of procedures under the old laws made it difficult to check the rising waves of crime and incapable of speedily brining criminals to justice. He further noted that the under the old laws, while the state got justice from the conviction of an accused, the special needs of the victim was hardly a concern of our system, thereby negating the trilogy of the justice highway traffic.
“Equally bad was the fact that the provisions of the old laws were manipulated by prosecutorial agencies to their advantage and to the obvious disadvantage of accused person, who were incarcerated for inordinately lengthy period without trial in direct opposition to international best practices, recognized for the guarantee of rights and protection of fundamental freedoms,” Justice Bello said.
The President of the Customary Court of Appeal, who was represented by his Senior Special Assistant (Legal) Gabriel Maha, said the ACJA will help eliminate the lacuna that existed in the former criminal justice legislations, which constituted major challenges to the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
He noted that perhaps, the most novel provision which every legal practitioner and even the courts should applaud is the provisions of Section 15(4) of the Act, which makes electronic recording as an option in obtaining a suspect’s statement.
“When this is put into practice, it shall take away the problem of a trial-within-trial, which is one of the main reasons for delays in criminal justice administration in the courts. Commendable as this Act may be, it can only be appreciated especially by the lay men, when it is properly administered by the courts.
“It is on this basis that I welcome the idea of this workshop as indeed, an ingenious innovation to simplify, synchronise and put every judge and magistrate of the FCT on the sure pedestal for the benefit of Nigerians,” the President of the Customary Court of Appeal said.
Representative of the UNODC, Mrs. Ugonna Ezekwem, who highlighted the various ways her organsation was working to ensure that the ACJA was well popularized, assured that the UNODC will continue to support all efforts aimed at ensuring the effective implementation of the ACJA.
Held along with the workshop for judges and magistrates, was a similar event tagged: “Media roundtable for justice sector reporters in Nigeria,” where participating journalists’ attention was drawn to their roles in ensuring the success of the ACJA.
UNODC’s Belachew Fikre, in examining “The role of the media in justice reform processes,” noted that the cooperation of the media was imperative for success of th various justice sector reform initiatives initiated and being implemented by the UNODC in 10 states across the country.
They include Anambra, Benue, Bayelsa, Cross River, Imo, Katsina, Osun, Lagos and the FCT.
Fikre explained that the justice reform initiatives of the UNODC, which is distinguishable from “judicial reform”, involve the process of overhauling the structural and operational aspects of key justice institutions through law reform, capacity development and institutionalisation of accountability mechanisms.
He said reform’s objectives include accessibility, accountability, transparency and efficiency of the justice sector institutions, which ultimately leads to good governance and the enthronement of rule of law
Fikre argued that justice sector reform, being a pillar of any democratisation process, where a free media can develop, requires that the media play a key part in raising public awareness about the successes recorded so far and advocating the adoption of similar reform initiatives at state level.
He contended that it was the responsibility of the media to ensure proper implementation of new laws and rules (like the ACJA and the recently passed Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act -VAPPA).
Fikre urged the media to assist in building institutions by emphasising implementation challenges and institutional lapses as against focusing on strong personalities.
He argued that the intended objectives were only achievable where the media embraces the resource poor, the rural majority and the female gender (who are the primary targets of the justice reform process) as partners rather than mere receivers of media content.