The Administration of Criminal Justice Law (2010) of Anambra State has been in force for the past nine years.

Since then, the dynamism of the society and several developments within the criminal justice sector have compelled a review of the law, which is almost concluded by the State Justice Sector Reform Team.

In this special report, with support from Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, correspondent Alfred Ajayi highlights critical issues that have made the review imperative as well as the innovations in the new law, soon to become operational in Anambra State.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Law was enacted in Anambra State in 2010, making the state the second to have such law after Lagos.

The aim was to ensure speedy dispensation of justice by addressing various issues that have hitherto slowed down or stalled criminal proceedings.

Since then, the dynamism of the society, the commercial inclination of residents, coupled with the fact that the State is said to have the second highest number of litigations after Lagos State, makes it compelling that the law be revisited to come in tandem with the prevailing realities.

The Chairman of the State Justice Sector Reform Team (JSRT), Justice Peter Obiora, speaks more on the essence of reviewing the law when he says:

“Other States, including the Federal Government, used the Anambra ACJL 2010 as a template to move the notch higher. When we looked at what we had in 2010 and the improvement people standing on our own have made, we discovered some gaps that require a review of our law.”

*… the concern of stakeholders*

Concerned residents, especially legal practitioners, share the worry that criminal trials still last longer than necessary despite the enactment of the ACJL in 2010.

A Legal Practitioner, Mr. Maxwell Udechukwu, lends credence to this.

“I have a matter today. My client has been incarcerated for more than one year. Information has been filed, bail application has been filed. For more than six times we’ve gone to court and court did not sit. I agree that the state has that responsibility to curb crime. At the same time, you have that responsibility to make sure that an innocent person is not being incarcerated for nothing,” Mr. Udechukwu insisted.
Again, one of the issues with the ACJL 2010 revolves around remand proceedings.

Sections 132 and 134 (1 & 2) of ACJL empower the magistrates to remand suspects for not more than one hundred and fifty days.

Sub-section 3 says that the magistrate may on application grant the person remanded bail, if satisfied that there is no probable cause for his or her continued detention.

But under the Criminal Procedure Law, remand proceedings has no time protocol.

The Director of Public Prosecutions and member of the Justice Sector Reform Team, Mr. Emma Osunkwor, says the situation has improved tremendously under the ACJL.

According to Mr. Osunkwor, “If we continued with the Criminal Procedure Law, where you don’t have any time regime, people will stay longer in cells as ATM, Awaiting Trial Mates.

“Better as the situation seems under the current law, close watchers are of the view that 150 days are rather too long to remand suspects. They hope for a reduction in the time protocol.”

Happily, Mr. Osunkwor reveals that such worry has been taken care of in the review.

Mr. Osunkwor says: “We want to shorten from one fifty days to seventy-five days. It will now take less time to charge this person to court or release him on bail.”

A legal Practitioner and Civil Society Activist, Somto Stella, commends the resolution to cut down the time protocol to 75 days, with the hope that it would help to expedite criminal trials going forward.

But, the Chairman, Nigeria Bar Association, Awka Branch, Mr. Ekene Okonkwo has some reservations.

The NBA Chairman observes that “the person who is to render his opinion will base whatever he’s doing on the investigation made by the police. If he has this time constraint that he must render an opinion before that seventy-five days, he may not find out the missing links or facts.

There are cases that might not be that straight forward for them to actually make an opinion”.

* … Unfriendly disposition among stakeholders as a cause for worry*

Meanwhile, Radio Nigeria gathered that the delay in criminal trials could be blamed on the failure of the stakeholders in the sector to see themselves as partners.

Mr. Maxwell Udechukwu, a legal practitioner, points out that: “in this very law, we are meant to do one or the other together. There are duties assigned to us. The lawyer will do his own. The Police will do his own. The Magistrate will do his own.”

In this regard, some members of Magistrates Association of Nigeria, Anambra State Chapter, during a recent advocacy visit by the Civil Society and Media Coalition, identify non-compliance by the police prosecutors to court orders as a major reason for the delay.

They suggest that the review of the ACJL should compel the Police Prosecutors to make available before the magistrates duplicate copies of the case files, as a precondition for commencing the remand process.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) further explains that in the reviewed law, the transmission of the case file to attorney general will now be done by the magistrates.

According to the DPP, “the original case file, the magistrate will direct his registrar to send it to Attorney General within one week, no more than a week. He doesn’t make order again to the Police to send it to Attorney General. With that, you’ve shortened the period. Formerly, you give him thirty days. The Police would not still do that within thirty days.”

Of concern to the immediate past Chairman of NBA, Awka Branch, Mr. Gab Moneke, is what he terms magistrates’ seeming uncertainty about what to do in certain circumstances.

“Especially when they feel that they don’t have jurisdiction over trial of such matters. No matter what you do, they just remand. Even if you report hundred times that no proof of evidence filed and all that, they can only tell you, go to the high court and apply for your bail. The person remains in custody,” Mr. Moneke laments.

* …non implementation of certain sections*

Another challenge, which gets Mr. Udechukwu (a legal practitioner) worried is the sufferings of innocent citizens, languishing in police cells across the state

Mr. Udechukwu cries out that “Administration of Criminal Justice Law empowers the magistrate to visit police cells within his or her magisterial district to make sure that no cell inmate is allowed to stay beyond the reasonable time within which he or she could have been charged to court. This has never happened.”

Also, the ACJA stipulates in its section 251, a person attending court as state witness is entitled to payment of such reasonable expenses as may be prescribed.

However, we gather from the DPP, Mr. Osunkwor, that nothing as such has ever been practiced in the State.

“As a result of this, many witnesses fail to appear in court majorly due to financial constraint. That leads to stalled trials particularly in circumstances where such witnesses are critical to the determination of the matters before the court,” Osunkwor laments.

* … Review to the rescue*

But the good news now is that the review has made provision for witnesses support fund as revealed by the Chairman of JSRT, Justice Peter Obiora.

Justice Obiora observes that “Most of the people that are involved in criminal trials are police officers. And these people can be transferred. And so how do you bring him to come and give evidence. So, those are the things we did in terms of Witness Support Fund.”

Commenting on this novel provision, the Civil Society Activist, Somto Stella, believes the delay in criminal proceedings will be addressed when witnesses with financial constraints are assisted to appear in court as and when due.

*… and more testimonies will be given to enable the judge determine the guilt or innocence of the accused*

The immediate past Secretary of Onitsha Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Rapuluchukwu Nduka, describes it as a laudable innovation.

Mr. Nduka notes that “No matter how a person feels about his case, if you don’t have witnesses who can testify to that effect, then it makes no sense. Most of the time, prosecutors give money to the witnesses to come to court.”

It is also heart rendering that despite the existence of ACJL in the state since 2010, the four prisons remain congested, majorly with awaiting trial inmates, many of whom have stayed in prisons longer than they would have been incarcerated, if found guilty of the offences.

Also, the police is accused of not adhering to Section 13 (sub section 2 and 3), which stipulates Video coverage of confessional statements by suspects or such confession should take place in the presence of his relations or a lawyer of his choice.

The former NBA Awka Chairman, Mr. Moneke, also solicits a review in the manner police handle bail.

Mr. Moneke canvasses that “Periodically some magistrates will be detailed to visit police cells. Find out those people who are being detained, who ought to have come to court. There and then, grant them bail without waiting for them to come to court. Because most time, they arrest people and keep them there.”

*… Police reactions*

The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Haruna Mohammed, when contacted, was swift to deny the accusations against the Police, especially as it affects the delay in criminal trials.

The PPRO states that the speed of criminal trials is determined majorly by the court and other institutions or individuals who are involved in the matters and not the Police.

On the video coverage of confessional statements, the PPRO explains that:

“It is not a prerequisite by law that police station must install electronic means of obtaining evidence. It is only part of Administration of Criminal Justice System and one of the means of obtaining evidence from suspects or complainants. And there are so many channels of obtaining evidence through electronic means. Almost all the android phones they have facilities for recording evidence”.

*… The innovations in the reviewed law*

The reviewed ACJL in the state, when operational, is expected to have taken care of some of the gaps noticed in the implementation of the 2010 version.

Chairman of Anambra State Justice Sector Reform Team, Justice Obiora, highlights some of the innovations, saying:

“Interlocutory appeals shall no longer operate as a stay of proceedings of the trial court; magistrate courts conceived as a court of summary trial now have criminal trials lasting for over three years. The new law now provides that trials are timed. A lot of people are afraid to come and give testimony in cases because of risk and harm to their persons. So, the law has made provision for witnesses’ protection. When somebody is a victim of rape or other sexual offences, the defendant will be sent to prison. She doesn’t get anything out of that system. What we have tried to do now is that, in such a situation, the court can award appropriate compensation to the victims of the crime, the same thing for other classes of crime.”

The review is also expected to drastically reduce the number of awaiting trial inmates in various prisons across the state.

Be that as it may, the current NBA Chairman, Awka Branch, Mr. Okonkwo submits that institutional problems must be addressed.

“It is one thing to have a good law and the institutions that will carry out those provisions are not well provided for. Obviously the provisions would not be able to achieve the desired results,” Mr. Okonkwo observes.

The Civil Society Activist, Somto Stella, argued that funding the critical stakeholders in the justice reform sector is of paramount importance.

A unanimous appeal by some of the respondents is for intensive state-wide sensitization of stakeholders in the criminal justice sector and the entire citizenry on the provisions of the law particularly the innovations in the reviewed law.