23rd May 2019

The Punch

Strengthening Lagos Criminal Justice System

... like election cases, criminal cases should also be time-bound.

Stakeholders in the justice sector have called for better enforcement of the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law in Lagos State. They equally advocated further amendments to the law in order to bring it abreast of the changing times.

They hold the unanimous view that Lagos must not rest on its oars in law reforms lest it loses its pacesetting position to other states.

These were the prevailing views by speakers last week at a one-day criminal justice workshop organised by the Lagos State Ministry of Justice in collaboration with the European Union, British Council and a non-governmental organisation, Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption.

The workshop, with the theme, “Appraisal of Current Criminal Justice Regime in Lagos State,” held at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja.

It had an external prosecutor for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mr Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), as the lead speaker.

The session, chaired by Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos State High Court, had Mr Kemi Pinheiro (SAN), Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, Dr Akeem Bello of the Law Faculty, University of Lagos; Mr Joseph Otteh of Access to Justice; and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lagos State, Ms Titilayo Shitta-Bey, as panelists.

In attendance were the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke; the state’s Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Adeniji Kazeem (SAN); and the Solicitor-General, Lagos State, Mrs Funlola Odunlami.

In his paper, Jacobs said Lagos State must be duly credited for revolutionalising the criminal justice system in Nigeria with the passage of the ACJL in 2007. He noted that the initiative had since inspired no fewer than 27 states in the country to pass their versions of the law. Indeed, he noted that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act passed in 2015 by the Federal Government drew inspiration from the Lagos ACJL, with 70 per cent of its content borrowed from the ACJL.

The prosecutor, however, observed that many of the states which followed the Lagos example to pass the ACJL had gone on to improve on the law. He said Lagos State would do well to borrow some of the improvements introduced by the other states.

An example of such improvements, according to Jacobs, was the Ogun State ACJL provision, which prohibits the arrest of a person over civil wrong by law enforcement agencies.

He said Lagos needed to block the lacuna in its ACJL, which the police and the EFCC were taking advantage of to take over what should ordinarily be jobs of lawyers.

The prosecutor added that like Ogun State, Lagos should also upgrade its ACJL to include a clear provision prohibiting the practice of parading suspects by law enforcement agencies.

Where a suspect paraded before the press is eventually found innocent by the court, Jacobs said the law should provide that the police must apologise and pay damages.

“Why should the police be parading suspects when the presumption of innocence is there? In the event that the person is eventually freed by the court, what will be his remedy?” Jacobs queried.

He added that the ACJL ought to mandate law enforcement agents to keep records of arrests.

“When a person is arrested, there must be a record of arrest. We must take his fingerprint, his photograph and other means of identification,” Jacobs said.

He also called for the strict enforcement of the existing provision mandating a chief magistrate to visit all detention centres in his jurisdiction once a month.

“The purpose is to avoid unnecessary detention and prevent abuse of the power of the executive, and I think the judiciary should be alive to that obligation,” he added.

Furthermore, Jacobs advocated the establishment of a criminal record registry by Lagos State.

“We don’t have a registry where we can check people who have been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced,” he said, stressing that such registry should not be under the supervision of the police.

“Lagos should depart from this bandwagon of having a central criminal record registry under the control of the Nigeria Police Force,” he said.

He equally advocated the enforcement of the provisions of the law that the statement writing process by suspects should be recorded electronically.

The prosecutor lamented that failure of investigating agencies to comply was being used as an excuse by many suspects to claim that they made the statements under duress and asking the court not to admit such in evidence against them.

He said the situation had been resulting in long months of trial-within-trial to prove the voluntariness of the statements, while the main trial would be put on hold.

Jacobs advocated that frontloading of proof of evidence in criminal trial should not be limited to only the prosecution.

“The defence should also frontload,” he said.

He also called for a review of the provision that permits a defendant, who is testifying in his own defence, to do so without entering the witness box by tendering a written statement.

He said the provision should be changed because with that method, such defendants were not open to being cross-examined by the prosecution.

In her own paper, the Lagos DPP, Shitta-Bey, described the ACJL as a largely complete law which had been grossly under-utilised.

She blamed the poor enforcement and compliance on the negative attitude of justice sector players to the law.

She said, “In 2017, the office of the DPP filed 697 information in the high court; at the end of the year, we had 59 cases determined. In 2018, 1,350 information were filed; at the end of the year, 104 cases came to conclusion. In 2019 so far, we have filed 359 and so far, 72 have been concluded and 39 among the 72 cases were struck out.

“Now, just looking at that we can see the wide gap between the number of cases filed and the number of cases that we got concluded. Why are we still here despite the far-reaching provisions of the law? The problems have been the same pre the enactment of the ACJL and now that we have the ACJL,” Shitta-Bey said.

As part of solutions to prison congestion, Shitta-Bey pointed attention to the part of the ACJL which gives the magistrates the discretion not to remand every suspect brought before them.

She said, “There is Section 264, which I think is a powerful tool for the magistrates to use when we are talking about problems associated with remand. The issue is, remand should not be a routine order once you are confronted with somebody arrested for an indictable offence. An indictable offence is at best which attracts two years in prison or a fine of N500,000. So, if you are going to routinely remand people presented for indictable offence, then it is a problem because under Section 264 you have a discretion not to remand.”

Pinheiro, who was represented by a junior in his chamber, Mr Tokunbo, advocated that like election cases, criminal cases should also be time-bound.

He also called for a reduction in the burden of proof placed on both the defence and the prosecution in proving their cases.

In his own contribution, Bello advocated more use of plea bargain, noting that it was advantageous to both the prosecution and the defence.

While it saves the prosecution and the court time, the defendant who enters into plea bargain gets a lighter punishment, Bello noted.

In his contribution, Otteh sought better enforcement of Section 264 of the ACJL, which gives magistrates the power to supervise the length of remand detention by law enforcement agencies.

He said, “What we see is that a majority of magistrates in Lagos State are not convinced that they should release remanded suspects who have exhausted the period allowed for remand detention in Lagos State.

“What this means is that even though the ACJL targets the reform of the abuses inherent in the remand system, we are not where we should be.”

Otteh supported the proposed inclusion of Section 10(3) in the ACJL, targeted at protecting suspects from torture and other inhumane treatments by law enforcement agents.

He, however, said for the provision to be effective, it must be backed with close monitoring of law enforcement agents.

“Let us advocate a monitoring system similar to that established under the ACJ Act 2015,” he said.

In his own paper, Adegboruwa also canvassed for the implementation of Section 9(3) of the ACJL requiring a police officer to record confessional statement on video or in the presence of a legal practitioner.

“If well implemented, it would save the court the time for trial-within-trial and assist in the speedy dispensation of criminal justice,” he said.

He urged Lagos State to make it a law that law enforcement agencies should not arrest a suspect until after the completion of investigation.

“There is a need to move away from crude arrest, withholding charge and remands. The prosecutorial agency must up their game, do proper investigation before arrest. This would speed up the process, protect the fundamental rights of citizens and promote efficiency in the criminal administration system,” Adegboruwa said.

He called for an amendment to Section 17(1) of the ACJL to mandate the law enforcement agencies to grant bail to every suspect where they cannot charge him to court within 72 hours of arrest.

He said, “The police and other sister agencies should grant bail to every citizen, where it is impracticable to charge the suspect before a court of competent jurisdiction.

“It is reiterated that bail ought not to be dispensed as a punitive measure against a suspect, whose guilt has not been proven.”

Adegboruwa called for the removal of Section 116(2) of the ACJL, which empowers a judge to require the deposit of money before bail is approved.

“With due respect, this is an attack on the poor. It should be limited to the execution of a bail bond and not money, as this might bring hardship on the poor,” the human rights lawyer said.

Earlier in his opening remarks, the Lagos Attorney General, Kazeem, said as the economic hub of Africa, there was a need to constantly upgrade Lagos State laws to bring them abreast of changing times.

“With a dynamic city such as Lagos, it is no surprise that our challenges are peculiar and therefore require a shift in mindset and a deliberate attempt to achieve and implement an all-round reform,” he said.

He said the workshop was “an opportunity to reflect on the innovative reforms introduced so far under the exemplary leadership of His Excellency, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, whose passion for achieving a practical, effective and contemporary justice system remains glaring.”

In her goodwill message, the Chief Judge, Justice Oke, said an effective criminal justice system was a sine qua non for economic growth.

“A sound criminal justice guarantees the safety and well-being of the good people of Lagos State through the eradication of criminal activities,” she said.

She said Lagos State aimed to build “a citizen-centric criminal justice system for the purpose of ensuring efficient and effective justice delivery.”