Outgoing Nigerian administration passes groundbreaking Administration of Criminal Justice Act

Described by experts as progressive, the ACJ Act covers the criminal process from arrest through bail, trial, conviction and sentencing, costs, compensation, damages and restitution as well as appeals.

The law sets out very ambitious objectives: efficient management of criminal justice institutions; speedy dispensation of justice; protection of the society from crime; and protection of the rights and interests of the suspect, defendant and victim. It applies to offences established by an Act of the federal assembly and offences punishable in Abuja. 

A key part of the Act sees a central role for information and data on arrests and pre-trial detention. Stanley Ibe of the Open Society Foundations Justice Initiative explains: "Over the years, Justice Initiative has advocated a lead role for the attorney general both at the federal level and in states, in accessing data on pretrial detention with a view to advancing pretrial justice. The ACJ Act sees the merit in this proposal. It directs the Inspector General of Police and heads of agencies authorized to arrest suspects to transmit a record of arrests in relation to federal offences to the Attorney General of the Federation. The same applies in the states, where Commissioners of Police are mandated to turn over similar records to Attorneys General. When this is implemented, Attorneys General, as chief law officers, will have a better sense of who comes into the criminal justice system, for what offences and for how long. To strengthen this provision, there is an additional requirement for officials in charge of police stations or other detaining institutions to report monthly to the nearest magistrate, the cases of all suspects arrested without warrant. Again if effectively implemented, this would ensure that suspects are not lost in the system.">

The Act also introduces time limits and establishes appropriate protocols in Part 30. First, it requires the establishment of a “probable cause” as against the current practice where magistrates simply avoid jurisdiction to review the case before making a remand order. Remand orders issued pursuant to this law shall not exceed 14 days in the first instance subject to another 14 days. After 28 days, the prosecuting/detaining authorities must demonstrate why the suspect should not be unconditionally released.

The Act requires arresting police officers or individuals to inform suspects of their right to the presumption of innocence, right to consult a lawyer of their choice and right to free legal representation by the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (section 6(2)). In Nigeria, suspects are frequently coerced or compelled to make self-incriminating statements. The ACJ Act requires any statements to be taken “in the presence of” a lawyer, officer of the Legal Aid Council, an official of a civil society organization, a justice of peace or any other person of the suspect's choice. 

Ibe says: "Taken together, these provisions have the potential to re-set the pretrial detention dynamic in Nigeria. It is obvious that for this to happen, all stakeholders must work individually and collectively with the same objective in view. Justice is a three way street, it should be available to the state, the victim and the suspect. As the most vulnerable of these, suspects deserve every support they can get on the path to justice."

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