Enhancing Speedy Criminal Trial: Some Innovative Provisions of the ACJA 2015

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Uwais Abdulrahman

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) was signed into law in 2015 in a bid to revolutionize the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria. It repealed the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) and Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) of Southern and Northern Nigeria respectively. It is applicable to Federal Courts and courts of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Section 1 ACJA explains the purpose of the Act thus:

The purpose of the Act is to ensure that the system of Administration of Criminal Justice in Nigeria promotes efficient management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice, protection of society from crime and protection of the rights and interests of the suspect, defendant, and victim. (emphasis provided)

The Act reforms and merges the essential provisions of the two principal legislations on criminal procedure ( the CPA & the CPC) into one principal Act operative in the FCT and uniformly in all federal courts across the federation. The Act also applies to all criminal trials for offences created by an Act of the National Assembly and other offences punishable in the FCT. The Act therefore applies in all criminal trials for offences created by Acts of parliament in both federal and state courts across the federation. The effect of this is that the ACJA is to be uniformly applied across the length and breadth of the country where law enforcement agencies created by either the constitution (CFRN 1999 as amended) or Acts of the National Assembly are empowered to operate.

The extent of the applicability of the ACJA is illustrated in the case of FRN v SARAKI (2016) 3 NWLR (pt 1500) 531 at 578 where the Supreme Court per Onnoghen JSC (as he then was) rejected the contention that the Act is not applicable to the Code of Conduct Tribunal and that the tribunal could not take refuge under the Act. His lordship declared thus:

“…paragraph 17 of the 3rd schedule to the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act empowers the tribunal to apply the provisions of Criminal Procedure Act or Code in the conduct of its proceedings in the trial of offences generally. With the repeal of the Criminal Procedure Act and the Criminal Procedure Code, section 493 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 has taken their place.”

Section 493 of the Act repeals the CPA, CPC and the Administration of Criminal Justice Commission Act. However, section 2 (2) of the Act expressly excludes its application to a military Court Martial.

As noted above, one of the purposes of the Act is the enhancement of speedy administration of criminal justice. According to the Chief Justice of Nigeria Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, delay in the administration of justice is a major challenge facing the Nigerian Judiciary (Vanguard Newspaper 24th July, 2017). Delay has over the years no doubt been a major impediment to effective and speedy dispensation of criminal justice in Nigeria. The Act was therefore enacted to address this concern amongst others.

Unnecessary delays in justice dispensation has occasioned injustice in many cases, especially where persons presumed to be innocent are detained for many years before they are convicted or acquitted of the allegations levelled against them. Another resultant effect of these delays is the overcrowding of prisons across the country. A report of the National Bureau of Statistics states that Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs) account for a staggering 73% of the total prison population in the country.

The need to address this problem of delay is centred on protecting the constitutional safeguard available to an accused person under section 36 (4) CFRN 1999 (as amended) which provides for the Right to Fair Hearing to the effect that; “Whenever a person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time  by a court or tribunal.” (Emphasis mine).

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There is no gainsaying that delayed justice is a denial of this constitutionally guaranteed right. Ideally, a trial must be concluded within a reasonable time. In Ariori v Elemo (1983) 1SCNLR 1 the Supreme Court ordered the retrial of the case due to inordinate delay in the conduct of the proceedings at the trial court, which in the noble decision of the apex court robbed the plaintiffs of fair trial. Although, this decision was reached in a civil matter, the principle applies to criminal cases.

What then is a reasonable time within which a trial must be concluded? Section 36 CFRN does not offer any definition of what reasonable time entails. However, the courts have attempted to fill this gap over the years. In Egbo v Agbara & Ors (1997) LPELR 1036 (SC) the supreme quoted with approval the observation of per Obaseki JSC (as he then was) in Ariori v Elemo (Supra) as follows:

“…Fair hearing, therefore, must mean a trial conducted according to all the legal rules formulated to ensure that justice is done to the parties to the cause.”Reasonable time” must mean the period of time which, in the search for justice, does not wear out the parties and their witnesses and which is required to ensure that justice is not only done but appears to reasonable persons to be done.”

Furthermore, in Okeke v State (2003) LPELR 2436-SC the Supreme Court per Ogundare JSC (as he then was) said thus:

 “In determining what is a reasonable time for the trial of a criminal case having regard to the nature and circumstances of the case, four factors have been identified as guide, the length of the delay, the reasons given by the prosecution for the delay, the responsibility of the accused for asserting his rights and the prejudice to which the accused may be exposed.”

With the greatest respect, the above cases do not give any exactitude as to what reasonable time is; they only suggest that what a reasonable time is will vary from case to case depending on the peculiar circumstances of each case.

The uncertainty as to what constitutes reasonable time and several other loopholes under the CPC and CPA have been exploited by defence lawyers to slow down criminal trial to the advantage of their clients, especially the wealthy ones. In Joshua Dariye v FRN (2015)10 NWLR (pt 1467) the Supreme Court condemned the many years delay of the trial through the means of interlocutory appeals. This case started in 2004 when charges of corruption and other financial crimes were filed against the accused; it was only concluded in 2018 with the conviction of the accused 14 years later due to delay.

The ACJA made some innovative provisions aimed at solving the problem of delays in criminal trials. These provisions have been put in place to ensure amongst others, speedy trial and quick disposal of criminal cases in the interest and as a right of a suspect, the defendant, the victim and in fact the society at large.

Section 110 ACJA provides for a timeline in which criminal trials must be commenced and concluded in Magistrates’ Courts. The Act requires that trial must commence within thirty days of filing and concluded within a reasonable time. It further provides that where trial is not commenced within stipulated time (30 days) and concluded within a hundred and eighty days of arraignment, the particulars of the charge shall be forwarded to the Chief Judge with reasons for failure to commence or conclude the trial. It therefore follows that according to the Act, reasonable time means not more than one hundred and eighty days of arraignment.

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In the case of Information in the High Court, section 382 ACJA mandates the Chief Judge to take appropriate steps to assign such information filed to a court for trial within fifteen working days after filing. When the Information is assigned, the court shall within ten working days issue trial notices to the witnesses and defendants and where the defendant is in custody, a reproduction warrant properly endorsed by the judge to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court on the date of arraignment. The section states further that, the Chief Registrar shall ensure the prompt service of the notice and Information not more than three days from the date of issuance.

Another novel provision in the ACJA aimed at speeding up criminal trials is section 111 which makes it mandatory for the Controller-General of Prisons to make returns (every 90 days) of all persons held in prison custody for more than 180 days after the date of arraignment. The contents of the returns include the name of the suspect, passport photograph, date of arraignment or remand, date of admission to custody, particulars of the offence charged, court of arraignment, name of prosecuting agency and any other relevant information. These returns shall be made to the following persons:

  1. The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court;
  2. Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory;
  • President of the National Industrial Court;
  1. Chief Judge of the State in which the prison is situated and;
  2. The Attorney-General of the Federation.

Furthermore, as highlighted earlier, the issue of interlocutory appeals arising from preliminary objections during criminal trials has been a major cause of delay in the dispensation of criminal justice. Thus, section 221 ACJA provides that the court shall not entertain any objections during criminal proceedings on grounds of an imperfect or erroneous charge. However, looking at section 396 (2) ACJA it appears objections may be raised at any time before judgement but the court shall not entertain or rule on any such objections until the time judgement is to be delivered.

With  a community reading of both sections 221 and 396 (2), it follows that a defendant may raise an objection during the trial but the court shall reserve its ruling on the objection until the substantive case is concluded. Ruling on the objection and judgment on the substantive case shall be given simultaneously when the trial is concluded. This will greatly check the problem of wasting precious time going on appeals all the way to the Supreme Court on preliminary objections before the substantive case is heard.

In FRN v. Babalola Borisade (2015) All FWLR (Pt. 785) 227 a case involving a former Minister of Education prosecuted by ICPC. Nweze, JSC decried the use of interlocutory appeals to frustrate criminal trials thus:

“Before concluding this judgment we observe that the interlocutory appeal of the third accused person against the ruling of the trial court epitomises the frustration of trials at first instance, which our adversarial system of criminal justice unwittingly perpetuates. It actually speaks ill of our criminal jurisprudence. The trial of the accused persons, which commenced in 2008, had to abide the lower court’s determination of the said interlocutory appeal: a decision that prompted the appellant’s appeal to this court. In effect, since 2008, that is seven years ago, proceedings at the trial court had been stalled to await the outcome of the appeal against its ruling.”

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Additionally, in a bid to curb the misuse of interlocutory appeals to scuttle criminal trials, section 306 expressly abolishes stay of proceedings. The section provides that ‘the court shall not entertain any application for stay of proceeding. The effect of this section is that applications for stay of proceedings shall no longer be heard until judgement. In Olisah Metuh v FRN (2017) 4 NWLR (pt. 1554) 108 at131 the Supreme Court held that no court in Nigeria has the power to stay criminal proceedings.

Also worthy of note is section 396 (3) which provides that a criminal trial shall proceed on a day-to-day basis until the trial is concluded. Where this is impracticable after arraignment, the parties to the proceedings shall not be entitled to more than 5 adjournments each pursuant to section 396 (4), provided that the interval between each adjournment shall not exceed 14 working days. Where it becomes impracticable to conclude the trial after both parties have exhausted five adjournments each, section 396 (5) is to the effect that the interval between further adjournments shall not exceed seven days inclusive of weekends. The court is also mandated to award reasonable costs pursuant to section 396 (6), this is aimed at discouraging frivolous adjournments.

Another important factor that has also hindered the speedy conclusion of criminal trials over the years is the situation where cases have to be tried de novo because the presiding judge has been elevated to a superior court. Such circumstances have received consideration under the ACJA. Section 396 (7) allows a Judge of the High Court who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal to preside as a High Court judge for the purpose of concluding a criminal case pending before the judge at the time of the elevation. The case shall however be concluded within a reasonable time.

In Ogbunyiya v Okudo (1979) SC 6-9 SC 32, Nnaemeka-Agu J (as he then was) delivered judgement in a case pending before him as High Court two days after he had been elevated to the Federal Court of Appeal. The judgement was nullified on appeal to the Supreme Court on the ground that the judgement was given without jurisdiction as he was functus officio and thus had ceased to be a judge of the High Court. The provision of section 396 (7) has effectively remedied this problem.

In conclusion, the biggest criticism of the criminal justice system in Nigeria is the snail pace with which criminal justice is dispensed. The ACJA 2015, most especially the provisions discussed above are deliberate measures aimed at addressing this problem of unnecessarily prolonged criminal trials. Consequently, if implemented properly, the Act will no doubt restore the confidence of people in the criminal justice system. Some states in the country have adopted the Act as the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL). It  is important for other states to follow in that direction to ensure speedy and efficient criminal justice delivery and uniformity in criminal justice administration across the board.

Uwais Abdulrahman is a 500 Level Law Student and;
Head, Nasarawa State University Keffi (NSUK) Law Clinic.
Twitter: @nmauwais
Facebook: Uwais Abdulrahman.

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