By Levinus Nwabughiogu-Abuja
House of Representatives yesterday passed for second reading a bill seeking to mandate a high court judge elevated to the court of appeal to return and complete pending criminal cases under him.
Essentially, the bill is seeking the alteration of Section 6 of the Principal Act by inserting after subsection (6), new subsections “(7)” – “(8)”.
This, the House said would lead to speedy trial and dispensation of justice.
Titled “A Bill for An Act to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Cap. C23, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 to provide for quick dispensation of justice and completion of criminal matters tried by a judge of a High Court before his elevation to the Court of Appeal; and for related matters”, the bill is sponsored by Hon. Onofiok Luke representing Etinan/ Nsit Ibom/ Nsit Ubium Federal Constituency of Akwa Ibom State.
The affected section read thus: ” l“(7) “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Constitution, a Judge of a High Court who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal, shall continue to sit as a Judge only for the purpose of concluding any criminal matter pending before him at the High Court at the time of his elevation; and shall conclude such matter within a reasonable time provided that this section shall not prevent the Judge from assuming duty as a Justice of the Court of Appeal.
(8) A High Court for the purpose of subsection (7) includes the Federal High Court, the High Court of the Federal
Capital Territory, the National Industrial Court and the High Court of a State.”
The main objectives of the Bill included “to amend the Principal Act to allow a judge elevated to the Court of Appeal to continue hearing criminal matter part-heard by him before his elevation; to assist in just and fair hearing and determination of corruption and money laundry matters; to expedite justice dispensation and eliminate delay in justice delivery, and to save parties to criminal proceedings from unnecessary and avoidable costs and pains.”
Leading the debate on the general principle of the bill at Wednesday plenary, Luke said it was counterproductive and a waste of resources to have criminal cases start afresh when a judge of the high court was elevated to the appeal court.
He said: “It is a common practice where judges of the High Court get elevated to the Court of Appeal whenever there is a vacancy. When judges get elevated, criminal cases presided by them before they were elevated get stalled, and in fact, start de novo (afresh).
“Owing to this unwholesome situation, this hallowed chambers in conjunction with its sister legislative body, the Senate, passed into law the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, as a solution to that aspectual judicial problem.
“Specifically, section 396(7) legitimized the practice where a judge appointed to the Court of Appeal can effectually return to the High Court and continue to sit as a judge over criminal matters he partly adjudicated before his elevation.
“This legislative solution-cum-decision was an intelligent step towards discouraging waste of time and resources, which often arises when criminal cases start anew.”
Luke recalled a certain judgement of the supreme court which had caused a lot of problems by causing delays in the system.
“Last year, the Supreme Court, in its supreme wisdom, struck down section 396(7) of the ACJA as being unconstitutional. The Honourable Court reasoned that a judicial officer cannot simultaneously assume the role of a Justice of the Court Appeal and still sit as a judge of the High Court, holding that such practice was not within the permissible constitutional boundary. The Court’s view is principally anchored on the fact that section 386(7) is a statutory provision, which cannot override constitutional provisions.
“The decision of the Court has thrown up myriads of problems and has sailed us back to a harbour of delay in criminal adjudication which we thought we had left.
“It is in this vein that this constitutional proposal is made to give dispensation to a judge of a High Court who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal to continue to sit as a judge in order to conclude part-heard criminal matter given the advantages it gives to our judicial system.
“Since this is a constitutional alteration, the supreme fate, which befell section 396(7) of the Act, occasioned by the Supreme Court, will not befall this constitutional proposal when passed into law.
“The Bill seeks to amend section 6 of the Constitution by inserting two new subsections 7 and 9 which will enable a judge elevated to the Court of Appeal to return to a High Court to complete a matter the judge part-heard before the judge’s elevation”, he said.
The bill when put to voice vote got the support of the majority of the House and was adopted for second reading.