Transforming Nigeria’s criminal justice system
By Sunmola Olowookere
Nigeria judiciary is on the verge of a new dawn especially in the area of criminal justice if it would make a headway with a new law to administer justice in criminal trials called “Administration of Criminal Justice Law”, ACJL.
In Ondo state, it became a law in the year 2015 and was introduced to complement, improve and correct some sections of the Criminal Procedure Law of 1914, a law promulgated over a century ago.
According to experts, the Criminal Procedure Law had so many lapses and shortcomings which became more glaring and unacceptable by the day as our society evolved into more humane and civilized environment.
The ACJL on the other hand comes with so many interventions such as non custodial sentencing, plea bargaining among other offers that are guaranteed by law to relieve the burden placed on the system.
Speaking with The Hope, the Chief Judge of Ondo State, Justice Olutoyin Akeredolu spoke at length on the need to incorporate non custodial sentencing into the court sentencing for several reasons.
Chief of the reasons she advocated was that it would reduce prison congestion as not all convicts would be sent to prison custody.
Her words, “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.
She argued that it was necessary for those in the legal profession to bring together the two laws i.e. the Criminal Procedure Law and the Administration of Criminal Justice Law, so that judges can pronounce sentences that will help to decongest the prisons.
The ACJl from all indications have come to stay as all stakeholders involved in prosecutions have embraced it.
At a recent court sitting, a high court judge had corrected a counsel who cited a law from the Criminal Procedure Law by asking him “do we still use that? I believe we are now using ACJL?”
At a recent stakeholders meeting on the ACJL, legal experts harped on the need to embrace transparency and accountability in Nigeria judicial system in order to ensure that trials are speedily dispensed with and that justice is served.
The programme was co-sponsored by Center for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria (CLEEN) and MacArthur Foundation.
Executive Director of CLEEN, Benson Olugbo stated that the initiative was to reduce delays in any form in the delivery of Criminal Justice.
Represented by the Assistant Legal Officer, Mrs Esther Mabadeje, he said that the initiative was aimed at checking increasing cases of corruption among public and judicial officers.
He stated that Nigeria do pass good laws but lack the political will to see to its implementation and enforcement.
The objective of the meeting was to discuss updates on the implantation of the ACJL, consider challenges and gaps and proffer probable solutions in line with the law.
He further hinted that analysis will be drawn from court observation data sent in by their data collectors in a bid to watch the trends emerging so that they would serve as advocacy issues to stakeholders in the sector.
The project also aimed to digitalize court proceedings in Nigeria with a view to promoting transparency and accountability in the fight against corruption by the Nigeria judicial system.
The participants deliberated on challenges facing the full implementation of the law in the state, chief of which was lack of awareness among police officers who are major actors in prosecutions.
A section of the ACJL provides that in obtaining the statement of an accused person, he must have a representative in the police station and the statement must be recorded on video.
According to one of the speakers at the meeting, Barrister Jumoke Ogunjebi, the police are yet to key into this law provision due to lack of awareness and dearth of required equipment.
Also speaking on the merits of the ACJL, she said that by virtue of the law, security personnel can no longer arrested in lieu of. She stated that the offender hàs to be located and arrested and not any of his/her relatives to serve as a bait to draw out the criminal as was obtained before.
She informed that women can now stand as sureties for their loved ones; a practice not allowed by the Criminal Procedure Law which was in practice till 2015.
She stated further that a male police officer can no longer search a female person and that there shall be no arrest made in civil cases.
In case of the occurrence of the above, she advised the victim or his family to seek audience with the police station’s Divisional Police Officer.
A lawyer speaking on the innovations in the ACJL, Mr. Hillary Okegbuale identified several challenges militating against full implementation of the ACJL.
Speaking on the issue of torture as one of the factors, he asserted that from research conducted, 100% of lawyers contacted said that there was no structure put in place at the police stations to monitor the interrogation of suspects by the police while 66% of police claimed that such structure exist.
He regretted that the issue of torture could not be adequately addressed due to non availability of counsels when statements were being taken which should not be so as police have directories of lawyers at their various stations.
Okegbuale argued that pretrial detention as an aspect of criminal proceedings should be minimized in the Nigerian society as a bid to decongest prison while citing the overpopulation being currently witnessed at Olokuta Medium Security Prison, Akure as an example.
He was however quick to admit that some of the Magistrates he interviewed in the course of his research were favourably disposed to pretrial detention with reasons that it serves as protection especially for defendants being prosecuted for capital offenses.
He further posited that for the ACJL to work efficiently, the monitoring committee for the ACJL must be established in Ondo state, so that the implementation of the law can be monitored for proper dispensation of justice.
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