Justice under lock: Hunger romances lawyers

Since the lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic in some parts of the country came into effect, administration of justice has suffered a setback. SUNDAY EJIKE writes on the effects of the lockdown on the nation’s judiciary.

FRIDAY, March 27 would remain unforgettable for Brother Mike Egbunu as he is fondly called. Late evening of that fateful day, policemen on routine patrol arrested him after receiving a distress call that some hoodlums were attacking and dispossessing people of their valuables along the Nyanya-Gbagalape road in Abuja.

The hoodlums, on noticing that the police had been notified and might soon swoop on them, took to their heels and Brother Mike, not knowing what had happened, stopped to answer a call on his cell phone. He was still on the phone when the police arrested him with two other young men and put them behind bars at the Nyanya police station.

Just when the police claimed to have finished their investigations and ready to arraign Mike and others in court, President Muhammadu Buhari announced a lockdown order on the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Brother Mike and his co-suspects are still languishing at the police station, unable to be admitted to bail nor could they be arraigned in court because of the lockdown.

Across the country thousands of innocent people are facing the same dilemma Mike and others are facing as the administration of criminal justice in the country has literally been grounded.


Same applies to awaiting trial persons locked up at various correctional centres across the country. Many more Nigerians are being locked up on a daily basis for different reasons without any hope of being tried this year if the backlog of cases slated for court hearing is anything to go by.

For this reason, a civil society organisation, Citizens’ Gavel, has advocated that courts should be exempted from the lockdown order of the Federal Government in order to be able to attend to rising cases of human rights abuses and other sensitive cases.

Alternatively, Citizens Gavel said that Chief Judges of states could designate some courts for arraignment of such cases, noting that the “Closure of the criminal justice system in Nigeria has brought the wheel of justice to a halt.”

The Communication Associate of the organisation, Taiwo Makanjuola, in a statement on Tuesday, asked the Federal Government to review the lockdown and allow the justice system to go on, to guard against a “pandemic of human rights’ abuses.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, had on March 23 directed the suspension of court sittings until further notice in order to protect judges and staff of courts, saying that, “In view of the reality of the COVID-19 in the country and in order to take further preventive steps, all heads of courts are, from March 24, 2020, directed to suspend court sittings for an initial period of two weeks at the first instance, except in matters that are urgent, essential or time-bound according to extant laws.”

The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, on his part, named three justices of the court to handle cases at designated judicial divisions across the six geopolitical zones.

Tsoho, according to a roster made available by the Information Officer of the court, Oby Catherine Nwandu, said while Justice Nkeonye Maha would sit at the  Abuja Judicial Division, Lagos and Port-Harcourt judicial divisions will be manned by Justices Muslim Hassan and H.I.O. Oshomah respectively.

The Federal Government, also adding its own weight to the decongestion policy on April 9, 2020, announced presidential pardon for over 2,600 inmates across the country. The Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), while freeing 70 inmates at the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja, said the directive was part of the United Nations recommendation to the Federal Government.

It was necessary to take these steps because according to legal practitioners, it takes two years on the average to determine a regular civil case in Nigerian courts. For example in the 2018/2019 legal year, the FCT High Court only disposed of 13,961 cases out of 30,582 cases, which is about 45 per cent disposal rate.

Even the case involving Abdulrasheed Maina, former chairman of the defunct Pension Reform Task Force before Justice Okon Abang of a Federal High Court, Abuja, is now stuck like many others due to the pandemic as court could not sit, meaning that his bail application will have to stay longer than necessary before gaining temporal freedom while his trial goes on.

A lawyer, Simon Onuh told Sunday Tribune that although due to social distancing measures, there would be reduction of civil cases in the year as there could be absence of conflicts which result in litigations. He also said commercial litigations and criminal cases would increase due to loan defaults and breaches in contractual obligations, hunger among the poor and gaps in policing respectively.

“There will be hunger for lawyers. This is because it is when they go to court that they get money. If they don’t go to court, how will they get money? So, that is the problem,” he said.

He said due to the many vacations still to be embarked on by the court and the workload on the judges, many of the cases in courts nationwide may be moved to next year.

Another lawyer, Richard Ebie is of the opinion that the courts ought not to have been completely shut because of the many pending and urgent cases.

“They should have allowed the courts to continue to sit with only litigants and counsel in attendance. Now, there are a lot of cases that need urgent attention and they are not being attended to.

“There are people in detention and awaiting trial and their cases are kept in abeyance while they languish in jail. In our office, we have clients that were granted bail just before the lockdown, now they cannot perfect their bail because the courts are shut down. Till date, they are still in detention. The situation is very bad. The courts should be partially reopened to attend to these critical cases,” he added.

To cushion the effect of the lockdown on the nation’s judiciary and cases pending in courts, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, had penultimate week rolled out what he called “Plans for Post COVID-19 Justice System”, where he stated that the Nigerian justice sector is obviously not immune from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Malami said his office would work with the judiciary at the federal and the state levels to arrive at a workable mechanism for achieving the recovery of lost grounds caused by the lockdown within the shortest time possible.

The minister said persons awaiting trial on minor criminal charges should be discharged, especially in cases where adjournments have been at the instance of the prosecution.

Already, no fewer than 20 violators of the lockdown order had been convicted in Abuja by the mobile courts set up by FCT to punish offenders. Some of the violators were fined between N2,000 and N5,000, while those whose vehicles were impounded were asked to come for it after the lockdown is lifted.

 

Fast-tracking justice

CJN, judges, Kwara
Justice Tanko Muhammad, CJN

In Kwara State, dispensation of justice has also taken a new dimension. For now light crimes would be tried by the magistrates’ or mobile courts after police arrest while offenders would be made to do community service upon conviction. However, cases pending in courts would have to wait until the end of the lockdown period.

However, the Police Public Relations Officer PPRO, Kwara State command, Ajayi Okasanmi, DSP, says there is a working arrangement between the police and the state ministry of justice on treatment of cases during the lockdown period.

“We’ve deployed our men in business areas in the state because we realized that hoodlums and criminals may want to use the lockdown period to carry out their criminal activities. We are on day and night monitoring of activities while patrol of parts of the state is also ongoing.

“So, when we make arrest of serious criminals unlike petty ones, there’s a kind of arrangement with the state Ministry of Justice to have special court sessions. It will now be in camera. We will only have the court and the police without the presence of many people as in normal court session. If it’s the case of little offences like that of flouting of lockdown order, the magistrate or the mobile court dispense justice while the staff of the correctional services handle the situation with non-custodial punishment,” he said.

In Ekiti State, Wednesdays alone have been set aside to address serious cases such as rape and murder. According to the Ekiti State police commissioner, Mr Amba Asuquo, various mechanisms are being deployed to resolve disputes between warring parties to avoid placing people under detention.

“We ensure people are released as much possible after meeting the conditions. We are not just keeping people in our custody now. In our command, we are now engaging people more in using alternative of dispute resolution in ending most issues brought to our offices. We explain to people the need to resolve their differences without recourse to the police,” he explained.

 

Decongestion of police cells

In Plateau State, the police are also decongesting their cells. Thus, many hitherto detained persons have been released to their relations or sureties who will provide them for prosecution after the lockdown while those with capital offences like terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery and other crimes are still in determination pending when they would appear in court.

Barrister Goerge Izere, a legal practitioner, said “decongestion of police cells across the country is long overdue. What the police are doing now is a welcome development in view of the pandemic starring us in the face. All those given administrative bail or release from cells are not set free, they will be recalled at appropriate time and if need be charged to court. They are still suspects.”

Another lawyer, Sule Kwasau also said the judiciary and police took a wise decision (decongestion) and that “If this is not done it could spell doom for the country if one infected person is detained. The release of those with bailable offence is a welcome development, what the police are doing is not novelty because when things stabilise, all those granted bail can be brought back to face the charges against them.”

 

—Additional stories by BIOLA AZEEZ, ’YOMI AYELESO and ISAAC SHOBAYO.

 

 

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