Reforming the reformer: Challenges before Nigerian Law Reform Commission
Experts, in recent times, have proposed regular and constant legal reforms as a way to resolve some of the social and political challenges confronting the nation’s justice administration. They argue that law reform advances freedom, which is crucial for comprehensive national development.
In emphasising the importance of legal reforms, these experts stressed the need to directly establish its contribution to economic development. They also pointed out the need for the reforms to cope with new tricky situations in the world, adding that such is of paramount importance to parliaments and law reform institutions all over the world.
They explained that unfair laws, policies and practices that may be the root cause of some economic retardation in Nigeria must be changed to solve a bigger problem of economic quagmire.
Specifically, the experts identified four main methods of reforming the law: repeal (removal or reversal of a law); creation of new law; consolidation (combination of a number of laws into one) and codification (collection and systematic arrangement, usually by subject of the laws of a state or country.
They further pointed out that the goal of the reform could always be achieved systematically based on informed political, economic and social needs, which reflect the moral values and aspirations of the people. When the old law is reformed and then enacted into a new one, it has become a social reality. This new law can be said to emanate from the people.
In Nigeria, for instance, updates on obsolete laws, reformation, among others, fall on the shoulders of the Nigerian law Reform Commission was established (NLRC). It was established to enhance smooth delivery of justice and effective administration of the justice system.
NLRC is expected to undertake the progressive development and reform of substantive and procedural law applicable in Nigeria by way of codification, elimination of anomalous or obsolete laws and simplification of the laws in accordance with general directions issued to it by the government from time to time.
It can also, on its own initiative, submit proposals for law reforms to the Attorney -General Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice for the onward submission to the National Assembly (i.e. Parliament) as executive bills for legislation.
The Act that established the commission states categorically: “It shall be the duty of the commission generally to take and keep under review all Federal laws with a view to their systematic and progressive development and reform in consonance with the prevailing norms of Nigerian society, including, in particular, the codification of such laws, the elimination of anomalies, the repeal of obsolete, spent and unnecessary enactments, the reduction in number of separate enactments, the reform of procedural laws in consonance with changes in the machinery of the administration of justice and generally the simplification and modernisation of the law.”
In addition, the commission is also expected to “receive and consider any proposal for the reform of the law, which may be made or referred to it by the Attorney-General of the Federation (in this Act, referred to as “the Attorney-General”); (b) may prepare, on its own initiative and submit to the Attorney-General, from time to time, programmes for the examination of different branches of the law with a view to reform; (c) shall undertake, pursuant to any recommendations approved by the Attorney-General, the examination of particular branches of the law and the formulation, by means of draft legislation or otherwise, of proposals for reform therein;
“(d) Shall prepare, from time to time, at the request of the Attorney-General, comprehensive programmes of consolidation and statute law revision, and under-take the preparation of draft legislation pursuant to any such programme approved by the Attorney-General; (e) may provide advice and information to Federal Government departments and other authorities or bodies concerned, at the instance of the Federal Government, with proposals for the reform or amendment of any branch of the law.”
The act said: “For the purpose of the efficient performance of its functions under this Act, the Commission may, from time to time, obtain such information as to the legal systems of other countries as appears to it likely to facilitate the performance of any such function.
“(5) The Commission may conduct such seminars and, where appropriate, hold such public sittings concerning any programme for law reform as it may consider necessary from time to time. The Attorney-General shall lay before the President any programme prepared by the Commission and any proposal for reform formulated by the Commission pursuant to such programmes.”
A section of the Act said the Attorney General shall lay before the President any programme prepared by the Commission and any proposal for reform formulated by the Commission pursuant to such programmes.
Consequently, lawyers are suggesting that the Act that established the commission itself needs to be reformed to make it stronger and more independent.
Stakeholders also added that the NLRC is weakened by the fact it is poorly funded and under utilised to give its professional input in bills made by the local government councils, state houses of Assembly and the National Assembly.
According to a lawyer, Douglas Ogbankwa, the NLRC is the major element in the development of law in Nigeria. To this end, he said the Commission should be able to get regular feedback and appraisals of Nigeria’s laws, to propose amendments that will meet up with the ever -changing world.
The lawyer suggested that the NLRC should organise sessions, where feedback can be got from time-to-time in areas of the very many laws in Nigeria that need alterations. He further advocates an App on Google Play Store, where Nigerians can access Nigerian laws online real time, 24 hours all year long, after downloading the same.
He said: “Accessibility to Nigerian laws is dynamic in the Law Reform Matrix. In this 21st century, it stands against reason for lawyers and other critical stakeholders to travel miles to bookshops and libraries in other states to get a law or an act. This should be available in the Law Reform Website on a Google Play or an Apple Store. The Law Reform Commission should also recruit young and IT savvy staff, who will think of better ways of accentuating the law reform module in Nigeria.”
Another lawyer, Mathew Echo, said NLRC Act, Cap N118, LFN 2004, which was established in July 1979, is to, among other things, undertake the progressive development and reform of substantive and procedural law applicable in Nigeria by way of codification, elimination of anomalous or obsolete laws and general simplification of the law, have not lived up to its billings.
He, however, said society and the way people behave as well as the values and norms that regulate and define people and their conducts are dynamic and transient in nature.
“This is more so that the law is a living thing in society. It develops and matures with the development of the society,” he said. According to him, globalisation is one basic factor for the need for new laws and law reforms in national, regional and international levels. This, he said, is because the world now is a global village.
He insisted that laws have to be reformed to adapt to societal changes, while adhering to constitutional norms and principles. He continued, “law reform contributes to the shaping of democracies to suit changing political and legal environments and the benefits are enormous. Most importantly, the law of a country cannot remain static, but must be abreast with the political, legal, economic, and social developments of society. This is in tandem with the functions of the NLRC, which is to take and keep under review all Federal laws with a view to their systematic and progressive development and reform in consonance with the prevailing norms of the Nigerian society.”
The lawyer noted that a glimpse at most of the legislations in our law books will show that they are mundane and not relevant to the modern society as most do not reflect the current state of norms, technological developments and science. Therefore, the lawyer said it is important for the NLRC to do more in phasing out obsolete laws and bring their provisions to reflect current realities.
Some of such laws, he said, are: “The Nigerian Educational Bank Act, CAP N102, LFN, 2004; Casino Taxation Act, CAP C3, LFN, 2004 (This act was enacted in 1965; Nigerian Railway Corporation Act, CAP N131, LFN, 2004.” He pointed out that the Railway Act was enacted in 1955 and some of the offences and penalties stated therein are ridiculous.
Another obsolete law, he pointed out is The Coins Act, C16, LFN, 2004. This act, he said, was enacted in 1955 and it has no relevance whatsoever in Nigeria economy today, as the use of coin as a legal tender has long been phased out.
The lawyer continued, “there are many of our procedural laws that are not in conformity with this jet age, and these have raised a lot of problems in our judicial system and administration of justice. It has been noted elsewhere that one of the key objectives of a Law Reform Commission is to ensure periodic revision of a country’s laws and statutes and to incorporate all amendments and adaptations made to statutes and eliminate all repealed, obsolete, spent and other unnecessary matters from existing legislations.”
He maintained that there is need for the NLRC to wake up to its obligation, if the existing laws must meet the needs of the society. To ensure this, the NLRC, he said, needs to be reinvigorated, particularly, as regard its composition, powers, scope, and independence, as such, would go a long way to enable the NLRC meet up with their mandate.
Sylvanus E.O Malik, also a lawyer, held that the many obsolete laws in Nigeria include, the Nigeria Penal Code, the Criminal Code and the Evidence Act 2011 as altered as well as the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as altered). Malik said these are pre-colonial and colonial laws, which are not in tune with today’s reality in our adversarial system of adjudication.
“There is an urgent need to reform these laws because of the pivotal roles they play in the administration of the criminal justice system for a crime free society. Permit me to make the allusion that if the judiciary cannot do that which has not been done, the world would move forward, while the judiciary shall be left behind.”
According to the lawyer, the Nigeria Penal Code and the Criminal Code in this age still have obsolete provisions stipulating five naira fines upon conviction in serious criminal offences. He said, if these statutes are not amended by way of reforms, they cannot meet the conceptual need of punishment as a deterrent for the prevention of crimes.
“A man who knows that he will be fined five naira upon conviction in a serious criminal offence shall not be deterred at all. Even the Nigeria Evidence Act, which was amended in 2011 to incorporate the admissibility of computer-generated evidence, still has not met the modern reality.
“For instance, our evidence is still tied to admissibility in the open court room by the physical presence of witnesses. There should be improvement where certain cases can be taken over the telephone as done in some advanced jurisdictions,” Malik suggested.
He, therefore, advocated that the ongoing constitutional amendment should properly revisit critical areas. The constitution, he said, has not met the aspirations of many Nigerians.
According to him, every now and then, there is one constitutional crisis or the other. He also said that the lawmakers have not lived up to expectations in this regard. For him, their appetite has always been tied to amendments that favour them without necessarily putting the interest of the generality of the nation at heart.
He said the major problems confronting the NLRC are inefficiency, corruption and lack of proper funding as a critical organ of government. Again despite the successes recorded by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in recent times, Malik claimed the association has not been very vocal and active enough.
“We have not had efficient hands to man NLRC to spotlight the relevance of this commission. Off course, corruption is a general factor militating against performance in every facet of our lives.
“The NLRC is not an exception. One hardly sees a sizable percentage of the budget of this commission under the supervisory role of the Ministry of Justice,” he said.
To help the Commission function optimally, the lawyer recommended that government should ensure that competent Nigerians with proven track records of performance are appointed to oversee its activities and urged government to guarantee adequate funding for it.
He also suggested that the NBA should to up the task of liaising with the commission, in terms of synergy to sponsor bills to reform most of the obsolete laws. “The commission was established in 1979 as a response to defective and obsolete laws, and to conduct inquiries into, and make recommendations for changes to existing laws in a particular area.”
While some observers have described the Commission as dormant and has not lived up to expectations, suggesting improved performance, others argued that it is not as dormant as has been viewed, but has produced many law reports that have been heavily relied on.
Among some of the laws the NLRC has worked on includes, reform of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC Act, 2008), reform of the laws on the offences of rape and other sexual offences, 2007. Others are the Merchandising Marks Act, 2012, Workshop on the practice and perspectives of Plea Bargaining in Nigeria, 2012, the Hire Purchase Act, 2012 and the FIRS (Establishment) Act.
They include the Patent and Design Act, Investment and Securities Tribunal Act, Sale of Goods Act, Unification and Reform of the Criminal and Penal Codes, Personal Income Tax, 2022, Companies Income Tax Act (CITA), the Finance (Control & Management) Act, 2021 and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The chairperson of the NLRC, Professor Jummai Audu expressed, commitment to the reformations of laws through her commission. She said as part of effort to continually reform laws, there have been various workshops held to collect views of stakeholders toward reform of some of them.
These workshops, she said, include a workshop on the reform of the 63-year old Finance (Control and Management) Act 1958. The amendment, she said, was to address the defects in the Act to strengthen public finance and management in the country to aid national development.
She stressed that several of such were also held in the past and stakeholders’ views were collected, which had given rise to the various reforms and many others on the way. The chairperson also expressed happiness over the support of the ministry of Justice toward enhancement of the Commission’s mandates.