Enugu State: One step ahead on administration of Criminal Justice Act

By The Citizen

By Emeka Onah
The Executive Council of the Enugu State government has approved the domestication of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, which was passed by the National Assembly in 2015. This represents one bold step that can be expected to set the pace for domestication of the Act across all the states of the federation.

The move is in furtherance of one of the key elements of the 4-point agenda of Hon Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, governor of Enugu State, which is enhancing security and justice in the state. The state house of assembly is by the approval expected to pass the bill into law, making all the provisions of the Federal Act applicable within Enugu State.

The Act, which is applicable in the courts of the federal capital territory and other federal courts, does not make all its provisions of general applicability in the states of the federation. Yet, it represents a piece of good work in terms of the comprehensive manner in which it has provided for the administration of criminal justice, clearly defining the rights of citizens and bounds for the police and other law enforcement agents while enforcing the law.

The details of the Act have addressed the knotty issues in police arrests and detention of suspects. It is therefore not surprising that the Enugu State government, which has security and justice as a major point in its agenda, should be the early bird to discover and embrace this piece of legal nicety. For instance, arrests and detention of all criminal suspects are regulated by the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. It can be expected that in no time every state of the federation will follow the Enugu State example.

The Act which came into force on May 13, 2015 is expected to revolutionise the criminal justice system and this change needs to happen across all the states of the federation. In his detailed explanation of the provisions of the Act, Femi Falana said the purpose is to ensure that the system of administration of criminal justice in Nigeria ensures efficient management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice and protection of the citizens from crime. Other objectives include protection of the rights and interests of suspects, the defendant and the victim. The Act has made detailed provisions on arrest warrants, investigation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, plea bargain, community service, parole, suspended sentence, etc.

In view of the priority that Ugwuanyi is giving to security and justice under his administration, he has earlier specified a two-pronged approach for accomplishing it. One is the provision of equipment and logistics to make security operatives more effective. The second is the implementation of youth programmes and activities that will engage them in productive and responsible lifestyles.

The Enugu governor is now adding a third leg to his security and justice design for the state, which is the domestication of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. If the bill is eventually passed into law by the Enugu State House of Assembly, it means that any resident wrongly arrested may sue the police or police officer personally.

Unlike in the past when suspects were treated anyhow by the law enforcement agents, the Act has now clearly defined the rights of suspects arrested by the police. Under the law, the police officer or other persons making the arrest shall inform the suspect immediately of the reason for the arrest and at the same time informing him/her of his/her rights to remain silent or refuse answering any questions until after consultation with his/her lawyers or any other person of his/her own choice.

This means a suspect is entitled to consult his/her lawyer and also has access to free legal representation by the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria where applicable. The detaining authority is required to notify the next of kin or relative of the suspect of his/her arrest and arrests of innocent persons in lieu of suspects or on a civil wrong or breach of contract are completely prohibited under the Act. The only exception to the rule however is when a suspect is cut 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.

If the bill is enacted in Enugu State, any citizen of the state arrested as a suspect can insist to make his/her statement only in the presence of the lawyer or in the presence of any other person of choice. The recording of personal data of such a suspect must be concluded within 48 hours. This is meant to check the prolonged pre-trial detention of suspects by law enforcement agencies.

The form of recording a confessional statement of a suspect is spelt out in the Act, which should be by electronic recording on a retrievable video compact disc or such other audio-visual means. This provision is to eliminate the incidence of trial within trial which is always ordered when a defendant objects to the tendering of confessional statements.

The Act is in line with the constitution in guaranteeing the fundamental rights of every person to dignity of their person and has prohibited the torture of suspects by law enforcement officials. A suspect is not expected to be handcuffed, bound or be subjected to restraint except when there is a reasonable apprehension of violence or an attempt to escape,  need for safety of the suspect or defendant or there is a court order to that effect. The Act treats as misconduct any default by an officer-in-charge of a detention facility to comply with its provisions, which shall be dealt with in accordance with the Police Act.

The Enugu State Executive Council is already moving in the direction of the Act by mandating the State Commissioner of Police to send quarterly report of all police arrests in its register to the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, who will keep the manual and electronic data base on information on arrests from the police. This is in line with the records of arrests specified under the Act.

The Act requires that such a report be made on the last working day of every month, which should be submitted to the nearest Magistrate. The report is expected to contain the cases of all suspects arrested without warrant whether the suspects have been admitted to bail or not.

The Magistrate is required under the law to forward the report to the Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee for analysis and then advise the Attorney-General of the Federation as to the trends of arrests, bail and related matters. The Attorney General of the Federation is under duty to make the report available to the National Human Rights Commission, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria or a non-governmental organisation.

The Chief Magistrate is under obligation to conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within his/her territorial jurisdiction at least every month. An officer in charge of a detention facility is required to make the report available to the visiting Chief Magistrate. Also the High Court judge, having jurisdiction, is required to visit such detention facilities operated by other Federal Government agencies authorised to make arrests.

Responsibilities under the Act extend also to the Comptroller-General of Prisons, who is required to make returns every 90 days to the head of the court in which the prison is situated and to the Attorney General of the Federation of all persons awaiting trial held in custody in Nigerian prisons for a period beyond 180 days from the date of arraignment.

It is apparent that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act has brought in sanity where disorderliness prevailed in matters of enforcement of security and justice. For investor conscious states such as Enugu, it can be expected that the domestication of this law will boost its attractiveness to the investment community and enhance the inflow of both local and foreign investments. This is yet another feather of honour added to Ugwuanyi, who is ably moving his state to a higher ground against the downward trend in the economy.

Onah, a public affairs commentator writes from Abuja.