By Douglas Ogbankwa, Esq.
Bail is said to be not an escape from Justice, but an opportunity for the defendant to prepare for his trial. Bail is expected to be a painless and easy road to ease the process of justice and not an intricate and labyrinth milieu that saps the citizens in cash and in mind.
The Federal High Court all around Nigeria plays a prominent role in the Justice Delivery System in Nigeria. It also occupies a premium place in the administration of criminal justice system in Nigeria being the sole court that has exclusive criminal jurisdictions in many matters. There is however a big snag in the court system, which cuts across the whole divisions of the court, all around Nigeria.
Firstly, the conditions for bail imposed by Judges of the Federal High Court are mostly excessive and obnoxious. Why should almost every defendant in the court be asked to bring a senior civil servant or a house owner with a certificate of occupancy and sometimes both, when the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, places premium on blood relatives to be sureties to defendants, who in the real sense are the ones that can secure the attendance of defendants in court. The other day a court gave a bond of One Billion Naira which is essentially denying bail. Who will take the risk of forfeiting one billion Naira as a recognizance?
This encourages professional sureties, creates a cartel within the court system and costs the defendants so much money and pain. Some of whom are even victims themselves and could even be innocent. Many people have been wallowing in jail because of this avoidable scenario. We call for a change on all the issues highlighted above.
Another very curious procedure of the Court is to ask the prosecution to verify the sureties. This is injustice, as it offends the principle of Nemo Judex In Casua Sua: No Man shall be a Judge in his own cause. Why should the prosecution who is a party in a matter be doing the job of the court? This situation defiles adherence to due process, logic and common sense. We implore that verifications of sureties from now, should be done by the Court Registry as is done in other courts in the Court and as is expected of the court as an impartial arbiter. It is against the spirits and letters of the constitution for the prosecution to be the Investigator, Prosecution and Judge over the suitability or otherwise of a surety. The prosecution is a party in the matter that has his own biases, which could manifest in the Defendant being kept in jail, longer than it is necessary.
The bail process is a process of court, as bail in court can be distinguished from Administrative Bail. This is even made worse as some prosecuting agencies frustrate the process if a defence lawyer has been too assertive on the rights of the defendant at their station. When bail is granted at the Federal High Court, that is where the nightmare of the defendant commences. A cumbersome nature of the verification of sureties commences that sometimes takes weeks. The registry of the court will write to the employers of the civil servant or the land registry and will await a reply that takes days and it goes on and on.
Some of the procedure are even unnecessary and unwieldy. The defendant wallows in prison now called, (now called Correctional Centre ) and some have even died owing to the deplorable conditions there; whose death would have been avoided if we had a system that works. This is another issue that leads to prison congestion in Nigeria. We can actually conclude a bail process at the Federal High Court the same day and the defendant can be released same day as it is done in most state high courts in Nigeria.
At the Edo State High Courts for example, a defendant who has been granted bail could go home same day because the registry activates the process of verification immediately, go to the places of verification themselves and write a report there and then which is then attached to the file, after which the defendant is released after the post verification process. All these usually takes place in one day!
The cumbersome bail process of the Federal High Court throws up a constitutional dilemma. Whether the excessive bail conditions mostly imposed by Judges of the Federal High Court and the cumbersome strands of processing same, that keeps the Defendant who is a Citizen of Nigeria in Prison (now called Correctional Centre) avoidably is not a violation of the Right to Liberty, Right to freedom of movement, and access to justice of citizens of Nigeria as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of Nigeria,1999, (As Amended), by the 4th Alteration.
The Federal High Court is the major court that adjudicates over fundamental human rights in Nigeria. Its modus operandi should be seen to protect the fundamental human rights of citizens of this country. Justice delayed is justice denied, as justice delayed is justice turned upside down or simply put injustice.
The liberty of a citizen of a country is the highest form of human engagement and it should not be toyed it in any way, by bureaucratic bottlenecks or administrative shenanigans.
Let us all do the right thing and this Country shall be better.
“We owe a debt, payable by good results in the future, to generations yet unborn to make a change and change is a challenge to the adventurous and a threat to the obscure insecure.”
About the Author:
Douglas Ogbankwa Esq., @ firstname.lastname@example.org, a Benin based legal practitioner, is the Convener of the Vanguard for the Independence of the Judiciary and the President of the Benin Writers’ Society.