The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 (2)
TRIALS shall be held in the High Court on information filed: (a) by the Attorney-General of the Federation or by the Attorney General of the State or a law officer in the ministry of justice; (c) by a Legal Officer of any prosecuting agency; (d) by a private prosecutor; or (e) summarily. Trials shall be held in the Magistrate Court or any other court or tribunal exercising criminal jurisdiction in accordance with the provisions of this Act relating to summary trials. Where a defendant charged before the court is not represented by a legal practitioner, the court shall: inform him/her of the rights to a legal practitioner of his/her choice; and or a legal practitioner engaged for him by way of legal aid.
To ensure speedy trial, objections shall not be taken or entertained during proceedings or trial on the ground of an imperfect or erroneous charge. After the plea has been taken, any objection against the charge raised by the defendant shall only be considered along with the substantive issues and a ruling thereon made at the time of delivery of judgment. Upon arraignment, the trial of the defendant shall proceed from day-to-day until the conclusion of the trial.
Where day-to-day trial is impracticable after arraignment, no party shall be entitled to more than five adjournments from arraignment to final judgment provided that the interval between each adjournment shall not exceed 14 working days. Where it is impracticable to conclude a criminal proceeding after the parties have exhausted their five adjournments each, the interval between one adjournment to another shall not exceed seven days inclusive of weekends. In all circumstances, the court may award reasonable costs in order to discourage frivolous adjournments.
Defendants are at liberty to file interlocutory appeals if they so desire but an application for stay of proceedings pending appeal will not be taken during the trial. No party is allowed to amend processes for more than five times during trial. The elevation of a High Court Judge to the Court of Appeal will no longer delay criminal trial as the Judge shall have dispensation to continue to sit in the lower court only for the purpose of concluding any part-heard criminal matter pending before him/her at the time of the elevation and shall conclude the same within a reasonable time.
Payment of costs, compensation damages and restitution to victims of crimes
The Act has made provisions for costs, compensation, damages and restitution. A court may, within the proceedings or while passing judgment, order the defendant or convict to pay a sum of money: as compensation to any person injured by the offence, irrespective of any other fine or other punishment that may be imposed by law, where substantial compensation is in the opinion of the court recoverable by civil suit. In compensating a bona fide purchaser for value without notice of the defect of the title in any property in respect of which the offence was committed and has been compelled to give it up; and in defraying expenses incurred on medical treatment of a victim injured by the convict in connection with the offence.
Under the Act, the prosecution may enter into plea bargain with the defendant, with the consent of the victim during or after the presentation of the evidence of the prosecution, but before the presentation of the evidence of the defence. Plea bargain may be allowed if the evidence of the prosecution is insufficient to prove the offence charged beyond reasonable doubt; where the defendant has agreed to return the proceeds of the crime or make restitution to the victim or his representative; or where the defendant, in a case of conspiracy, has fully cooperated with the investigation and prosecution of the crime by providing relevant information for the successful prosecution of other offenders.
Imprisonment and death sentence
If a defendant is convicted, the court shall impose the penalty prescribed by law for the offence depending on the circumstances of the case. Any convict who is sentenced to death may apply for prerogative of mercy. The Prerogative of Mercy Committee shall review the application and make appropriate recommendation to the President. If the plea for clemency is rejected the sentence of death shall be executed by hanging the convict by the neck or by lethal injection. The Act has also made provisions for non-custodial alternatives including probation, parole, suspended sentence, performance of community service, etc.
Where a defendant is charged before a court and the charge is proved, the court may decide not to convict the defendant having regard to: (a) the character, antecedents, age, health, or mental condition of the defendant, (b) the trivial nature of the offence, or (c) the extenuating circumstances under which the offence was committed. In the circumstance, the court may dismiss the charge or discharge the defendant conditionally on his entering into a recognizance to be of good behaviour and to appear at any time within three years as may be specified in the order. The court may, in addition, make order for the defendant to pay damages for injury or compensation to the victim of the crime and such costs of the proceedings as the court thinks reasonable.
Notwithstanding the provision of any law creating an offence, where the court sees reason, the court may order that the sentence it imposed on the convict be, with or without conditions, suspended, in which case, the convict shall not be required to serve the sentence in accordance with the conditions of the suspension. The court may, with or without conditions, sentence the convict to perform specified service in his/her community or such community or place as the court may direct. A convict shall not be sentenced to suspended sentence or to community service for an offence involving the use of arms, offensive weapon, sexual offences or for an offence which the punishment exceeds imprisonment for a term of three years.
Where the Comptroller-General of Prisons recommends to the court that a prisoner: (a) sentenced and serving sentence in prison is of good behaviour, and (b) has served at least one-third of the prison term of at least 15 years or life imprisonment, the court may, after hearing the prosecution and the prisoner or legal representative, order that the remaining term of the imprisonment be suspended, with or without conditions, as the court considers fit, and the prisoner shall be released from prison on the order. A prisoner who is so released shall undergo a rehabilitation programme in a government facility or any other appropriate facility to enable him to be properly reintegrated to the society.
No doubt, the AJCA is a timely intervention in the criminal justice sector in Nigeria. If implemented, the Act will redeem the criminal justice from the tiny grip of rich and powerful criminal suspects and assist the anti graft agencies in the prosecution of corruption cases. But it is doubtful if the implementation of the new law will not be frustrated by the forces that have made a mockery of Section 36 of the Constitution, Section 40 of the EFCC Act and the 2013 practice directions of the federal courts which provide for the expeditious trial of criminal cases. The Federal Government which is desirous to prosecute cases of economic and financial crimes should take advantage of the provisions of the AJCA.
In particular, the Federal Government should provide adequate funding for the criminal justice sector. Setting up and maintaining a central criminal records registry, rehabilitation centre for ex-convicts, compiling electronic and manual database of criminal records and video-recording of the statements of criminal suspects, visiting of detention facilities by magistrates and judges, etc require sufficient funding. The Administration of Justice Monitoring Committee should be encouraged to conduct enlightenment programmes for members of the Nigeria Police Force and other law enforcement agencies on the basic rights of suspects guaranteed by the law.
From time to time, the human rights community and the media should promote civic education with respect to the relevant provisions of the AJCA. They should ensure that the rights of suspects in detention facilities and prison inmates are recognised and respected by the police and other law enforcement agencies. Apart from the Lagos, Ekiti and Anambra states which have amended their criminal procedure laws before the Federal Government, other state governments are enjoined to adopt the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015. Such adoption will ensure uniformity in the criminal justice system in the country.
• Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) wrote from Lagos.