The 60th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), tagged ‘Stepping forward’, ended last week, with a lot of takeaways. One of such is the charge by President Muhammadu Buhari, for a timely dispensation of justice in the country. The president advocated a maximum of 12 months for criminal matters from the first court to the Supreme Court, while for civil cases, he suggested a maximum of 15 months.
In urging the NBA to ‘step forward’, the President alluded to constitutional amendments and rules of court, which enabled election petition cases to be time barred. He wants similar steps taken with respect to criminal and civil cases.
We agree with the president that when cases last for decades from the lower courts to the highest court of the land, it is a denial of justice. After all, the aphorism that: ‘justice delayed, is justice denied’ is true.
But while the bar and the bench have very important roles to play to achieve the quick dispensation of justice, the starting point to realise that objective lies with the police, with respect to criminal cases. For a crime to proceed quickly to trial, the relevant security agency must have the capacity for a quick, efficient and thorough investigation, before the matter can be efficiently prosecuted in the court. In most cases, under our laws, it is the police that is empowered to investigate a crime.
So, if the president truly desires a quick criminal justice system, the starting point is an efficient police. The police must be gifted with modern forensic laboratories, well-trained personnel, highly motivated workforce, with the capacity to dominate a crime scene, once a crime is committed. For instance, the famed capacity of Mr Abba Kyari-led Special Inspector-General of Police Squad, should be replicated across the police units, in divisional police stations.
Whether it is equipment, training or motivation, it is such efficiency that will enable the police to thoroughly investigate a crime and hand over to the prosecution. No doubt, the Nigeria Police Force men are poorly paid, lack necessary equipment and bedevilled by low esteem, and the president can do something about all of these. Again, the police is also over-centralised, and as such lacks the local flavour to efficiently investigate crimes in remote areas. A recent instance is the brouhaha over the creation of community policing.
The President also touched on another important challenge in our justice system. The procedure for the selection of judges. He urged for transparency and wider search in selecting appointees, and that the federal character principle should not trump competency. We agree with him that a more transparent process is necessary to gift our courts the judges with requisite skills to quickly dispense justice. Also very important, is less interference and delays by the executive in the selection process. A case in point is that of those awaiting the president’s approval for elevation to the Supreme Court.
Another challenge faced by the justice system is the poor infrastructure in our courts. Both the federal and state courts need modern facilities to aid the quick dispensation of justice. Even with the intervention of the President through an executive order, for states to pay the budget of the judiciary as first line charge, many states are not complying.
On their part, to achieve the president’s wishes, the NBA should ensure that lawyers eschew indiscipline and delinquency in handling cases, especially criminal matters, knowing that they are first officers in the temple of justice. In all, the three arms of government must work together for the president’s wishes to materialise, remembering that: ‘if wishes were horses, beggars will ride it.’