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‘We need to create specialised courts in Nigeria’

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Attama

Orlu Branch chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Chuzzy Attama, spoke with COLLINS OSUJI about criminal justice system in Nigeria shortly after a workshop on promoting the Domestication and Implementation of Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) in various states of the country.

What is your assessment of the workshop on promoting the domestication of the ACJA in various states of the country?
I will first of all thank the Macarthur Foundation and the NBA who made it possible for us to have this workshop. I will equally thank the keynote presenter, Dr. Okorie Chimezie Kingsley who x-rayed the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice (ACJ) Act.

By my own experience, having used it severally in courts and still using it, I am aware that the ACJ Act, which we are working hard to domesticate in Imo State, is a very important legislation. It is important in the sense that it has made some novel provisions that will help us in the administration of criminal justice. And I will pray that we continue in that journey to attain excellence in Nigeria. So my assessment is that it was a wonderful workshop, highly educating and I would say it was successful in every sense of it.

You made a case for the establishment of specialised courts in Nigeria, can you possibly throw more light on that?
I am a serious advocate of specialisation both in the legal profession and in our court system. We need to have specialised courts; such as criminal courts, civil courts, family courts and possibly land law courts. The criminal courts would surely be created at both the magistrate and the high court levels, because they are the courts that deal specifically on criminal matters.

One, it would help in ensuring that they put up their whole time in criminal matters. Two, it would equally increase specialised knowledge of criminal law by those manning the criminal courts. In the end, it would give us not only quantitative but qualitative criminal justice. We need it in Nigeria.

Aside from that, lawyers can now specialise and take only criminal matters and with that, they too would be making quality input into the court that would result in quality output in our criminal administration. When you specialise, you have in-depth knowledge in that area of the law. They assist both the court and even the clients.

This idea of us being jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none is not helping Nigeria as a country and it is not helping our judicial system. Attention needs to be paid to the legal system, particularly the criminal administration because of the fact that it affects the liberty and sometimes the life of a citizen. 

Recently, a particular governor in the country accused judges of being biased in handling some of the cases before them, thereby hampering the justice delivery in the country. What is your take on that? 
I do not agree with him on that at all. First of all, it appears that he is ignorant of the court proceedings. Because if he has been going to courts just as an observer, he would know that the court runs on procedures provided by law.

Much of our problems as they involve criminal administration are at the investigation stage. The police actually do not undertake investigation on their own. It is as if somebody must mobilise or provide logistics before they go into an investigation.

That, from the very beginning puts up a biased investigation. Two, they too don’t have the facilities to carry out what we call real investigation.

For instance, even at the workshop, it was explained that most police officers are not learned in the law. We are not talking about just being lawyers; we are talking about learning the criminal law, code, act and procedure. That is where the law they are working hard to execute is residing. They don’t have knowledge of it and you just send them with no training to go and investigate.

Investigate what? Just arrest somebody, put him in detention, give him bail and somehow take him to court. And when you get to court, where is the evidence?

None! And you expect the court to continue the ignorant part of the police or the investigating officer? That is not possible because law binds the court. So the court looks at the evidence before it before making up its mind whether to commit or acquit based on evidence.

Okay, let us take a look at it. If a police officer who does not know the elements of assault investigate a case of assault, and he gathers information which is not associated with assault, how do you expect the judge to convict? When you now talk about armed robbery and kidnapping, would you just expect a court to convict because somebody said this man is a kidnapper? The answer is no. The court must ascertain whether somebody was actually taken into custody and whether such act is in the nature of kidnapping.

Then if these ingredients are not there, the court would say, yes you have arrested somebody and tagged him a kidnapper but I don’t see the evidence that he was in fact a kidnapper. So if somebody was arrested for an offence and if there is no link between the fellow arrested and the action that took place, he is a free man and the court cannot convict him.

Are you implying that the judiciary has done well enough in dispensing justice in the country? 
Judiciary still remains the only hope for the common man. They are still doing it. We know that Nigeria is having the problem of credibility as a nation.

What I mean by credibility is that our leaders are corrupt. So the led will surely toe the path of the leadership. That is why we are having problems. And judiciary is part of that country, where a lot of things happen. So judiciary is not 100 percent innocent. No. It is not even 80 percent. But I think the judiciary is still between 60 and 70 percent innocent in both allegations levelled against it. Now if that is so, then I think they are still the best of the three arms of government. The other two arms, you hear them talk money, money, money.

In the judiciary, not all the courts are really befitting. In the customary court for instance, you can go and check the environment where they sit – local halls, mud houses and half walls. The same applies to the magistrates’ courts.

Most of them are nearly sitting under the mango trees. These are senior officers. Go to the high courts. Mbano High Court in Imo State for instance, is an old and ancient house that has not seen renovation at all. That is where a judge sits. He records with long hand. He has up to 15 to 20 cases per day and he records with long hand and he continues sitting from 9 o’clock in the morning to almost 3 or 4 in the evening. You don’t provide infrastructure for them, you don’t provide ordinary accommodation, a decent one of an officer who is between grade level 16, 17 and 18 and above.

Are you by implication calling for a reform of the judicial system?
We are calling for a reform such that as the executive is building and renovating the government house, they should be building and renovating court halls and equip them with the state-of-the-art facilities. That is what we expect and if those things are kept for them, they would work optimally and Nigerians would be better for it.

The other addition is in employing judges and magistrates. For instance, the Orlu Judicial Division here in the state, both at the magisterial and high court levels, doesn’t have security men guarding the court premises. Thieves have invaded that court over five times since this year. They have taken virtually everything there. We as a branch resorted to employing local vigilantes to come and guard the court. The exhibits there have all been taken away and stolen.

In real sense, the judiciary cannot function because they are not independent and cannot employ even security men to guard their facilities, yet they are still expected to do everything under heaven.  So what I am saying is that if the judiciary is made independent and given a conducive environment, they would get to 90 percent in performance, both in credibility and justice dispensation.

Some activities of the Bench and the Bar have been described as the contributory factor to why most prisons are overcrowded across the nation, in the sense that they do not insist on a speedy adjudication of most cases before them. What is your view on this?
That was the reason I talked about specialisation earlier. Our failure to have specialisation is the cause. Now those judges who sit to take those criminal matters are at the election petition tribunals. They have about 180 days to stay there. That means, all the criminal cases they are handling can only be continued after 180 days.

Now, if you have specialised courts, for instance in Kenya, they call it constitutional courts that handle these matters, then that court would be sitting and releasing suspects from prison custody during the 180 days the judges are in the election petition tribunal. That is the real issue and when they are back again, there are other assignments they do too. And that is because the judge is not saddled with the responsibility of hearing only criminal cases. That means that he takes criminal cases, civil cases, family cases and he also takes constitutional cases. Worse still, he records in long hand. Those judges are really doing the much they can because you don’t ask somebody to give more than he has.

Compounding the issue, they don’t appoint enough judiciary officers so that the criminal cases can be taken at quite a number of courts. So when you have a lot of criminals who are committing crime on daily basis, you are arresting them, you are sending them to court, and you don’t have judges to sit to hear their cases, what do you expect? They would remain in prison custody and each day the prison will be swelling.

Suspects who appear before magistrates that have no jurisdiction to hear their cases would have to remain in prison custody until they are back from election petition tribunal matter. So that helps to increase the number of awaiting trial inmates in the prisons. They stay there and wait for 180 days for the judges to return and listen to their plea. If you go to Nkwerre Judicial Division, there is no judge there. There is only one judge sitting there who equally covers Owerri who is now at a tribunal.

If you go to Mgbidi, there is no judge there. So all the criminal matters involving murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, including rape and arson, will wait until 180 days are over before the judge will come back. This means that before he comes back after 180 days, the prison has taken sufficient inmates emanating from this situation.

So you are saying there is the need for recruitment of more judges? 
Yes. Here in Imo State for instance, we need at least 20 new judges to add to what we have. We need up to 30 to 40 magistrates for employment. Judicial staff are also needed because even in the courts, we don’t have judicial staff to assist the court.

In most of the courts we have one worker to run the court. So, that is the problem that is limiting the performance of the judiciary and judiciary officers. If they address those, things will get better.

If you watch trials in South Africa, the judge sits down and just listens. He is not putting down anything. And that is just a criminal court, not an all round court as in Nigeria. There, the judge is sitting, watching and the proceeding is going on because somebody is recording. He has both the view as well as using the ear. That same court that he is sitting quietly has the opportunity of viewing the witness talking. The judge can rewind as well as hear the witness while he is talking and can repeat the audio and equally see it as printed out as evidence on record. That is only in criminal court. But in Nigeria, none of them exists. So what do they expect?

Imo State is said to be the only state in the South East that is yet to domesticate the Administration of Criminal Justice law. What could be the reason from your own perspective?
Well the reason is past and present governments have not shown interest in developing the judiciary in Imo State. Even we are still using the criminal law of Eastern Nigeria of 1963 in Imo State. That is what we are still using. In other words, there is no development of the law in Imo State. We are not surprised that up till now, we are yet to have that of Administration of Criminal Justice law.

Does this in any way hamper the dispensation of justice in the state? 
Definitely, it hampers the administration of criminal justice because they have not invested in the law that will equally encourage the speedy dispensation of justice.

What is your assessment of the welfare of lawyers in Nigeria currently? 
The administration of Ikedi Ohakim actually improved the welfare of judicial staff as well as the Bench and the state council, which is the official Bar, by giving them an enhanced package. Unfortunately, the outgone administration does not see it that way and it had to slash down and eventually took away all the welfare packages that they were enjoying.

Now they are back to square one. It is unfortunate but I pray that the new administration will look into it because judiciary is the cash cow of any government. They generate money for government on a daily basis. There are filings in court every day. So, if you have 20 judicial divisions, you have filings every day in those courts between the hours of 8;00 a.m till 4;00 p.m, every day. If you have only one, you are limited to income in just that one. So because they give out their time, between the hours of 8; 00 a.m till 4;00 p.m when they close, they need an enhanced package. It is only in the Judiciary that I see that the staff are working. They come to work before 9;00a.m to prepare for the court to sit. And they sit with the judge from the morning till when the court closes. So, they deserve much more than an ordinary welfare.
 
Judges who sit to take those criminal matters are at the election petition tribunals. They have about 180 days to stay there. That means, all the criminal cases they are handling can only be continued after 180 days.


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