- Lawyers: Brazen disregard for laws delaying court cases
Is there a need for the National Assembly to make laws with timeline for criminal cases as being applied in electoral matters? Lawyers say no. AKEEM NAFIU reports
Some senior lawyers are pushing for a strict implementation of the express provisions of the innovations introduced in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) as a way of fast tracking criminal trials.
The lawyers spoke at the weekend on the heels of a clamour by some stakeholders in the justice sector on the need for the National Assembly to make laws with timeline for criminal cases as being applied in electoral matters so as to deal with the nation’s snail speed justice system.
The men of the wig and gown believed that there were enough laws which if properly harnessed and implemented would ensure speedy hearing of criminal trials and as such there is no need for the National Assembly to come up with new legislations.
The delay being experienced not only in criminal but civil cases overtime has led to congestion of cases in various courts across the country. Criminal trials are now being prolonged for more than a decade.
An instance is the case involving a former Governor of Oyo State, Senator Rashidi Ladoja and one of his aides, Waheed Akanbi, which spanned eleven years before its conclusion. Also, the N3.3 billion alleged fraud case involving a former Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, which started since 2018 is still continuing at the Federal High Court in Lagos.
The case has suffered several delays. At a point, it had to start afresh before another judge when the former trial judge retired from the Bench. Besides, the trial of a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, has equally suffered several setbacks since its commencement in February, 2019.
Lawal is facing trial over an alleged N544 million fraud sequel to the grass-cutting contract awarded to a company linked to him, Rholavision Engineering Ltd and Josmon Technologies Ltd, by the Presidential Initiative for the North-East (PINE). He was arraigned on a 10-count charge before an FCT High Court over the deal, alongside his younger brother, Hamidu Lawal, Suleiman Abubakar, Apeh Monday and the two companies.
Apart from procedural delays in the course of the trial, the case suffered a major setback following the death of the former Judge presiding over the matter, Justice Jude Okeke in August, 2020. The case was re-assigned to Justice Charles Agbaza, before whom the defendants were rearraigned on November 30, 2020 for the matter to resume. Till now, the case is still at the trial stage wherein witnesses are being called .
Another high profile case that has lingered for long is that of a former National Security Adviser (NSA), Colonel Sambo Dasuki (Rtd). He was charged by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for misappropriating $2.1 billion (about N23.3 billion) arms purchase funds since 2015.
He is standing trial alongside a former Minister of State for Finance, Bashir Yuguda, former governor of Sokoto State, Attahiru Bafarawa, his son, Sagir and their firm, Dalhatu Investment Limited.
He however regained freedom on the eve of Christmas in 2019 after national outcry on disobedience of several court orders, including the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, for his bail. Meanwhile, the N23.3bn fraud case involving Dasuki started afresh last month nearly seven years after he was first arraigned.
Dasuki was first arraigned on December 14, 2015 before Justice Peter Affen of the Federal Capital Territory High Court but he was later elevated to the Court of Appeal, forcing the trial to begin afresh.
The case was subsequently reassigned to Justice Baba Yusuf. However, it was learnt that after Justice Yusuf was appointed as the Chief Judge of the FCT, he again assigned the case to Justice Yusuf Halilu. Recently , the EFCC arraigned Dasuki alongside a former Sokoto State Governor, Attahiru Bafarawa; his son Sagir Bafarawa; their company, Dalhatu Investment Limited; and a former Minister of State for Finance, Bashir Yuguda, on corruption charges.
They were re-arraigned on allegations of breach of trust and criminal misappropriation of public funds amounting to N23.3 billion. The EFCC, which slammed 25 counts against Dasuki, Bafarawa and Yuguda, accused them of diverting various sums in various currencies to different bank accounts under the false pretence of using the funds for the procurement of security equipment.
Worried by this development, President Muhammadu Buhari had during an interview session on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) last year emphasized the need for the establishment of special courts in the nation’s judiciary system.
He said having such courts in existence will not only strengthen the fight against corruption but also hasten dispensation of justice. The president while noting with dismay that the judicial system being practiced in the country which was inherited during the colonial era allows justice to be delayed and eventually denied, insisted that there is a need for special courts so that corrupt minded individuals can be charged before the court and be properly dealt with in accordance with the law.
He said: “Yes, we need them to save time and to convince Nigerians that we are serious because if you follow the legal system we inherited from our colonial masters, cases takes five, ten years and people forget. “But if you have special courts, you will bring charges immediately. People are put before that court, they will come and defend themselves.
“But if we go through the system especially if they still have some savings, some where they can get false claims, lawyers will come to defend them and the case will drag until maybe either the judge dies or the committee got tired. They get back to their normal life.
“Special courts are important in cases of corruption so that riot act would be properly read to the public, that anybody who finds himself in a place of misappropriation and misbehave will account for it. We should not wait until people die and go before God”.
This is not the first time the president will be speaking on the establishment of special courts for corruption cases. He had also in 2019 called on the Senate to expedite action on the passage of the Special Crimes Court Bill still pending before lawmakers at the Red Chambers.
President Buhari while speaking at a national summit put together by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation on ‘‘Diminishing Corruption in the Public Service’’, at the nation’s capital, emphasized the need for a speedy passage of the Bill for the establishment of special courts to handle graft cases.
He called on the judiciary to embrace and support the creation of Special Crimes Court saying the passage of the Bill was a ‘‘specific priority’’ of his administration’s Economic Recovery & Growth Plan 2017-2020. His words: “The fight against corruption is of course not only for government and anti-corruption agencies alone. All arms and tiers of government must develop and implement the anti-corruption measures.
‘‘I invite the legislative and judicial arms of government to embrace and support the creation of Special Crimes Court that Nigerians have been agitating for to handle corruption cases.
‘The war against corruption cannot be won without prevention, enforcement, public education and enlightenment. I encourage the ICPC and other law enforcement agencies to intensify their efforts in public education, enlightenment and engagement with citizens.
I also urge our development partners, civil society organizations, and the media to continue to support our efforts to strengthen ethical values and integrity in Nigeria”.
Lawyers proffer solution to cases delay
Amidst the president’s worry, some members of the Inner and Outer Bar have been speaking on factors hindering quick determination of criminal trials and the way out of the problem.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Seyi Sowemimo, linked the delay to too many cases in the judges’ dockets. He said: “There are many reasons behind the delay being experienced in criminal trials. One of such is the fact that there are no thorough investigations before criminal charges are filed.
Another thing is that the cases are more than what the judges can cope with. “So, as a way out of the problem, I want to suggest that the adoption of witness statement on oath in criminal trials will be of help in fast tracking the cases. I also want to advice that there should be constant supervision of criminal matters by the Chief Judges of each state.
“So, as far as I am concerned, having the laws allowing timeline for criminal cases as applied in electoral matters may not be enough if the fundamental problems that cause delay are not addressed.” Another member of the Inner Bar, Mr. Norrison Quakers, noted that the numerous laws in the country aimed at ensuring quick dispensation of justice are not being implemented to the letter. He added that no new legislation is desirable to fast-track criminal trials.
Quakers said: “I don’t think there is any need for the National Assembly to come up with any law with timeline for criminal cases as applied in electoral matters. There are enough laws in this country to ensure quick dispensation of justice. One of such laws is the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 which is apt and clear as to when a criminal trial should start and when it is expected to end.
“Criminal trials are also time bound, just like election petition cases. But, the problem is our attitudinal disposition to effective and efficient justice administration. The challenge is not in the laws and the rules but with us as operators of the rules and laws. It is generally our attitude.
“For instance, a criminal trial commenced and is expected to end within the time frame allowed by the rules. The ACJA talks about a day-to-day hearing. Even the Civil Procedure Rules has provisions for speedy dispensation of justice in relation to even adjournments.
We have enough laws and we are yet to fully deploy the provisions of our laws. It is our attitude that is bringing about this stagnation. “A lawyer gets to a court and the registrar told him that the judge has gone for a seminar. Therefore, his case is adjourned. In other instances, it may also be that the prosecutor is not available or the Investigative Police Officer (IPO) who is given evidence has been seconded to another state for another assignment.
These are some of the issues that often delay criminal trials. We have micro, macro, people-induced and institutional challenges. So, our problems are much deeper than we can even imagine.
“So, as far as I am concerned, the only way to make things work in the justice sector is to have it under people who understand the system and are committed to ensuring that things are done properly and in line with international best practices. If it must work, government must believe in the court system and fund it.
The court cannot be effective and efficient when it is starved of fund”, the silk said. A former National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, also believed that there were enough laws in existence to fast-track criminal trials in the country. He said: “I do not think that we should over-legislate our society, even the administration of criminal justice. There is a sense in which I do believe that enough has been done within the time frame to fast-track criminal trials in Nigeria.
“Do not forget that under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, there are copious provisions specifically targeted at speedy dispensation of justice in a manner that frowns at issues like stay of proceedings. On issues like day-to-day trial once trial commences as well as issues like taking both preliminary with interlocutory application as well as the substantive suit together. “Even the reforms in which trial judges who have taken up a matter and are now promoted return to conclude the case.
With all of those things in place, all that we need to do is to keep faith with the express provisions of the innovations introduced in the Administration of Criminal Justice Laws. “Besides, under Section 36 (1) of the Constitution, the right to fair hearing of an accused person is guaranteed and the prosecution is not allowed to muzzle him.
He must be given adequate time and resources to defend himself. He must be allowed access to his lawyer(s). He must also be given proper information about the charges against him. Trial of an accused person must also be by a court which independence and impartiality is guaranteed. All these are necessary because criminal trials usually end in conviction or acquittal”.
A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, called for strict adherence to the Practice Direction on criminal trials as a way of addressing the delay problem. “Our problem in Nigeria is not lack of law but lack of enforcement. We have Practice Direction on criminal matters especially the corruption-related cases. This Practice Direction says that criminal trials should be day to day.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the judges who fail to apply this wonderful law but also the lawyers. “The judges that man our courts have the duty to stay away from acts that can cause delay in hearing of criminal matters for them to be decided with dispatch. It is by ensuring that our laws are properly applied that certain ills involving delay and long list of awaiting trial inmates will stop”, he said.