Justice Olutoyin Akeredolu is the Chief Judge of Ondo State. Recently, the state judiciary marked the commencement of a new legal year with a series of activities. In this interview, the Chief Judge spoke with SUNMOLA OLOWOOKERE on her career, issues of law, the judiciary and disclosed new developments.
When did you start your career?
I was called to bar in July,1980. I started practicing law when I was a Youth Corps member. Then, I was with the Ogun state Ministry of Justice. In all, I practised for 22 years before I was called to the bench. I worked with Dr. S.A Ajayi SAN, now of blessed memory. I worked with the chamber of Chief S.B Ajibade. I was in partnership with Justice Dr. Olakunle Orojo in Lagos. These are few things about my career.
Do you have any international work experience?
I belong to International Bar Association (IBA). So I attended international conferences. As judge too, I attended international conferences. And these conferences have actually broadened my horizon. I became a judge in 2002, and I was appointed in acting capacity as Chief Judge of the state in July 2017. I became the substantive Chief Judge in April, 2018.
How have you been coping since you became the Chief Judge?
I have been coping by the grace of God. The difference between what I had been doing and now is just that I have added administrative duties. Fundamentally, I came in as an adjudicator, and I have been one ever since. I thank God for I am enjoying the cooperation of my brother judges, the magistrate and the administrative staff.
Ever since you became the Chief Judge, has there been any challenge you have encountered?
The judiciary is experiencing the same challenges just like any other arms of government and businesses in Nigeria; that is paucity of funds. You see here, we have been engaging ourselves in training and retraining in order to enhance productivity. So I won’t complain about the performance of the judiciary staff. I know it can be better. Of course, it will be better.
Can you tell us about the workings of the Family Court which was recently established by the judiciary?
Not really recent, the law that establishes the Family Court is the Child Rights Law of 2007 of Ondo state. At the onset, the magistrate court designated a court as their family at that level but high court had none. The law expects that both the magistrate and the high courts would have a court designated as Family Court. But now, we have a functioning Family Court at the High Court, Akure.
The benefits that can be derived from this law is that it will protect the interest of the child. It is open to the public, that is any child whose rights is being jeopardized can seek redress under this law.
However, the public may not be allowed into the proceedings if the future of the child is at stake. In cases that could mar the children’s future, we shield them from the public glare. That is, if a child was defiled or raped, we don’t want the name or picture of such a child published.
What are the success stories?
Apart from divorce cases, only few matters regarding the child are before the court. The Family Court is not designed to take care of children of legal marriages only, but also of children born out of wedlock. Every child is expected to be protected under the law regardless of the circumstance of his or her birth.
How efficient is the Ondo state judiciary?
Ondo state judiciary is very efficient. Try our probate registry for instance. All it takes is to just comply with all a person needs to do. Before the letters of administration are issued. I want to say that we have zero tolerance for bribery and corruption. Any body can walk into the probate registry and get the guidelines as to what to do and our forms have been simplified.
So what is multi-door court house that was talked about during the legal year?
We recently printed and circulated some leaflets about the multi door court house because there are frequently asked questions about its operations.
What is a multi door court house?
This is a court managed or formed as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism which involves bringing parties in a case to a table for the purpose of resolving the issues between them.
It is a problem solving, all party inclusive model with a relaxed atmosphere and does not have all the trappings of a court. It provides solutions to issues of conflict between them. There are rules that guides what goes on there. But the atmosphere is not adversarial. It’s an atmosphere that gives room to alternative dispute resolution.
The resolution is about conciliation and arbitration. So the multi door court house is to facilitate quick disposal of certain cases, particularly commercial cases. The international world refer to it as international best practices.
Cuts in.. ..what do you mean by commercial cases?
I mean cases like contracts. Every state wants to open its door to investors. And in normal life its not always rosy. There are situations in which there are disputes that will need very quick resolution. And the end result is such that at the end, they don’t part ways. They just get to know themselves better and respect the rights of individuals concerned. the government and the other party, contractors may want to remain together but nobody wants his rights trampled upon.
Ever since you came on board, you have made visits to the prisons, you must have noticed the congestion of the prisons. What is being done to decongest these prisons?
I want to tell you that the situation of the prisons gives me some measure of concern. The facilities are overcrowded. There is room going by the Administration of Criminal Justice law (ACJL), for non custodial sentences, but the law has not been tinkered with; that is the criminal code. It is necessary for us to bring together the two laws so that we can pronounce sentences that will help to decongest the prisons. I have performed two prison visits, I have been able to release some inmates. I know it can be better. Now we are putting a few things in place to ensure that the prisons are decongested.
At the last prison visit to Olokuta, you talked about the halfway house; building where freed inmates go for rehabilitation before they join the society, is it fully operational?
How I wish it is fully operational. We need to be honest with ourselves, it is not everyone who is remanded at the prisons awaiting trials is good material for the society.
But because of one hitch or the other, they have not been tried, the law favours them that they should not be there for an unduely prolonged time. But when they return to the society, many of them go back to crime. And any society that is insecure will be one that will be challenged greatly. Any investor coming into a country will first think of security; not only of properties or investments but of lives.
So I am working hard to ensure that the funds approved by the governor to assist to rehabilitate the structure given by the government for the halfway house is released.
Many months back, the governor approved money for the rehabilitation .but up till today, it has not been released.
I also know of Habitation of Hope for the juvenile here. I have rubbed minds with them and I know that they too need financial assistance.
They picked street children, take them in, feed, clothe and educate them. They need support so that their work can be more impactful.
Can we have a figure of the criminal cases that were dispensed within the last legal year?
180 Criminal cases were disposed off. Criminal appeal 37, civil cases, 681 and civil appeal 41. Petitions were 150. We don’t have full compliments of our court for now. We are only 16 as against 25. And some of the outstations are worse than here. Like in Oka, Ifon, Idanre where my colleagues sit. Within what we have we are trying to do our best.
One of the major problems confronting them is the power outage. When it is so hot and there is no electricity to power ordinary fan, it’s a big challenge. We do mental work. And I tell you mental work is more tedious.
Now to general legal issues, is bail free in Nigeria?
In the court, I can speak for it, bail is free. All you need to do is to comply with all the conditions of the bail. you know, the essence of bail is to ensure that the defendant stands trial all through.
We give our conditions for bail. When the conditions are met, we try to hear the case expeditiously. Some of the problems that delay matters in the court, people feel it is the fault of the adjudicator but it is not. No court can go beyond what the prosecutor brings. Then, the defense too, there are some obvious cases where the prosecution has put in its best, the prosecutor has done thorough investigation but the defense wants to play with time. There were also situations where police witnesses fail to show up in court, with claims that they have been transferred far away. But we now have witness funds to cater for the transportation of witnesses.
Some defendants on remand that are released on bail are not able to perfect their bail because some of the conditions given for their bail appears stringent?.
No, they are not stringent. You can always apply to the court for a review of the conditions for bail. But we think of the charges preferred against them, we think of public interest in giving the bail conditions, so that, people who are credible can come up as sureties. People who can give account of their whereabouts and ensure that they go through trial. We also give conditional releases especially if the accused person had spent a long time in prison. But trial must not be jeopardized in this situation.
Has torture been abolished from criminal investigation?
That also I cannot answer. But I know that the law has never supported torture. In fact, if you look at the Evidence Act, it specifically provides by section that if it is discovered that the confessional statement was obtained by torture or threat, it should not be admitted before the court.
So from our own end, we expect that the investigation will be without torture. It is only the police that can tell how it is at their own end. When the issue of torture is raised as grounds against the admissibility of confessional statements in criminal proceedings, we hold what is called “trial within trial” to determine the voluntariness of the confessional statement.
Is the judiciary independent?
The constitution tells us that the judiciary is independent. It makes the independence of the judiciary a subject matter of importance by giving autonomy to the judiciary. Recently, the House of Assembly was also added to it by the fourth amendment. The modalities of the autonomy are not spelt out by the constitution. But we are working on getting the autonomy as prescribed by the constitution.
I believe that we will get the support of the present government of Ondo State because our governor is not just a lawyer but a seasoned one. He is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and he believes in the rule of law.
Would you say that justice is no longer delayed in Nigeria?
Well, we are trying our very best. We have the rules of court designed to expedite trial of cases. At present, the Ondo state judiciary is trying to rework the existing Ondo state Civil Procedure Rule of 2012. The committee is working assiduously to improve on what we have on ground. And very soon, we will have the amended version of what we have now. Then also, the ACJL also helps in expediting cases. But I want to tell you that trial of cases have other factors that affect the expeditious disposal of cases.
Any other comments….
I just want to say that the members of the public should have confidence in our courts. We are established to ensure that the rights of individuals are not trampled upon. We now have a mission statement which goes thus ” justice for all, under the lamp of the law and the constitution, driven by men and women committed to truth and integrity, fairness, boldness and the overall good of the society”.