THE KEY INNOVATIONS OF THE 2021 ADMINISTRATION OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE (AMENDMENT) LAW OF LAGOS STATE
The Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu assented to the Administration of Criminal Justice (Amendment) Law (ACJL) of Lagos State, 2021 on September 30, 2021.
This new law is aimed at strengthening the justice system, and to checkmate incidence of Police harassment of innocent citizens in the State.
The ACJL was first passed in Lagos State in 2007, and amended in 2011 (more than 10 years ago) to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of suspects and persons that come in contact with the justice system, as enshrined in the Constitution.
According to the Attorney- General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo, SAN, key innovative provisions have been introduced as amendments to the Law.
Some of these new provisions include conducting criminal proceedings through audio and video conferencing platform, the powers of Chief Magistrate to visit police stations, prohibition of media parade of suspects, protective measures for victims and witnesses as well as the establishment of a Crime Data Register and the Criminal Justice Sector Reform Committee to monitor the implementation of this law.
More notably is the fact that Section 372 of the law now gives power to Judges to award commensurate compensation in criminal cases where victims suffer losses or injuries as a result of the act of a guilty Defendant, unlike in the past where this only applies to people who have suffered financial losses.
This section of the law also gives to the Judge, power to forfeit the property of the guilty Defendants or any other person or state, and order them to be sold to compensate the victim of crimes. As a result of this, the Court in considering the award of compensation to the victim, may call for additional evidence to enable it determine the quantum of compensation to award to such victims of crimes.
The new Lagos ACJL 2021 embodied provisions for special trial of some offenses like rape. It provides that ”Trial may be heard through closed hearing (not in open court) and evidence may be received by video link, permitting the witness to be screened or masked, through written deposition of expert evidence in sexual related offences such as defilement, rape, sexual assault by penetration. ”
As highlighted above, the new law mandates the state to establish a Crime Data Register. The Data Register is an electronic repository of information on suspects and offenders either convicted or awaiting trial that pass through the Criminal Justice System from the point of arrest through prosecution up until the judgment is delivered. The Register also serves as a criminal records database, and organisations in the state may apply to obtain criminal records, particularly for sex offenders.
In view of this, it is my belief that this provision will also assist the police in the investigation of crime as sufficient information on all convicted persons will be available, which should make it easy to identify convicts in subsequent proceedings.
Section 298 of the law, empowers the Court to make an order of interim forfeiture of property before the commencement or conclusion of a trial where there is reasonable ground to believe that such property has been used or provided for the commission of the offence charged. This Section of the law also empowers the court to make an interim order to freeze monies in such account where there is reason to believe that monies in an account is reasonably suspected to be proceeds of illegal or unlawful transaction, and would not be available during and after the trial.
For instance, if it is money, it can be frozen and kept in the account, which means the account holder cannot withdraw funds from the account until the order is lifted, and if it is a property, a Judge can order that a seal be placed on the building until a verdict is reached by the court.
Furthermore Section 76 of the law which deals with Plea and Sentence Agreements, has been redrafted to expand the scope. The provision now allows for the Prosecution to offer plea bargain to a defendant charged with an offence in the interest of justice, public policy and the need to prevent abuse of legal process. Consent of the victims or their representative may also be sought during the process. However, the prosecution may not enter into plea bargaining after the defence has opened his case.
The provision further enables the Judge or Magistrate to make an order transferring the assets or property agreed to be forfeited under the plea bargain agreement to the victim of the crime or the legal representative or any person entitled to it. It creates a penalty of seven years for the willful obstruction of such transfer.
Over the years, the parading of criminal suspects before the media has been a common feature of the Police. During such parades, the Police lays the foundation for media interviews which often times lead to the misrepresentation by the public of the suspects as actual offenders before Court trials and convictions.
Our law firm and many leading lawyers have been at the vanguard of the campaign and agitations for a stop to media trial by the Police.
It is illegal to subject suspects to media trial as it could subvert the justice system. In most cases, only the poor and the less privileged are subjected to media parade, while the rich are treated with dignity and respect.
Parading suspects before the media constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental rights of criminal suspects to presumption of innocence guaranteed by Section 36 of the Constitution and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. The new Lagos ACJL 2021 has taken this into consideration and went further to provide that “the Police shall refrain from parading any suspect before the media.
In addition, under the Administration of Criminal Justice (Amendment) Law of Lagos State, 2021, a party can now apply to court to order the nondisclosure of the identity of a victim or witness who may be in danger or at risk, until the trial Court decides otherwise. The Court can consult the witness support/protection office in the determination of protective measures for victims and witnesses.
What is more amiable is that the new ACJL 2021 lays emphasis on video conferencing in all criminal proceedings. It empowers the Courts and provided that “the Courts can conduct criminal proceedings either in whole or in part through audio and video conferencing platform and members of the Public take part through the same means without the necessity of physical attendance in the courtroom.”
Furthermore, it is no gainsaying that many Police stations in the state are filled with suspects awaiting to be investigated to determine their culpability and taken to courts. To reverse the situation, the new law made visits to Police stations mandatory by Chief Magistrates to weed out the innocents.
It also provides that where there is no Chief Magistrate within the police division, any Magistrate can be designated by the Chief Judge for that purpose, to conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within his jurisdiction other than the prison at least every month.
Unlike the past laws, the new Lagos ACJL 2021 provides for the composition of a Sector Reform Committee who will be responsible for and drive the implementation of the law to ensure effectiveness and prevent derailment from the law.
This Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State 2021 is a welcome development and a step in the right direction. It is the panacea for an effective criminal justice system as ours and a boost for the efforts of the government of the state to deepen the reform of criminal justice in the state and reinvigorate the system to be more effective in reducing criminality in the state.