AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers have expressed opposition to the recent call by President Muhammadu Buhari for the establishment of special courts to handle corruption cases. The lawyers said such arrangement will ultimately become a ‘wild goose chase’ that will be of no benefit to the nation
Lawyers: Special courts’ll compound judiciary’s woes
The recent call by President Muhammadu Buhari for the establishment of special courts to handle corruption cases has come under criticism by some senior lawyers.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend expressed fears that the independence and impartiality of the court would be eroded with the establishment of special courts for corruption cases.
President Muhammadu Buhari had during an interview session on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) emphasized the need for the establishment of special courts in the nation’s judiciary system.
He said having such courts in existence will not only strengthen the fight against corruption but also hasten dispensation of justice.
The president while noting with dismay that the judicial system being practiced in the country which was inherited during the colonial era allows justice to be delayed and eventually denied, insisted that there is a need for special courts so that corrupt minded individuals can be charged before the court and be properly dealt with in accordance with the law.
He said: “Yes, we need them to save time and to convince Nigerians that we are serious because if you follow the legal system we inherited from our colonial masters, cases takes five, ten years and people forget. “But if you have special courts you will bring charges immediately. People are put before that court, they will come and defend themselves.
“But if we go through the system especially if they still have some savings some where they can get false claims, lawyers will come to defend them and the case will drag until maybe either the judge dies or the committee got tired. They get back to their normal life.
“Special courts are important in cases of corruption so that riot act would be properly read to the public, that anybody who finds himself in a place of misappropriation and misbehave will account for it. We should not wait until people died and go before God”.
This is not the first time the president will be speaking on the establishment of special courts for corruption cases. He had also in 2019 called on the Senate to expedite action on the passage of the Special Crimes Court Bill still pending before lawmakers at the Red Chambers.
President Buhari while speaking at a national summit put together by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation on ‘‘Diminishing Corruption in the Public Service’’, at the nation’s capital, emphasized the need for a speedy passage of the Bill for the establishment of special courts to handle graft cases.
He called on the judiciary to embrace and support the creation of Special Crimes Court saying the passage of the Bill was a ‘‘specific priority’’ of his administration’s Economic Recovery & Growth Plan 2017-2020. His words: “The fight against corruption is of course not only for government and anti-corruption agencies alone. All arms and tiers of government must develop and implement the anti-corruption measures.
‘‘I invite the legislative and judicial arms of government to embrace and support the creation of Special Crimes Court that Nigerians have been agitating for to handle corruption cases.
‘The war against corruption cannot be won without prevention, enforcement, public education and enlightenment. I encourage the ICPC and other law enforcement agencies to intensify their efforts in public education, enlightenment and engagement with citizens.
I also urge our development partners, civil society organizations, and the media to continue to support our efforts to strengthen ethical values and integrity in Nigeria”.
In the meantime, some senior lawyers were not comfortable with the president’s push for the creation of special courts to handle corruption cases. They opined that the existing economic situation of the country could not support the cost implications of such projects.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Ifedayo Adedipe, said independence and impartiality of the court would be eroded with the establishment of special courts for graft cases. He said: “Well, in recent times, there have been public outcry against the judiciary.
This was fuelled in part by lack of proper appreciation of how the judiciary itself works. It should be constantly borne in mind that we take our bearing from the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
That Constitution provides that the court established for the purpose of adjudication shall be impartial and independent. “In other words, you do not create the court for a particular set of people. You do not give the impression that some people asked for their own court and you are given them.
There has been some disquiet over the way the requests for courts to handle corruption cases have been made. I appreciate the concern of government and the agencies saddled with the investigation and trial of corruption cases. But, when an impression is given that an agency of government has its own judges, then, we are treading a dangerous path.
“This is because, in essence, those are court expected to do their biddings. The independence and impartiality of the court would appear eroded. So, we have to be careful here. Elsewhere, you have divisions of courts dealing with specific subject matter.
If that is what they are thinking about, I have no problem. For instance, at the High Court, we have family, commercial, probates divisions and the like. So, if the courts are called criminal division, I have no problem with that. “But, when you create the court for only a particular class of government agency to treat cases they bring, it is quite open to interpretations, as to whether or not when someone is taking there, he will be found guilty willy-nilly.
Though that may not be the intention, but we have to be careful here. “In the recent past, whenever any court decides a case and it goes against the mindset of the prosecuting agencies, the comments from those agencies would appear to have been most unfortunate.
That is when you will hear comments like the judiciary is not helping us and all sort of things. But, how do you expect the judiciary to help you when your facts are not sufficient to secure conviction? You are not expected to just take somebody to court and your claims will be rubber stamped.
“There is a way the court system works and if you are not satisfied with any verdict, you can go on appeal. But, of late, I have read some disparaging comments about the judiciary coming from some government officials and I think this should not be encouraged in whatever form”. Another silk, Chief Emeka Okpoko, expressed fears that judges who are to man the planned special courts would be open to manipulations.
“For me, I don’t believe there’s any need for the establishment of any special court to handle corruption cases. This is because corruption is a criminal offence and it comes within the auspices of criminal law. Even, there are judges handling criminal cases everyday.
“The danger in creating a special court for corruption and designating it as same is that over time and if care is not taken, the judges who are placed there may go into another thing entirely. “This means they would be easily known and earmarked. This may create the opportunity for people to easily reach them and this may influenced their decisions on cases.
“We all know that the beauty of judicial process is that when a case is filed, or a criminal charge is filed, the parties concern will be in the dark as to which judge will handle the case. It is always difficult for any of them to pre-determined the judge who will preside over the case. “This is part of the beauty of judicial adjudication because it enhances neutrality, confidence and impartiality.
These qualities will no longer be there by the time criminal cases are restricted to few hands and this will negatively impacted on the administration of justice. “The law with regards to proceedings in criminal cases have been improved upon by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA).
Certainly, we can continue to improve on the law but for us to say we want to create special courts for corruption cases, I will never subscribe to that”, the silk said. To Mr. Olukayode Enitan (SAN), civil and commercial cases will suffer neglect with the creation of special courts for corruption cases. He said: “I do not share that sentiment although there are many who are of that persuasion.
When these special courts are created, who will be the judges, are they going to be sourced from the existing pool of judges in the first tier of the judicial ladder, that is, High Courts? If it is the existing crop of judges that will be assigned to those courts, what we will have is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“Whilst now, there is congestion and delay in trial of all cases with the criminal matters relating to corruption getting some preferential treatment, what would then exist would be a total near abandonment of the Civil and Commercial Courts as the judges who are assigned to those special courts would henceforth not do any civil or commercial matters.
“This would have its attendant negative effect and further exacerbate the challenges on the civil and commercial life of the nation.
If new judges are to be appointed to anchor the special corruption courts, it would then mean that government agrees that the problem of delay in corruption cases and other cases as well, is attributable to nothing but a dearth of judges.
This also sends a signal that government is deliberately starving the judiciary of needed adjudicatory personnel but is willing to make exceptions when it serves its purposes. “I would rather recommend that more judges be appointed to the High Courts in the States and FCT and also more justices be appointed to the Court of Appeal whilst the Supreme Court should be enhanced to have it constitutional full complement of justices.
This will make for well rounded judges who are able to deal with all manner of cases whether Civil, Commercial or Criminal, regardless of whether the criminal case is corruption related or otherwise”.
Mr. Olalekan Ojo (SAN) also disagreed with the president on the creation of Special Courts for corruption cases, saying favourable legal frameworks in aid of speedy conclusion of criminal cases are already in existence.
“We do not need any special crimes court in Nigeria. Already, there are some courts that have been administratively designated as EFCC and ICPC courts.
“Besides, we already have a most favourable legislative framework to ensure a speedy dispensation of justice in Nigeria. Indeed, the problem with the criminal justice system in this country has nothing to do with the existing legal framework. Rather, it has to do with the lawyers, either as defence or prosecutors, the judges as well as the prosecuting agencies.
“As far as the investigative agencies are concerned, I believed that if investigations are thoroughly and professionally carried out, while the law is fully complied with as to what a criminal defendant is entitled to, proceedings will not be hampered in any way. No time will be wasted even on trial -within-trial.
“Furthermore, where it can be shown that a lawyer has come up with a frivolous application for the purpose of delaying the expeditious hearing of a criminal case, judges should make necessary orders that such lawyers should be reported to the disciplinary committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) for disciplinary action. I believe this will surely serve as deterrent to others.
“Besides, when we have judges that are conveniently knowledgeable in criminal cases, even where objections are raised by lawyers, they will do a Bench ruling on such objections. But, a situation where on a very small point of law, the case has to be adjourned for weeks, it will be stalled. It all boils down to how speedily the judges can dispense criminal justice.
“According to Lord Dennis, no matter how good the laws of a country are, they will still have to be administered by judges in the country. It is their abilities to administer these laws that will lead to speedy dispensation of justice.
“I also want to emphasize the need for us to have special defence attorneys. People like this will not engage in wasting of precious judicial time because they know how to handle their cases efficiently”, the silk said.
A former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mazi Afam Osigwe (SAN) want government to focus more on how to improve the existing courts’ structure rather than pursuing creation of special courts for graft cases.
He said: “I have always been of the opinion that there’s no need for any special court, rather we need to make our court system work better. We need to make our lawyers and prosecutors to follow cases through so that there was no delay. Cases must also be properly investigated before they are brought to court.
“Having a special court will serve no purpose. It will be a waste of time because when it is created, we will not see any difference between it and the regular court. The Federal High Court started as a revenue court.
Today, it is a multi-jurisdictional court. For how long are we going to continue to have special court? “With successive budgets that have been funded with loans and have operated as deficits, have we put the cost of establishing these special courts, the infrastructure as well as the payments of personnel into consideration?
I don’t think we can afford the establishment of any special court with the state of our economy. “So, as far as I am concerned, we don’t need any special court whether by whatever name it is called.
What we need is a court system that works and a justice system that ensures that justice goes to the society, the accused and the complainant. We must address our problems holistically and not by creating any special court”.