Timeframe for Adjudication in Nigeria’s Criminal Jurisprudence: The Bill That Should Have Passed

Contributor: Patrick Emmanuel Esq.

Every day, hundreds or even thousands of cases are instituted before the Courts nationwide. These new cases find their way into the docket of one Judge or the other, join a host of other cases, and begin a journey with no end in sight. In Nigeria, people only know the date they approach the Court but they do not know when their matters will get determined. The snail-like pace of justice delivery has caused great discomfort, inconveniences and hopelessness to litigants, with some litigants now resorting to self-help. With no attempt to exaggerate, a case could last a lifetime in Court.

In 2020, this dire situation spurred Hon. Onofiok Luke, a lawyer and member of the House of Representatives representing Etinan/Nsit Ibom/Nsit Ubium Federal Constituency, into sponsoring a Bill at the House of Representatives to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), and create a timeframe within which civil and criminal cases are heard and determined. The Bill was eventually passed and referred to the Committee on the Review of the Constitution headed by Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, to look at the issues[1].

Fast forward to February 2022, the National Assembly began voting on the 68 amendments to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), and the Bill sponsored by Hon. Onofiok Luke resurfaced again. However, the Bill titled “A Bill for an Act to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), to provide timelines within which civil and criminal cases are heard and determined at trial and appellate Courts, in order to eliminate unnecessary delay in justice administration and delivery”, did not garner enough votes and therefore failed to pass.

The failure of the National Assembly to pass this Bill has raised pertinent questions amongst critical stakeholders like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the Judiciary, political commentators, intellectuals and the general public. The subsequent parts of this article shall address the criminal trials aspect of the Bill; with the aim to interrogate the lengthy nature of criminal trials, the mental and emotional rigours defendants are subjected to, whether the Constitution as it is already providing a ‘timeline’ within which criminal cases should be dispatched, and the benefits and challenges the Bill would have posed, had it pass.

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE DELAY IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE DELIVERY

At the 60th annual general conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), President Muhammadu Buhari said justice administration in Nigerian Courts moves at a “terribly slow pace”. He handed this charge to the NBA, in a keynote address read on his behalf through a virtual interaction by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. While stressing that the fabric of our society “is stitched together by our system of justice and law enforcement”, Buhari asked these important questions: “Why can’t we have timeliness in all our cases? Why can’t we put in place the rules that will state that a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court, must not exceed 12 months in duration?[2]

The Constitution, which is our grundnorm, has this to say regarding the timeline within which Defendants ought to be tried:

“Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a Court or tribunal[3].

It needs to be said that a speedy trial in criminal proceedings is an aspect of the right to fair hearing as guaranteed by Section 36 CFRN, even though there is no time limit within which a trial for a criminal offence must be concluded[4]. On what “reasonable time” connotes, the Supreme Court had the phrase explained in the case of R. ARIORI & ORS VS MURAINO B. O. ELEMO & ORS per Obaseki, JSC remarked:

“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[5].”

This lack of specificity on what reasonable time connotes has been the bane of our criminal justice system and what the Bill tried to address. Criminal cases continue to take donkey years in Courts with defendants going through mental and emotional turmoil. What’s worse, some defendants that are not on bail would have already served close to the total number of years the punishment for the crime they were charged with, stipulated by the time their cases get to the Supreme Court, which is our final appellate Court. For instance, the case of Obasi v. State[6] took over 20 years to get to the Supreme Court. The apex Court, decrying the length of time it takes for justice to be delivered in our Courts gave this sobering thought:

This is apparently a case with chequered history and seemingly unending determination for over 20 years, yet still in the pipeline.”

In giving voice to the emotional and mental turmoil Defendants go through, the three wise men in the case of Okoli v State[7] had this to say:

“Unarguably, it is generally expected that an accused person who is facing/undergoing a criminal prosecution, is tried timeously so that he knows his fate in respect of the charge(s) preferred against him. For, as long as the charge(s) are hanging on his head, it cannot be said that he is totally free in the exercise of his fundamental rights to freedom of movement. Such an accused person naturally is subjected to an emotional stress and a resonating feeling of uncertainties regarding his fate and for as long as the trial lingers on, the charges against the accused person, hangs as the sword of Damocles over his head. That is why it is axiomatic that a speedy trial is preferable at all times, to a long and delayed trial, for, as it is said, justice delayed is justice denied.”

It is important to note that the concept of timelines within which to try some cases is not alien to our jurisprudence. Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution (First Alteration) Act 2010 introduced new Subsections (5), (6) and (7) as follows:

“(5) An election petition shall be filed within 21 days after the date of declaration of results of the election.

(6) An election tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition (six months)

(7) An appeal from decision of an election tribunal or Court shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of the judgment of tribunal.”

With that amendment, electoral disputes now span a maximum of eight months, from Election Tribunal to Appeal. This is very progressive as it has dealt with the problem of electoral cases dragging on for years, whilst one of the parties enjoys the pecks of the disputed office.

But this was not always the case. Before the amendment, the delay that accompanied some election petitions was so embarrassing that some took four years, which is the same as the number of years the candidate who won the disputed election would spend in office. It is interesting to note that the petition filed in 2007 by Hope Democratic Party against the election of President Umaru Yar’dua of blessed memory, lasted up to four years before getting to the Supreme Court, and same was sent back for re-trial by the Supreme Court[8].

At the previously mentioned NBA Conference, President Muhammadu Buhari, reminiscing about his own election petitions following his loss in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential polls had this to say about how long it took for the tribunal to hear the matter and pass the verdict:

“At the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then, why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict and if I had won the case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time”. The President continued “In 2019, I was no longer a Petitioner. I had now become a Respondent in the case of Atiku and Buhari and the whole process took barely six months; just over six months. What was the difference? The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011.

“You had now introduced time limits for election petitions. Everything must be done within a six to eight-month period.[9]

The question to be put to the National Assembly is that if, in their ultimate wisdom, time limits were put in place for electoral cases, should criminal trials also not be time-bound?

In the real sense, a smarter, time-bound, more efficient and professional dispensation of criminal justice in Nigeria would benefit the entire country. Nigerians will repose more confidence in the ability of the Judiciary to give them faster justice, which is crucial for keeping the people law-abiding.

THE WAY FORWARD

Having highlighted the benefits of a speedier Criminal justice system, it is important to note that the reforms that will have to be done to achieve speedier justice delivery go beyond the amendment of the Constitution. It will involve, among other things, granting more independence and funds to the Judiciary, building more Court houses, deploying the use of technology to aid a faster dispensation of Justice, and this cannot be overemphasized–hiring more judges at all levels to tackle the massive caseloads that overwhelm our Courts.

The Chief Judge of Oyo State, the Honourable Justice Muntar Abimbola, said last year that every Judge at the Oyo State High Court, has an average of 500 cases in their docket at every point in time[10]. With a population of more than 8 million people, the State has less than 30 High Court judges. At the moment, the Ibadan Judicial Division of the Court of Appeal has just 3 Judges. Despite having 2 court halls within the building, only one panel sits. Also, the Ibadan Judicial Division of the Court of Appeal entertains all appeals that arise from Oyo State and Ogun State. This means that 3 Justices serve a population of more than 13 million people. With such congestions in Oyo State Courts, one can imagine what a busier city like Lagos would be like. All these point to the fact that there is a very high level of shortage of Judges at all levels. It is therefore not surprising that cases would take so long to be finished.

When a case is adjourned in Court, the shortest date of adjournment that the Court can grant is 3 weeks or 1 month. On many occasions, cases are adjourned for 2 months. For criminal defendants that are in custody, it means that they have to wait in jail for 3 more months before their trials continue.

Asides the shortage of Judges that beset our Court, there are other reasons that cause delay in criminal justice delivery within the Nigerian justice sector. In some cases, the prosecution employs delay tactics to seek unnecessary adjournment, so as to carry out further investigations even after the commencement of trial. Defendants’ counsels are sometimes guilty of this too, when they seek adjournment on frivolous grounds to “put their house in order”. Another factor for delay is the lack of witnesses. In most cases, witnesses in a case hardly show up in Court to give their testimony. When this happens, the Court would have to adjourn the case till another time. This is frequent in criminal cases. Witnesses to crimes hardly show up in Court. Sometimes, the victims do not even show much interest in sending their assailants to jail.

However, hiring more Judges would go a long way in reducing unnecessary and embarrassing delays in our criminal justice system. That way, we can have criminal trials adjourned to the next day, as the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015[11] stipulates, and not the next 2/3 months.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, this paper has not indicated a specific timeframe that should be given for criminal trials because there are other factors that must be taken into consideration, e.g. the number of Judges that will be hired, the number of Court houses that will be built, how technology would be deployed to aid a faster dispensation of Justice, etc. Suffice to say that these things must be put in place before setting a specific timeframe that is realistic.

On a final note, it is said that justice delayed is justice denied. If we can work together and achieve a faster criminal justice delivery system, the benefits from it will be endless. And, as a parting shot, the National Assembly should kindly revisit this Bill, pass it, and write its name in gold as the National Assembly that bequeathed the sound legacy of speedier justice to generations yet unborn.

REFERENCE

  1. Udora Orizu, ‘ Nigeria: Bill Seeking Timeline for Civil, Criminal Cases Passes for Second Reading’ <https://allafrica.com/stories/202012110806.html > Accessed 21 January, 2022
  2. Vanguard, ‘ Time Limit for Criminal Cases’ < https://www.vanguardngr.com/2020/09/time-limit-for-criminal-cases/amp/ > Accessed 26 March, 2022.
  3. Section 36(4) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)
  4. See Dasuki v FRN (2018) 10 NWLR (W627) 320 at 341
  5. (1983) 1 SC 1 AT 22-26
  6. (2020) LPELR-51080 (SC)
  7. (20180 LPELR-44670(CA)
  8. Akpo Mudiaga- Oje ‘Time Frame for Election Petitions: N/A, Judiciary and the Constitution’ <https://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/04/time-frame-for-election-petitions-na-judiciary-and-the-constitution/amp/ > Accessed 26 March, 2022.
  9. Bolanle Olabimtan ‘ Buhari Proposes One-year Limit for Criminal Cases, Says Trials ‘Terribly Slow’’.

    <https://www.thecable.ng/buhari-proposes-one-year-time-limit-for-criminal-cases/amp > Accessed 10 March, 2022

  10. TheEagleOnline, ‘Oyo Judges Overwhelmed with Pending Cases’< https://theeagleonline.com.ng/oyo-judges-overwhemed-with-pending-cases-chief-judge/ > Accessed 10 March, 2022
  11. Section 396 of the Administration and Criminal Justice Act, 2015

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