By Dennis Agbo
ENUGU— Chinonso is a 13-year-old boy from Nnewi in Anambra State. He comes from a separated home where his father was alleged to be a drunk and had left Chinonso to his mother’s care. Chinonso was involved in theft of a neighbour’s property worth about N150,000. He was subsequently arrested and brought to a Family Court of Her Worship, Vivian Udedike (Mrs.), the Chief Administrative Magistrate for the Nnewi Magisterial District.
Both parents of the minor refused to appear before the court despite Her Worship’s numerous invitations. The magistrate, not wanting to send the minor to prison custody while the mater went on, pleaded with the Police to remand Chinonso in their custody. The police refused until the magistrate convinced the Divisional Police Officer, DPO, to take Chinonso into custody until the matter was determined.
After several pleas to bring the father of the child to court, the magistrate issued a bench warrant for his arrest but before then, without the magistrate knowing it, the “wayward” father had sold a piece of land for N2 million so he could settle the applicant whose property was allegedly stolen by Chinonso. The father settled the applicant with N200,000 and within the space of time, about two weeks after, he came to the court with the applicant to withdraw the matter since they had settled. The father had only N1 million remaining with him. He had apparently squandered N.8 million to his drinking habit.
On the day they all appeared in the court, the mother of the child who lived separately from the husband also came to the court. The magistrate reunited the family and prevailed on the man to give his wife part of the remaining proceed from the land sale, to argument the woman’s petty trading, which the man did. Chinonso, the victim of the separated family, said he wanted to learn aluminum fabrication and needed a bicycle to be transporting himself to the place of work.
It was provided for him by the father. The child started learning the trade and the family has remained united till date. The above story was told by Her Worship, Udedike, when she and the other 33 participants drawn from the Anambra State Judiciary, Ministries of Justice, Social Welfare, Children and Women Affairs, the Nigerian Prisons Service, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, the academic, the International Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, attended two days workshop in Enugu where they drafted procedure for adjudication of a child offenders in family courts of the state.
The workshop, sponsored by the state Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Women Affairs was supported and implemented by UNODC in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Undergoing the drafting process of the adjudication guideline procedure, UNICEF child protection specialist, Nkeiru Maduechesi, noted that despite its challenges, family courts have been established in four states in Nigeria.
She stated that one of the criticisms against Child’s Right law was that it is usually too academic for the child or the family member to take up a copy without looking for an interpreter. Magistrate Udedike, who has presided over family courts for some years, enumerated its challenges to include the courts not being properly constituted in the form and manner they should be other than the regular courts.
She said that a family court is not supposed to have a semblance of a regular court but is supposed to look like a living home, with things like television and some toys, where the child offender would come in and feel relaxed to enable him or her divulge all the information and facts that will enable the court determine the prime motive for the minor’s offence.
Udedike gave commendation to the Anambra State governor and Chief Judge of the state for their efforts at establishing family courts even with its funding challenges since the state domesticated the Child Rights Act which brought about the family courts. She said: “We’ve been facing challenges in the family courts. We don’t have total family court setting. Another challenge is the issue of having proper procedural laws to guide the court but that is what we are doing now, on sentencing guidelines. If this practice is passed by the chief judge, it will go a long way to assist in knowing factors to consider as mitigating and aggravating factors.”
She also noted that in a proper family court, not less than two assessors were needed to sit with a magistrate at each point in time “but these assessors are from the Ministry of Women Affairs and they have their complaints of not being given stipends for sittings and so most of them are not able to turn up to courts.” An assessor in the family court of Anambra State, Mr. Emeka Ejide, said the benefit of the practice direction for child offenders was to have a uniformity of purpose in the implementation of the Child’s Rights law and to have best interest of children at heart.
Ejide said: “It is also to encourage resolution of disputes without resort to formal court hearing and for the adjudication to attract correction centres for children in conflict with the law.
Conflict with the law
“Many states that operate this child’s rights law don’t have these correction centres and you cannot effectively do that but with this practice procedure, you now discover that it is wrong to put a child in prison custody. Therefore, it will attract the building of correction centres. With that, children will have a chance of giving them a better future, which is for a better society tomorrow. When this procedure comes to effect, it will make other states that have promulgated the Child’s Rights law before to have correction centres. With that the children would not only be seen to have been reformed but will be properly integrated into the society.”
Permanent Secretary in the state Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Women Affairs, Dr. Azuka Ofomata, said following UNICEF trainings since 2010, the state established six family courts in Nnewi-North, Awka, Ontisha, Ogidi, Ekwulobia and Otuocha. He, however, disclosed that due to financial challenges, some of the family courts were forced to close down. He said some of the assessors have been retired from the state ministry and would require finances to carry on with investigations. “We are also trying to ensure that children from broken homes, child offender, children in crisis with the law are taken to a correction centre, which we are trying to establish in Abagana,” he said.
There, they will learn some skills, some will go to schools. The aim is to make them reach their potentials because some of these children could be Governors of their generation,” Ofomata said.