Justice Olusola Williams (Rtd) served as a judge in the Lagos State Judiciary for 18 years. In this interview with JOHN CHIKEZIE, the retired jurist speaks on her greatest challenge on the Bench, delay in criminal trials and sundry issues
What is your take on claims that judges and magistrates have not been implementing the provisions of alternative custodial sentencing and speedy trial as contained in the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL)?
When you are talking about alternative custodial sentencing, that is already a quantum leap because we cannot talk about sentencing if there was no trial.
All I am saying is that if a trial delays, how would anyone be talking about sentencing or verdict, that is simply a quantum leap. One of the things I’ll say about custodial sentencing is that it is only in our courts in Nigeria that we have lofty ideas with no plans of implementation.
If we must adhere to custodial sentencing, then we must have a proper structure of how these things would be enforced. Therefore, you cannot make provisions in the air without any form of enforcement and that is the reason, I presume, most judges and magistrates are not complying.
Before we get to the issue of sentencing, there are other factors that must be recognized which include; investigation, the trial process and the police. Looking at the issue of investigation, we have to recognise that the court can only give verdict on a matter based on the evidence presented before it.
The court doesn’t create its own evidence neither does it investigate. So, it’s one thing to investigate a matter and another thing to back it up with proper evidence. It’s one thing to say someone is guilty of a crime simply because you caught the person red-handed in the act. But, the presiding judge or magistrate is not in your mind to know the facts neither can he or she give evidence on your account.
The law simply puts that before a verdict or judgement is reached, it means the matter has to be proven beyond all reasonable doubts. So, when there is no investigation and proper evidence, what is the court supposed to do? We really have a very big issue with investigations which is already being undermined by the police, may be it’s because they are underpaid.
But, I remember when I was in the criminal division, I made this comment that criminals in Nigeria are so wonderful, especially with the way they confess to crimes immediately the get to police stations. Just because a judge made a pronouncement one day that admission of a crime is also a justified form of evidence, the police jumped on that and began extracting admissions and confessions as they fit.
But you cannot have a confession that doesn’t make sense, somebody confessing when he or she doesn’t even know what their offences or charges are.
This is the reason the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL) made that provision of (video) recording confessions when they are being made. But where are the infrastructures or the equipments, like video players, to implement this particular provision?
My last assignment was as a judge at the Special offences Court, and since that year 2019, the Lagos State government provided and equipped the courts with gadgets like the use of projectors and all that. But before that time we never had any of those. This was basically done particularly for the Special offences Court and not in other criminal courts.
What I’m saying is that there are no infrastructures on ground. Therefore, we cannot come and say that judges and magistrates are reluctant to implement or adhere to the ACJL.
There are simply no adequate provisions made to enable efficient implementation. We cannot just have lofty ideas in the air and provisions that cannot be implemented. We don’t have any infrastructure, no regulations on ground for the implementation.
What are the challenges evident in criminal trials that contributes to prolonged cases?
Now, in the entirety of a trial process, the police are another problem. Just like somebody would say that there are many players involved, but I would prefer to call them stakeholders in the justice system. People are always talking about how judges and lawyers are always the major causes of these delays but no one is talking about witnesses who don’t come to court over one reason or the other.
Nobody is talking about witnesses who are paid before coming to court or the fact that for witnesses to come to court, often times it is difficult for them to pay for their transportation. There are so many things involved. There is no witness protection in Nigeria and so, people are often afraid to testify.
So, it is basically an implementation and infrastructural problem rather than pointing it to a particular stakeholder. Now considering our federal system of government; imagine a situation where a police officer, who investigated a case and is already testifying in court, gets transfered to a new station or different state entirely.
Now the court gives a date for the police officer to complete his testimony, only to be informed that the officer (witness) has been transfered outside that jurisdiction. Meanwhile, getting that officer to come back to court becomes a huge challenge because most times, his colleagues cannot even give a precise detail of his whereabout or newly assigned post.
So, that police officer’s absence automatically stalls the trial. What I’m saying is that judges and lawyers cannot always be the cause of delayed trials. Now, I’m not saying this to exclude them, but then, if there is a bad judge and a good system, then that judge would be immediately exposed and dealt with.
But we cannot hide other problems that we have, that would only compound it. However, the issue of witness protection is a big issue that must be tackled and resolved. I have had an unpleasant experience regarding this.
There is a sister in-law of mine who was attacked by armed robbers and then she was asked to come to the police station for identification.
But she was scared to go and so I had to accompany her. What I saw there scared me further because it was just an unpleasant lineup of people (suspects) and my sister in-law was asked to walk in front of them. These suspects stood less than a meter apart from her. And I was so displeased with that type of routine for identification.
What is your take on the parade of suspects by the police before arraignment in court?
I think that parading of suspects by police is meaningless. I watched a video clip on WhatsApp recently and I was so infuriated by such recording. In the video recording, it was as though the police were making a presentation or giving out awards to the alleged bandits. Those people (suspects) sat down in front of an armoury of guns and bullets, wearing a face mask.
They were asked to get up, remove their mask and answer to their names once it’s called. It was as though they wanted to issue them an award. This is so wrong. You cannot have people you haven’t taken to court being paraded in the open.
There is a big problem with investigation and lack of forensics. No matter what you bring before a court and no matter how much time you take, it’s the evidence before the court that justifies the verdict. I once presided over this criminal charge of murder. The defendant was standing trial for killing someone with a weapon. And guess what, this weapon was a fluorescent tube.
Please how do you murder someone with a fluorescent tube? As if that wasn’t bad enough, when we asked the prosecutors to produce the evidence, they presented shattered pieces of fluorescent. You can imagine the weight of the charge and then the unsubstantiated claims.
And of course the defence filed a no case submission and I ruled on it (in their favour). You don’t expect me to send someone to the gallows based on an evidence of pieces of fluorescent. Even when if a suspect is being paraded and confesses openly, it doesn’t influence the judgement of the court.
That a person makes a confession, while being handcuffed, does not mean it is voluntary. Because a confession must be voluntary and must be supported by other evidence.
This is one of reasons, most times, judges try not to read through the press releases being circulated on social media in order to avoid prejudice. So, even if a confession was made in the open, during this parade, what the courtstillconsidersistheevidencethat supports such confession.
My question still remains, what is the aim or motive of parading suspects before arraignment in court? Are they (police) trying to show off that they are doing a good job?
This is because as far as the legal aspect is concerned, it is absolutely meaningless.
What are the challenges you faced while on the Bench?
You know most people don’t know some of the challenges judges go through on a daily basis, especially since the Bench doesn’t speak.
But I’ll just share a particular event that I would not forget in a hurry. I was writing a judgement about the attempted murder of one Yoruba political figure. I have been doing this trial for quite a long time and then had finally fixed a date for judgement. And then just before that date, some police order was made that there should be police protection for judges.
You can imagine a country like ours, where the youngest 419 (fraudster) can get a policeman to protect him as an escorts. And you are talking about protection for judges. I discussed about it with the legal head and said I won’t deliver judgement without the presence of a police officer in my courtroom.
You won’t believe that I was robbed in my house around 3am, few nights before the date of the judgement. It was done so strategically and I don’t want to mention all the suspicions I had then.
But, I believe the robbers were already inside my house monitoring me before I went to bed, around that time, after working. What happened was that they broke the wall and my laptop, where I had recorded the judgement was taken away.
Now, How do I tell the public that I can’t deliver judgement on a case that has so many interested parties, especially after mentioning that the judgement was ready? If that happens, many would think that the judge has been compromised or bribed. These are some of the things that happen to judges that nobody knows.
But, my biggest challenge wasn’t really the robbery but the problem was how I would begin to reconstruct a judgement I has carefully written, within that short period of time.
Thank God I had copies (parts) of it saved on my hard drive and I had some handwritten too.