By: Hameed Ajibola Jimoh, Esq.
The Witness Support Unit of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was created some few years back to help in the administration of justice system in the Federal Capital Territory Judiciary and it has been in operation till date. A number of lawyers or litigants might not be aware of the existence of this very important department or Unit in the administration of justice system especially in the Federal Capital Territory-herein after referred to as the FCT-, hence there is need for a continuous awareness on the existence of this Unit (I have been using this Unit for my client’s case (in a civil trial) for over two years now as regard the provision of an ‘interpreter’).
This paper aims to achieve this awareness. Also, from my observations (arising from my years of experiences in regard to the Unit, especially, since the Unit also provides aids in regard to an ‘interpreter’ to interpret the language of an illiterate witness or litigant in court to the Court in English and from English to the language the illiterate speaks and understands to enable such evidence to be admissible) this Unit is very essential, more so that right of an illiterate witness or litigant in trial is a constitutional right. In my humble opinion, this Unit fulfils or aids in the fulfillment of this constitutional right of either an accused or Defendant or a litigant (whether civil or criminal suit). I also understand that the Unit has some challenges that could affect its efficient and or effective operations which this paper shall and hereby appeal to the authorities of the court to resolve in the interest of justice. Therefore, this paper seeks to commend My Lord, the Chief Judge of the High Court of Justice, FCT for this wonderful idea and I also advise the other various courts in Nigeria to emulate this idea by creating a Witness Support Unit to aid administration of Justice in that State or the Federal High Court of Nigeria (and in fact, including every staff of the Witness Support Unit of the High Court of FCT for their sacrifices so far) and to provide all the tools or enabling facilities that would enable its effective and efficient functioning (though, I am aware that the Federal High Court of Nigeria, Abuja, for instance, has provisions for provision of an interpreter to an illiterate litigant or accused person or witness but this only has to do with criminal trials (to the best of my knowledge), so, the Unit should be a unique Unit to aid whether civil or criminal trial where there is need for a support to a witness or litigant in regard to interpreter and other needs (free of charge). Hence this paper.
The need(s) for an interpreter as a matter of necessity, which necessitates the need for a Witness Support Unit is as provided in section 36(6)(d and (e) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)-herein after referred to as the Constitution- which provides thus (6) Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to— … ‘(d) to examine in person or by his legal practitioner the witnesses called by the prosecution before any court or tribunal and obtain the attendance and carry out the examination of witnesses to testify on his behalf before the court or the same conditions as those applying to the witnesses called by the prosecution ; and (e) have, without payment the assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand the language used at the trial of the offence.’. (Underlining is mine for emphasis).
In my humble submission, notwithstanding that the requirements for the provision of an ‘interpreter’ evolved from criminal trial as could be seen in the above provisions of the Constitution, it is my humble submission notwithstanding that where a Witness Support Unit exists in a Court of Law, it should be made to satisfy both civil and or criminal trial where there is need for its services especially, such witness or litigant should have, without payment the assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand the language used at the trial of the case or offence (i.e. civil or criminal). (emphasis is mine). By rules of interpretation, in my humble view, it would achieve the intendment of the legislators if both civil and criminal trials enjoy the provision of an ‘interpreter’ to a witness or litigant who requires it without payment by the said witness or litigant.
Furthermore, in my humble observations and recommendations: a Witness Support Unit would not be efficient and or effective without certain facilities such as: workable means of transportation to and fro the various courts in the FCT or in the State (transportation is even on the high rate in Nigeria at the moment due to the increase in fuel price). So, the Court could have budget for such perhaps of a certain stipend to sponsor any of the court staff that would move or appear to interpret (for instance, the sum of five thousand (
N5,000.00) minimum as appearance fee for every appearance (notwithstanding that the said staff is to be paid salary officially) and the distance of the staff should be measured so as to know how much to be added to the minimum stipend. This would be a form of transport allowances as well as inconveniences and this would encourage the staff to carry out this task, and he should be paid notwithstanding that the court did not sit when he appeared. This is advised in case it might be expensive for the court to provide busses or vehicles and the maintenance of same if same where to be provided for the Witness Support Unit (nonetheless, at least, a bus should be provided to the Unit to also serve as support and awareness to the Unit).
Also, the aspect of continuous training for the Unit is very important, if not, the Unit might not be efficient. Also, the ‘evidence’ given by the interpreter if not satisfactory to the court, would be rejected leading to waste of time and energy (in fact, embarrassing to the court since the interpreter is a staff of the court). Therefore, continuous training should be considered for the staff (perhaps on a yearly basis especially during the court’s vacation period either a week or two weeks’ period so that their functioning or operation upon the resumption of the court for a new legal year would be much more professional and effective).
Furthermore, the Witness Support Unit should be given a unique location within the court premises at the court’s headquarters and with staff across all various judicial divisions of the courts (if this is possible). However, if the staff would only be available at the headquarters where litigants and or their counsel could apply in advance for their services, transportation as advised above should be adequate for their movements to the various courts where their services are needed.
Also, the Witness Support Unit should be enabled with manpower to achieve efficiency. This is because inadequate officials would stall the trial leading to adjournments and unnecessary delay in the trials.
Furthermore, court should hinder any likelihood of bribery and corruption in the Unit. This is another very important aspect that the court needs to supervise. This is because, there is no doubt that ‘corruption’ has eaten deep in the Nigerian justice system to say the truth, with due respect! A number of court staff, with due respect to them, are infected with ‘conflict of interests’ especially with financial gratifications, leading to bribery and corruption or personal benefits or gains. If this hindrance is not done i.e. in inhibiting bribery and corruption among the staff of the Unit, an interpreter might be found demanding extra money from the witness and or litigant with all sorts of misrepresentation of facts and lies as well as threats of not appearing for his trial and or such interpreter could be approached to give a wrong interpretation in a way that no one would suspect, among other likely illegal acts.
Furthermore, the Unit should be equipped with interpreters in various languages especially Multi-languages interpreters, hence, the Unit should employ staff with various languages or a staff that could speak and understand multi-languages to reduce costs of engaging a staff per a language.
Having said all the above, I am pleased, with profound appreciation and commendation to the Chief Judge of the High Court of FCT for sustaining the Witness Support Unit till date. I equally commend the court managements and the staff of the Unit for their sacrifices. I am of the firm view and belief that if the above recommendations and many more workable ideas could be brought to reality, this would ensure that the Witness Support Unit is indeed an integral part of the administration of justice system of the court and the judiciary as a whole. I (as a private lawyer practicing in the FCT) am open to working with the Witness Support Unit and or the Court whenever the need arises for an effective and efficient collaboration and working of the system.
Long live the High Court of FCT! Long live the FCT judiciary! Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!