A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF NIGERIA’S ADMINISTRATION OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE ACT 2015

A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF NIGERIA’S ADMINISTRATION OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE ACT 2015

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 (ACJA) is unmistakably one of the most topical laws in Nigeria presently and it is without doubt due to its wide applicability and revolutionary nature. The law is useful to both lawyers and non-lawyers. It seeks to revise our criminal law and the administration of the criminal justice system in particular. The Act exhibits important features some of which were hitherto unknown to the Nigerian criminal justice system but which are aimed at transforming the tedious and slow dispensation of justice in Nigeria. The salient innovative provisions of the Act discussed below seek to foster transparency in the justice system and the speedy conclusion of criminal trials in Nigeria.
The virtual collapse of the criminal justice system in Nigeria led to the enactment of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act in 2015. In a rather comprehensive manner, the Act has provided for the administration of criminal justice in the courts of the Federal Capital Territory and other federal courts except court martial which has separate rules of procedure. Even though it is a federal enactment, some of the provisions are of general application throughout the country. In particular, arrests and detention of all criminal suspects shall be regulated by the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
The purpose of the Act is to ensure that the system of administration of criminal justice in Nigeria promotes efficient management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice, protection of the society from crime and protection of the rights and interests of the suspect, the defendant and the victim. The Act has 495 sections divided into 49 parts, providing for the administration of criminal justice and for related matters in the courts of the Federal Capital Territory and the Federal High Courts in Nigeria with detailed provisions on arrest, warrants, investigation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, plea bargain, community service, parole, suspended sentence, etc. The Act which came into force on May 13, 2015 is expected to revolutionize the criminal justice system.
With respect to the rights of suspects arrested by the police, Section 6 of the Act provides that except where the suspect is in the actual course of the commission of an offence or is pursued immediately after the commission of an offence or has escaped from lawful custody, the police officer or other persons making the arrest shall inform the suspect immediately of the reason for the arrest and the rights to remain silent or avoid answering questions until after consultation with a legal practitioner or any other person of his/her own choice.
In line with section 34 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which guarantees the fundamental rights of every person to dignity of their person, the Act under Section 5 has prohibited the torture of suspects by law enforcement officials. A suspect may not be handcuffed, bound or be subjected to restraint except:
a) There is reasonable apprehension of violence or an attempt to escape;
b) The restraint is considered necessary for the safety of the suspect or defendant; or
c) By order of a court.
Any default by an officer in charge of a detention facility to comply with the provisions of the Act shall be treated as misconduct and shall be dealt with in accordance with the Police Act.
For Record of arrest under section 28, an officer in charge of a police station or any other detention facility shall on the last working day of every month, report to the nearest magistrate the cases of all suspects arrested without warrant, whether the suspects have been admitted to bail or not. The magistrate shall forward them to the criminal justice monitoring committee which shall analyze the reports and advise the Attorney General of the Federation as to the trends of arrests, bail and related matters. The Attorney General of the Federation shall upon request make the report available to the National Human Rights Commission, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria or a non-governmental organization. The Chief Magistrate shall, at least every month, conduct an inspection of the police stations or other places of detention within his/her territorial jurisdiction other than the prison. An officer in charge of a detention facility shall make the report available to the visiting Chief Magistrate. The High Court Judge having jurisdiction shall visit such detention facilities operated by other federal government agencies authorized to make arrests. This provision is quite commendable as it will ensure a collective check on the activities of law enforcement agencies.
By virtue of Section 111, the Comptroller General of prisons is to make returns every 90 days to the Chief Justice and the Attorney General of Federation of all persons awaiting trial held in custody in the Nigerian prison for a period beyond 180 days from the date of arraignment. Upon the receipt of such returns, the recipient shall take such steps as are necessary to address the issues raised in the return in furtherance of the objectives of the ACJA.
Section 16 provides that there shall be established at the Nigerian police force a central criminal records registry and at every state police command to which shall be transmitted all criminal records. All police commands shall ensure that the decisions of the courts in all criminal records registry within 30days of the judgment are transmitted. The Attorney General of the Federation shall establish an electronic and manual database of all records of arrest at the federal and state levels.
The Act provides for detention pending trial. A suspect arrested for an offence which a magistrate court has no jurisdiction to try shall within a reasonable time of arrest be brought before a High court for remand. An application for remand shall be made ex parte and shall be returnable within 14 days. Where the court after examining the reason for the request for remand is satisfied that there is probable cause to remand the suspect in custody, if a remand order is made the case shall be returnable within 14days in the first instance.
To control the prosecution of criminal cases, the Act provides that; subject to the provisions of Section 174 of the Constitution relating to the powers of prosecution of all offences, an application shall be made ex parte and shall be undertaken by:
a) The Attorney General of the Federation or a law officer in the ministry or department
b) A legal practitioner authorized to prosecute by this Act or any other Act of the National Assembly.
By this provision, the prosecution of federal offences by police officers who are not legal practitioners is no longer permitted.
The provisions of Section 306 and 396 of the Act abolished stay of proceedings in criminal trials which before now was a major reason for the delay in criminal proceedings both at the trial and appellate courts. This revolutionary intervention of the law was occasioned by the unending trials of all classes of persons accused of criminal offences
Section 17 of the ACJA stipulates that where a person is arrested on allegation of having committed an offence, his statement may be taken in the presence of a legal practitioner of his choice, in the presence of an officer of the Legal Aid Council, official of a civil society organization, a justice of the peace or any other person mentioned in this provision but shall not interfere while the suspect is making his statement. The suspect is entitled to consult a lawyer of his/her choice or free legal representation by the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria where applicable. Provided that the detaining authority shall notify the next of kin or relative of the suspect of his/her arrest. Arrest of innocent persons in lieu of suspects or on civil wrongs or breach of contract are prohibited.
To check the prolonged pre-trial detention of suspects by law enforcement agencies, the recording of personal data of a suspect shall be concluded within 48 hours. The Act provides for electronic recording of confessional statement of a suspect on a retrievable video compact disc or such other audio visual means under Section 22. This will eliminate the incidence of trial within trial which is always ordered when a defendant objects to the tendering of confessional statements.
However, while the ACJA is commendable for the innovations and for addressing some fundamental factors militating against the smooth and efficient dispensation of criminal justice in Nigeria, there may be reasons to suggest difficulty in the application of some of its provisions. The electronic recording of confessional statements is aimed at limiting the procurement of involuntary confessional statements from suspects. In practice however, one may not be very convinced that this maybe a full proof method of obtaining confessional statements.
One essential feature of the ACJA is the paradigm shift from punishment as the main goal of criminal justice to restorative justice which pays serious attention to the needs of the society, the victims, vulnerable persons and human dignity generally. The general tone of the Act puts human dignity in the fore, from the adoption of the word defendant instead of accused, to its provision for humane treatment during arrest to its numerous provisions for speedy trial, suspended sentencing, plea bargain, community service, parole, compensation to victims of crime and so on.
However, funding, indiscipline and lack of independence of some key players in the justice system may be major challenges in the administration and dispensation of criminal justice. There may be an immediate need to review the number of appointed judges, training of judges, and welfare package for judicial officers and increased provision of facilities, as otherwise the significance of the new legislation may not be immediately realized. Relevant institutions and their officers who are saddled with the effective implementation of the legislation must also strive towards arriving at the intention of the legislature in providing an avenue for a speedy dispensation and conclusion of criminal trials in Nigeria.
Joy Kaura