◊ Experts offer solutions to prosecutors’ challenges in high profile trials

◊ Experts offer solutions to prosecutors’ challenges in high profile trials

At a virtual conference held on February 11, 2021 by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (CSCL) law experts, drawn from the Bench, the Bar and the academia, examined the many challenges confronting prosecutors in high profile corruption cases in the era of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 and suggested ways to address them. Eric Ikhilae reports

 

The introduction of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) in 2015 has, undoubtedly, contributed appreciably to strengthening the nation’s criminal justice system. In specific terms, it has aided in curbing delay in criminal trials, particularly those involving high profile and politically exposed defendants.

However, in recent time, the many gains that came with the ACJA are increasingly being threatened by factors, which include court pronouncements that are blamed on certain identified inadequacies inherent in some provisions of the law; increasing scheming by high profile and politically exposed defendants and their counsel, aided by a questionable political culture that allows a defendant to retain his political office while standing trial; among others.

The need for a concerted effort by stakeholders to address this challenge by promptly removing identified loopholes being exploited by those, who are opposed to the existence of an effective criminal justice system in the country, informed a recent virtual conference, with the theme: “Challenges facing prosecutors of high profile corruption cases.” It was put together by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (CSLS), with the support of the MacArthur Foundation.

Speakers, including Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), CSLS’ President, Professor Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN), Africa Director, MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Kole Shettima, among others, stressed the need to urgently address the identified challenges experienced by prosecutors to ensure the nation’s criminal justice system functions effectively.

The challenges were categorised into two baskets. First, are those resulting from the attitude and decisions of the prosecutors, while the second were identified as those challenges occasioned by factors outside the control of the prosecutors.

Some of the challenges

Some challenges identified as those caused by prosecutors themselves include the filing of multiple charges on similar facts, persistent amendment to charges and filing of charges with multiple counts, with inadequate evidence to secure conviction.

Those outside the control of the prosecutors include the grant of long adjournments due to ill- health of either the defendant, the judge or the defence lawyer; the conduct of trial-within-trial, which takes years to be resolved; witness tampering by agents of the defendants, and the grant of leave high profile defendants to travel abroad for medical treatment.

Speakers also identified legal barriers to criminal prosecution, such as immunity under Section 308 of the Constitution and other legal provisions. There is also the growing trend among some judges, who exhibit hostility towards prosecutors for reasons suggesting sympathy for the defence at the expense of the state.

Suggested solutions

Speakers were unanimous that there was the need to address the many identified flaws inherent in the ACJA, including Section 396 (7) of ACJA, which authorised elevated High Court judges to return briefly to conclude their part-heard cases at the trial court, which the Supreme Court has voided in its decision in the Udeogu VS FRN & ors case.

On his part, Prof. Akinseye-George suggested that, when the opportunity presents itself, the Supreme Court should reverse its decision in the Udeogu VS FRN & ors case on the grounds that it “is already causing serious confusion in the criminal justice system.”

Justice Banjoko however, has a different opinion. She suggested that, in view of the Supreme Court’s decision, Udeogu VS FRN & ors case, the National Assembly should urgently effect amendments to sections 239 (1) and 240 of the Constitution to expand the original jurisdiction of the appellate Justices in compliance also, with the Judicial Oath in the Seventh Schedule of the constitution.

As a way of curbing the delay caused by trial-within-trial, Justice Banjoko suggested the need for investigative agencies to develop ways of deploying modern techniques in the form of audio/visual technologies to obtain statements from suspects, in addition to pen and paper.

She equally suggested the need for more training for investigators and prosecutors, particularly in the areas of collaboration, for them to always realise that they must work hand in hand and be patient in securing evidence in line with what are the elements of the offence.

Justice Banjoko spoke about the need to consider an arrangement that allows the engagement of retired judges in decongesting the backlog of cases before the court, and also, the introduction of part-time judges, who should be chosen from among existing Senior Advocates, to decongest the courts.

She added: “The constitution should be amended to include a provision that a defendant facing weighty criminal charges should not be allowed to continue or aspire to hold public office until the determination of the substantive trials and appeals. This will ensure the absence of delaying tactics and aid effective disposition of the cases.

“There should be intense training on the ACJA as well as the relevant practice direction of each court so that the provided rules are complied with, such as pre-trial conference, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, plea bargain etc. This training should not be exclusive to the prosecution alone but useful for all stakeholders’’. Prof. Akinseye-George disclosed that the CSLS was currently working an improved draft of the ACJA to correct some noticeable flaws in the Act, adding that another way to strengthen the system was to amend the enabling laws of the prosecuting agencies to guarantee the independence of the agencies from undue political interference.

He also stressed the need to strengthen the other agencies of criminal justice administration, such as the investigators and courts, without which the work of the prosecutors cannot be successfully carried out.

Prof. Akinseye-George equally stressed the need to amend enabling laws of the prosecuting agencies and the constitution to allow  such prosecuting agencies retain a minimum of 10 percent of all the recovered proceeds of crime, which can then be channelled into capacity building, witness protection, technology acquisition and other pressing needs of the agencies.

He suggested the  need to establish  and implement national minimum standards for the implementation of the ACJA on the basis of which prosecutors and other agencies of criminal justice administration can be evaluated and assessed periodically.

 

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