The new prison decongestion tool
Every year, for a month, students from the Nigerian Law School are assigned to courts for the “Court Attachment” segment of their vocational training. The idea is for them to see prospective senior colleagues deploying in practice all that they had been taught in classrooms up to that stage. For many of us (my good friend Jimi and I still say this till date), it is the point where we realise that notions we had in our heads, fuelled by American shows, were false and that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly in Nigeria. It is also the point where most would-be lawyers also see for the first time how the Police play their role in the delivery of criminal justice.
For some reason, the High Court dealt with criminal cases only once a week. It may have been for administrative convenience, it may have been because the Police or Prisons service could not afford more than one trip a week. Furthermore, because of the hearsay rule, it was only through the Investigating Police Officer – the one who made the initial arrests, took statements, etc. – that the State’s evidence could be presented against the accused. However, again for some reason I still cannot discern (and this observation continued well into my time with the Ministry of Justice in Calabar during my NYSC), IPOs got transferred a lot, frequently leaving the government’s case hanging.
The court would adjourn over and over while the Government’s lawyer tried to track down the IPO – in Calabar, a colleague once tracked the IPO down to Sokoto – and arrange to cover his transportation and welfare. Sometimes, the IPOs could not be traced. Sometimes, they had no desire to travel the long distance to give evidence they were not sure could be completed within a day. Sometimes, the IPOs attended court only for it to be a day when His or Her Lordship was unwell, or attending a training course; so back to square one.
Eventually, the cases were either dismissed by the court (if the accused was lucky enough to be represented by a lawyer and the charge was not for a serious offence) or adjourned indefinitely. The Judge I was attached to explained that there was a balance to be struck between observing the letter of the law regarding the failure to prosecute a matter diligently on the one hand, and the practical realities that prosecution lawyers face, on the other. This was the reason, she said, that Judges did not simply dismiss cases out of hand. However, it is also a massive contributor to the current situation where anywhere between 66-74% of the inmates in our prison system are people who have not been convicted of any offence.
I was posted to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions for my NYSC Primary Assignment. For my “Community Development Service” I joined the Legal Aid Club (my supervisors at the Ministry of Justice were aware), so I got to see both sides of the debacle. There was a formal Legal Aid office, but it comprised one full-time lawyer supported by two of my fellow Youth Corps members. The three of them were the entirety of the Legal Aid resource for Cross River State, so of course they were overstretched.
Our Legal Aid Club visited the prisons to see who we could help and what we saw, again, pointed fingers at the Nigerian Police. Many inmates alleged that they had been arrested at the whims of or in collusion with policemen, on flimsy and baseless grounds. Many inmates alleged, with the Comptroller’s confirmation, that they had not been back in court since they were charged and remanded. The Comptroller said his job was to ensure incarceration and availability for trial and that he could not take to anyone to court if the Police were not ready to prosecute. If a lawyer did not demand the accused be presented for trial (Habeas Corpus), there was little he could do on his part.
Last week, it was announced that the Federal Executive Council had approved the sum of N2.8bn for the deployment of a real-time, web-based tool to connect prisons and help with the administration of criminal justice. Like most Nigerians, I am cynical. After all, this is a government that has all but said it will only obey the court orders it chooses to. And I see videos everyday of the Police arresting people for having dreadlocked hair and tattoos, or for having mobile phones they believe to be beyond the individual’s status. But I write about social justice a lot. And if the government says it wants to do something that is capable of delivering more justice to more people, then I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.