‘Any federating state can choose to abolish death penalty’
Today is world day against death penalty. There are arguments about the need to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life sentence. According to World Coalition Against Death Penalty, it is used discriminatorily, often against the most vulnerable people and should be abolished. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE and SILVER NWOKORO, a former solicitor general and permanent secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Lawal Pedro (SAN), speaks on the issue and other topical legal matters
Where do you stand on this abolition debate?
Well, I am sitting on the fence. What do we truly want to achieve by abolishing death sentence? Is it on humanitarian ground? If we say it should be abolished, fine, so all convicts will remain in prison forever. What is the condition of our prisons today?
Your position is based on the fact that the death warrants for those already convicted never get signed?
That is the issue. To me whether you abolish or maintain it, you are within the law. The countries we are trying to copy, for example, United State of America, some States have it and they have retained it. Some States do not have it, so it’s a matter of choice. That is why I say I am sitting on the fence. There is nothing stopping a state in its own criminal law from abolishing it, while the federal government maintains its own act. So it is really a matter of choice and what the government intend to achieve by it.
The point has been that death penalty is supposed to serve as a deterrent but it doesn’t seem to have achieved that purpose. So why can’t we try to see if by the time we remove the certainty of someone being killed when caught committing a heinous crime, maybe violent crime might reduce. This is because, if you know you are going for armed robbery but would not be killed if caught, you might not want to eliminate those who may likely implicate you at end of the day. How do you look at that argument?
I don’t buy it! It is the same thing with the offences that do not carry death penalty. Had it been of any deterrent? They have not made corruption death penalty, but have it deter anybody? It does not! It is more than that. That is why I said if you don’t carry out execution of the death row inmates, you are dehumanizing them. There is no justification for that. The trauma of expecting the executioner daily is even a severe punishment for that person. So for you to avoid that situation, we must first amend the constitution to remove capital offence.
If tomorrow the government says we want to remove death penalty in our statute books, will you be against it?
No, I won’t be against it at all and if the government maintains it, I won’t be against it.
I am sure you must have heard or read the report by the NBS that the judiciary is the second most corrupt institution in Nigeria. What do you say about that?
To me, it is a wrong perception. I am not saying the judiciary is corrupt free, but it is like other institutions, organizations or the society in which we all belong. But to have labeled it second most corrupt, I totally disagree. The samples they got depend on whom you they talked to. I have advocated that the best thing to do in this country is to improve and re-engineer our judicial system such that it becomes functional. That way, it will not give room for corruption. If the government can spend more money to improve judicial infrastructure, its maintenance, the welfare package and manpower development, I guarantee you that corruption will reduce to the barest minimum in this country. Judiciary to me will be the saving grace to reduce corruption in Nigeria.
How do you then relate it to the recent development where the NJC recommended the sacking of a chief judge for just taking N200, 000 bribe and a lot of others?
The problem is that there is a total system failure. It is not only in the judiciary, it is also in government and you cannot separate it. You have a judiciary that is within a community. That is why I am saying when we are dealing with the judiciary and the executive arm is saying they are doing theirs, I say fine, but don’t forget there is one government with three arms. If the judiciary itself fights corruption within, you must handle it well. It is just like saying one of my arms is bad so the solution is for me to cut it off. So if the judiciary of your country is corrupt, it is an arm of government, so the government too is corrupt. You must not allow the judiciary to have a bad image. That is why I said we need to pay special attention to the judiciary. If a man knows that if he goes and steal or engage in corrupt practices and caught, that within three months his trial would have been completed and he is jailed, what do you think will happen to his colleagues outside? They will think twice. Due to the present state of the judiciary, a criminal who is caught and detained in Police station will be the one to tell you to charge him to court because he knows that when he gets to court, he can wriggle out and regain his freedom. But if we manage our judicial process such that anybody that goes into the system can determine when he will be out or if it is a criminal matter, he goes to jail, things will change. I recommend we do court automation alongside manual filing because of the challenges of having internet servers that are down most often and its associated delays. We can do both simultaneously to fast track the process and the judges must perform oversight function and manage the process, not only the adjudication process, even the administrative.
How can some of the innovations in Lagos be replicated at the National level?
It is already percolating to other states and even at the national level. If you are talking about the review of civil procedures, we started it in Lagos, then other states followed and the federal high court followed. I am talking about the administration of criminal justice, Lagos passed its own first, even if you are talking about criminal code laws, all the states even the federal the criminal code that we are still using back to pre-independence, is only Lagos that have been able to review and come up with a modern criminal law. Most other states if not all are still using criminal code that they used in teaching us law when we where in university in the 80’s and 90’s.
How can we make justice accessible to the poor at the appellate levels?
We have access to courts in Nigeria, but not access to justice and we all know that justice delayed is justice denied. I expect judges to query certain things without going through the pleadings. A judge should be able to go through the file, for instance and ask why 2014 case file is just getting to him now. He should able to look at the record and say wait a minute, my brother gave a directive that this file should be taken to Lagos three months ago, why is it getting to me now. The judge should be to ask questions, raise query and pass it to the registrar that he wants to know what happened, the officer responsible should be queried and disciplinary action taken.
So what name do we call this kind of activism?
I will call it judicial efficiency. That is how you can get it right. We need to focus attention to the support staff such as the registrars and the clerks. How many times do they train them? Are they well educated? We inherited some of them; some have been working for 30 years and about to retire. So, what have we done with them? In fact, some level of judicial officers in my own opinion, should be lawyers. I suggest that there should be a guideline even if it is a practice direction that the Chief Judges of each state can easily issue for the support staff that on no circumstance must a file be on your table more than 24 or 48 hours, unless you have a genuine reason. That way, corruption will reduce. Most times, if you file a process, if you don’t tip, your file will be there. If you don’t tip, they won’t upload the thing to the system. The computer won’t work by itself, so there is human factor that needs to be addressed. So, when you have a guideline, a regulation that would bind the support staff of the judiciary, it will be the efficiency I am talking about. If a clerk knows that if the file doesn’t get to his superior within 48 hours, he will be queried, he won’t wait so much waiting for money.
Will you suggest that Salami committee, which was set up by the CJN only to look at how the judges are handling corruption cases, be expanded to oversee support staff activities?
No, because that one has a mandate. I think each state judiciary should look inward. It is not going to be a national or global, no, but there must be a policy that can be done to ensure that there is speedy, efficient and effectiveness in the judicial process. That is what will give confidence to the people because if the confidence in judiciary is lost, we are inviting anarchy.
On the area of legal education, NBA just finished its annual conference and you played a vital role in that. From the benefit of hindsight, how do you look at responses of young lawyers in that conference?
To me, it was impressive for the young lawyers. In fact, more young lawyers registered than the senior ones and this is encouraging. To me, they want to know how it is done. To me, that is not enough, it is a follow up that is required and I believe the NBA will tackle it. We learn everyday even the senior lawyers will continue to learn everyday. So we must continue that process. To me, when I look at the training of young lawyers, I am particularly not too happy. For instance, one at 15 years, passed school Certificate examination, took JAMB and passed, you then study law. Before 20, you are already a lawyer and law is something that really requires experience. People who are not lawyers can also be judges. In the past, we use to have lay magistrates. They are not lawyers but they adjudicate. You go to the customary court, they are not lawyers but they adjudicate fine. It shows that you don’t have to be a lawyer before you can adjudicate or even mediate. But before you do that adjudication or mediation, you need experience and that is what I see that is lacking in the new breed of lawyers.
Will you suggest one first get a first degree before coming to law?
I will recommend a minimum of Higher School Certificate (HSC) or you call it GCE advance level as a prerequisite to study law. That is what made some of us.
Are you worried that is no law faculty is offering professional ethics as a course?
When you are well groomed at the faculty, then you go to law school where you will be taught professional ethics. The core subjects should be taught in the university and when it is being taught, the people who are learning should be people with experience not just copy and paste.
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