“Whenever a man is on trial for serious crime or when in a civil case a Man’s honor or integrity is at stake…then trial by jury has no equal.” – Lord Denning
In Nigeria’s legal system, the courts adopt the use of an adversarial system among litigants where it is counsel’s onus to argue and prove guilt or innocence. This is opposed to an inquisitorial system where the judge would be directly involved in proving and disproving the existence or otherwise of facts concerning the case.
In adjudication, Nigerian courts apply the bench system (bench trial system) where a judge or judges preside over a case and make decisions on points of fact as well as law. This system is opposed to the jury trial system where a jury makes decisions on point of fact which then direct the actions of the judge. However, all decisions on point of law are still vested in the judge. Besides certain distinctive characteristics, and the absence of a jury in a bench trial, a jury trial and a bench trial are basically the same. For example, the rules of evidence and methods of objection are the same in a bench trial as in a jury trial. Bench trials however, are frequently more formal.
A Jury simpliciter is a panel of non-law professionals (usually twelve persons) selected by the court to sit and listen to litigants during proceedings and make decisions on points of fact. Here, ordinary members of society not schooled in law preside and decide on points of fact. The jury system can be said to have dated back to an ancient Athenian system called “dikastai”; in this system, the courts were made up of dikastai of up to 500 citizens. For cases involving capital offences; loss of liberty, exile, cases involving death, or seizure of property, the trial would be before a jury of one thousand and one (1001) or one thousand five hundred and one (1501) dakastai. In such large juries, the unanimity rule would be unrealistic and verdicts were reached by majority. Juries were appointed by lots. The jury system evolved as it was practiced by more civilizations around the world spanning from the roman republic to the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) to mention a few. Subsequently, in England and whales, the English king “AEthelred the Unready”- he was called the unready because he was made king at the age of eight- set up an early legal system through the wantage code of Ethelred wherein it provides that twelve theyns (minor nobles) of each wagentake (small district) were required to swear that they would investigate crimes without bias. The difference between these juries and the modern sort is that, these jurors were required to investigate the case themselves while the modern kind would get acquainted with facts during trial. One of the most significant steps in developing the jury system was made in the 12th century by King Henry II. He set up a system where a jury of 12 free men was assigned to arbitrate in disputes. Just like the Saxon system, these men were charged with uncovering the facts of the case on their own rather than listening to arguments in court.
Literature abounds in the evolution of the jury system but a meticulous look at its development will reveal that at all points in time a jury has constituted persons not schooled in formal lawyering or judicial administration. secondly; that juries were vested with powers to make decisions on points of fact only, save in the earliest periods. Third; nobility and integrity have always been requisite conditions for selection of jurors. Above all, history stands to prove one thing from the use of the jury system; Justice is served in almost all ramifications. Lord salmond once remarked; “…no more than about two percent of those brought to a trial are wrongly acquitted by the jury…” The reason of its effectiveness to Lord Birkett is that “…the jury introduces into the law an element of community sentiment and fairness: a jury can do justice where a judge…has to follow the law…” this system made the administration of justice more acceptable to the people as it were. Laws are only observed with the consent of the individuals concerned and a moral change still depends on the individual and not the passage of any law. law is cohesive but an unjust law is no law at all.
The question as to the feasibility of the jury system in the administration of justice in Nigeria is one that has faced conflicting opinions for a very long time. Although the system is a corollary of common law and is used by most common law countries, the Nigerian situation proves to be a peculiar one. The normal criticism of a jury trial in Nigeria is the sentimental nature of our citizens, the fear that most decisions would be made through the prism of religion, ethnicity or region. Such a fear in my opinion is not unwarranted. On the other hand, others argue that with the known level of corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, having ordinary people see facts for what they are and guided by the provisions of the law by a judge who is supposedly learned, may be another way of slowing, if not halting the downward spiral of the system of adjudication in the country. As the late great Rotimi Williams once said “law is 75per cent common sense”. The concern of others is in finances as these jurors ought to be paid for their services and the Nigerian judiciary barely receives enough allocation to maintain the bench system in practice. Others still, in support of the adoption of the jury trial system opine that having one man (if a single judge sits) with such awesome powers of being the moral fabric of society is quite disconcerting. To this group, a jury trial may not completely eliminate such trivialities and potential compromises, but it will greatly mitigate it.
Furthermore, on the twentieth of October 2016, this day newspaper made an enquiry on the streets of Nigeria to seek opinions from its citizens on the subject matter, the reactions were as follows; Hon. Babale Maiungwa from Kaduna State said; “A jury system will only encourage corruption in Nigeria because jurors will be easier and cheaper to compromise than judges, lawyers or law enforcement agents. Nepotism and tribal sentiments would certainly play roles here as well. A jury system would only show that the ordinary citizens are no different from the judges, lawyers and law officers they produce…” in a contrary but skeptical opinion Miss Apeji Patience Eneyeme in Badagry, Lagos State stated “I see it here as a hope because sectionalism, tribalism, religion and above all corruption have eaten deeply into our system. Let us give the jury system a trial but I wonder if they will come from heaven” on a more optimistic note, Mr. Utibe Uko, in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State commented “the jury system is good and will curb the corrupt tendencies of judges if adopted and practiced in Nigeria’s law courts, but this will only work if the members of the selected jury and their families are adequately protected by the law from undue influence, intimidation and pressure from corrupt accused persons and their cronies….” “…juries will speed up criminal and corruption trials reduce bias, corrupt inducement of judges and enhance administration of justice in Nigeria. Mrs. Yejide Gbenga-Ogundare from Ibadan, Oyo State remarked. The most pessimistic view said “we are not capable of holding a system like that. One guy will buy the jury in a jiffy; in fact, it will become a case of the highest bidder gets justice. We are a peculiar society. My personal prescription on the subject matter is that although the rationale and vision of the jury system is a beautiful one that ensures justice is done, not just to the accused/plaintiff and defendant but to society as well.
In view of the foregoing, one cannot fall on blind eyes to the peculiarities of the Nigerian situation. History imbued an emblem of nobility on persons who were to serve as jurors, but with the reality of nepotism, sectionalism, religious intolerance, and above all corruption; in addition to the accommodation of the system by enactment of laws and its financing, the jury system will struggle for oxygen. This is not to say that it is totally not feasible. Its feasibility will only be ascertained as soon as practicable. Certain hurdles must be knocked down before this system can be properly applied in Nigeria. It would be pointless to adopt its use and not do so in a manner that reflects its true intent and purpose; Justice.
Emmanuel Gabadi (firstname.lastname@example.org 08175305344) Wrote from Faculty of Law, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.