Heads of courts and other stakeholders met in Abuja to examine factors responsible for delay of high profile corruption cases and the way out, reports Eric Ikhilae.

Judges, including the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Adamu Kafarati,and his counterpart at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Justice Isahq Bello, have blamed incompetent prosecution, among others, for delay in the trial of high profile individuals.

They identified poor investigation, incompetent drafting of charges, including filing of charges with multiple charges, without evidence to prove such charges; display of lackadaisical attitude on the part of prosecuting lawyers, among others, as causes of delay.

They urged judges to be firm in the control and management of court proceedings, and exhibit enhanced commitment to the course of justice.

The Chairman, Corruption and Financial Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO), Justice Suleiman Galadima, regretted that corruption “has made a mess of our judicial process.”

A Professor of Law and President, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (CSLS), Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN), called for the provisions of better working tools and conducive environment for judges to operate, as a measure against delay in trials.

They spoke in Abuja on November 15, this year, at a “one-day interactive workshop for heads of courts and other stakeholders.” The well-attended event, with the theme: “Specialised court’s and the challenge of speedy dispensation of justice in high profile criminal cases (HPCCs),” was put together by CSLS and COTRIMCO.

Also at the event were Justices Tijani Abubakar and Joseph Oyewole (of the Court of Appeal); Justices Olasumbo Goodluck and Adebukola Banjoko (of the High Court of the FCT), Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court; General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Jonathan Taidi; a member of COTRIMCO, Garba Tetengi (SAN); African Director of the Macarthur Foundation, Kole Shettima and Abimbola Kayode of the Abuja branch of the NBA.

Galadima (a retired Justice of the Supreme Court) said stressed the reason for the gathering. He said the event was in furtherance of COTRIMCO’s objectives of “deepening understanding of the challenges facing the administration of criminal justice and providing a platform for the stateholders to deliberate on how to overcome the challenges.”

Galadima added: “We all feel concerned that the pace of justice delivery is not moving fast enough to meet the constitutional standard of ‘trial within a reasonable time’.

“This is particularly so in regard to the trial of High-Profile Corruption and Financial Crime Cases (HPCCs).

“The prevalent practice under which political offIce holders and other high-profile defendants, who were charged to court several years ago are still undergoing trial due mainly to all manner of reasons makes a mockery of our judicial process.

“Corruption, no doubt, has made a mess of our judicial process, and it is in the enlightened interest of the judiciary and entire legal profession, to restore confidence in the process.

“We must reverse the prevailing perception that the judicial process is corrupt, ineffective, inefficient and susceptible to manipulation by the high-profile defendants and politically-exposed persons,” Justice Galadima said.

Kafarati, who was represented by Justice John Tsoho (also of the Federal High Court), suggested the engagement of competent prosecutors and investigators to address the problem of delay.

He cited the case of a former Nigerian Governor, who was jailed in a foreign country within a short time, while the prosecution in Nigeria was unable to commence trial, two years after some of the Governor’s alleged accomplices were charged before his court.

Kafarati said the delay in the trial process is indeed, embarrassing to this country in view of the harm corruption has done to the society.

He also blamed defendants, who, as a way of causing delay, unduly exploit the generous provision in Section 36 of the Constitution, that provides for the right to fair hearing.

He said: “Sincerely, as trial judge, it is difficult to ignore that provision when the defence call it to aid, because the Constitution, as we all know, is the grundnorm.

“Something has to be done about amending that provision, which talks about the right to fair hearing. It should be tinkered with to allow for sufficient latitude, so that people don’t have blanket reliance on it to truncate criminal trials.”

Bello, who was bitter about the congestion of courts dockets, years after the introduction of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, blamed investigating and prosecuting agencies, who file charges and bring defendants to court, without sufficient evidence to prosecute.

He noted that judges handling HPCCs and heads of courts are often subjected to undue pressure for both within and outside the judicial system, with the intention of ensuring soft landing for the high profile defendant.

Bello admonished court heads to always exercise their powers to re-assign cases, from a judge to another, upon complaints from outside the court, with circumspect to avert causing further delay and dampening the morale of the judges.

He said: “As heads of courts, we must exercise restraints in the movement of cases. We must be circumspective, to make sure that there is no derailment of the prosecution process.”

The FCT CJ, who noted that some prosecuting agencies merely charge people to court with the intention of extorting them, suggested a procedure where the prosecution is required to obtain leave (permission of the court) before filing charges.

He said this measure will serve as a sieving process to address the practice where prosecuting agencies file frivolous charges, which they intend not to prosecute because they lack the necessary evidence to support such charges.

Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke, who was represented by Justice Oluwatoyin Taiwo (also of the High Court of Lagos State) assured of the state’s commitment to COTRIMCO’s objectives and efforts at eliminating delay in the trial of HPCCs.

Banjoko, who was hailed for her brilliant handling of most HPCCs brought before her court, spoke about her experience, in relation to the antics of defence lawyers and identified drawbacks in the approach of prosecution lawyers. She suggested how to strengthen the system and ensured its efficiency.

Banjoko hailed the many beautiful provisions of the ACJA and suggested modification to some provisions, including restricting interlocutory appeal to the Court of Appeal, rejecting appeal on issues already decided by the Supreme Court and limiting the number of times the prosecution could amend proof of evidence.

In his contribution, Akinseye-George said: “In our humble view, to achieve the objectives of speedy trial, better working tools must be provided for the judges.

“The salaries and allowances of judges which have largely remained static for several years despite inflationary trends and declining value of the Naira must be urgently reviewed upwards.

“Effective E-recording of court proceedings should now be made mandatory. It is unacceptable that in this digital age we continue to operate an analogue judiciary as judges continue to suffer the tedium of writing proceedings in long hand,” he said.

Akinseye-George also spoke about a software developed by a Nigerian IT expert, which was showcases at the workshop, that provides an affordable solution to the long-standing problem of electronic recording of our courts.

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