Review of the Call for Establishment of Special Courts in Nigeria for the Trial of Kidnapping and Banditry Offences

Following the increased rate of kidnaping and banditry across Nigeria in recent times, many persons including former President Olusegun Obasanjo are now clamouring for the establishment of special courts for the trial of kidnapping and banditry cases across Nigeria. The call for the creation of these special courts stems from a perceived lack of faith in the ability of established courts to swiftly try cases of this nature.

Special courts as the term connotes are courts established by the National Assembly or House of Assembly of a State for the trial or determination of matters which are deemed to be peculiar in nature. The provisions of Section 6 (4) (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) 1999 as amended provides that the National Assembly or any House of Assembly of a State is empowered by law to establish courts, this provisions lays down the exclusive powers of the National Assembly or State Houses of Assembly to establish or create courts including ‘special courts’ with subordinate jurisdiction to the High Court. An example of a special court is the Lagos Special Corruption and Sexual Offences Courts for the effective and speedy administration of justice with regards to corruption and sexual offence cases said to form over fifty percent of the cases in courts. The National Industrial Court (which deals with employment and labour matters), the Coroners Court (for investigations into death), Juvenile Court (for the trials of cases involving juveniles i.e. young persons) etc. are also special courts established in Nigeria.

Although there are numerous reasons why the law makes provision for special courts, the major aim behind the establishment of a special court is to ensure that cases that fall within the purview of these courts are handled without having to deal with the incessant delays experienced in regular courts. Another reason is the need to prevent the proceedings from being contaminated; for example, the Juvenile court which was established to try all offences relating to young persons below the age of eighteen (18) years. These court proceedings, unlike the regular criminal proceedings of a court is devoid of terms commonly used in criminal matters such as; ‘convict’ and ‘imprisoned’. The juvenile in this case is not exposed to the regular proceedings in a criminal matter and although the Juvenile court is part of the Magistrate court, it operates independently and totally alienates its proceedings from the Magistrate court.

In April 30th, 2013, Ibrahim Auta, the then Chief Judge of The Federal High Court, issued a Practice Direction that amended Order 48 Rule 4 of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rule 2009. The practice direction which took effect on June 3rd, 2013 was to fast-track criminal trials relating to offences of kidnapping, rape, corruption, terrorism, trafficking in persons and money laundering cases. The aim was to ensure that delays in criminal trials were made away with. Under the said Practice Direction, the court must ensure that cases are ripe for trial before the hearing dates are set to minimize undue adjournments and delays that often plague regular courts.

 Due to the rise in banditry and kidnapping cases and the overwhelming number of cases in the courts’ dockets, it is only natural that well-meaning Nigerians are clamouring for the creation of special courts to try these cases. However, one must note that while it may take little to establish a special court for this purpose, what matters is the effective dispensation of justice.

If the common problems which bedevil proceedings in regular courts are not eliminated, such would equally affect the quality of the output of proceedings in special courts. One must bear in mind that proceedings in these ‘special courts’ would most likely be handled by the same judges or magistrates in regular courts. The same applies to the procedure of investigations to be carried out as well as the Investigative officers who will build up the case files and so the outcome expected from the proceedings may be the same.

 For the effective actualization of the aims behind the proposed establishment of special courts for the trial of kidnappings and banditry cases, there is need to completely overhaul the lackadaisical approach to justice, by the re-orientation of all persons who make-up the judicial system, from the investigating officers, to the presiding judges or magistrates, the prosecutors and defence lawyers.

 It is worthy of note, that the establishment of special courts may not be entirely needed for the speedy dispensation of cases of banditry and kidnapping, since the provisions of Section 396 (3) – (5) of ACJA 2015 provides that;

(3) Upon arraignment, the trial of the defendant shall proceed from day-to-day until the conclusion of the trial.

(4) Where day-to-day trial is impracticable after arraignment, no party shall be entitled to more than five adjournments from arraignment to final judgment provided that the interval between each adjournment shall not exceed 14 working days.

(5) Where it is impracticable to conclude a criminal proceeding after the parties have exhausted their five adjournments each, the interval between one adjournment to another shall not exceed seven days inclusive of weekends

(6) In all circumstances, the court may award reasonable costs in order to discourage frivolous adjournments.

The above provision of ACJA if well implemented by regular courts, would be sufficient to cure the perceive need for the creation of special courts for the trial of banditry, kidnapping or any case of the sort as the provision ensures that all criminal matters are handled speedily and devoid of incessant adjournments or delays which may frustrate the outcome of the case and eventual justice. By implication, if regular courts adhere to existing Practice Directions and the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act on swift and efficient trials, there will be no need for the establishment of special courts to try offences which are already within the jurisdiction of the Courts.