By Innocent Anaba
Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, SAN, is Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Lagos State. In this interview, he spoke on various measures adopted by the Lagos State Government to address critical legal issues in the state.
Stakeholders in the legal community are of the view that the Lagos State Administration of Criminal Justice Law 2015 has not in effect reduced the population of pre-trial detainees in prison despite its provision for non-custodian sentences. What is your view on this?
This is not true. Awaiting Trial Inmates have reduced today and the use of non-custodial sentencing has assisted a lot in achieving this. There are many reasons for pre-trial detainees and Administration of Criminal Justice Law dealt with its reduction by allowing courts to strike out charges under relevant sections of the Law.
For instance, under section 264, where the prosecutor cannot give reasons to justify the continued detention of a suspect after a period of 30 days in the first instance at the expiration of which the Magistrate can release the suspect unless good cause is shown.
In recent times, magistrates have been exercising this power and in addition, no longer detain suspects without probable cause. The provisions that allow the use of plea bargain in sections 75 and 76 are also laudable and have reduced pre-trial detainees where pleas are considered and approved in my office. It is, therefore, inaccurate to say that awaiting trial and pre-trial detainees have not reduced. There has also been an increased use of community sentences.
There have been reports that some officials of the Task Force sometimes confiscate goods from these traders and unjustly convert them to their personal use, especially consumable items. How have you dealt with that?
Indeed, this is worrisome, but we are yet to confirm the authenticity of this allegation and we have our team working to ensure that this does not occur. I am aware that during enforcement of the law, goods are confiscated and they are sent to orphanages, remand homes and prisons.
The importance of the Mobile Court cannot be overemphasised in the enforcement of traffic law and free movement of vehicles in Lagos State. The alleged negative press is regrettable and we should look at the larger picture of enhancing and sustaining the administration of law in Lagos State.
Let us also appreciate that there has been a level of sanity in the state through the effectiveness of the taskforce and mobile court. However, what the government seeks to achieve with the taskforce is to curb to the barest minimum the number of environmental offences and avoidable accidents on our roads. It is to keep the society sane and safe, but the most important thing is for citizens to be law- abiding.
How successful has the Crime Offenders’ Register initiative been in combating crime in the state?
This has now been re-formatted and re-christened as the Lagos Criminal Information System, LCIS, which serves as an electronic repository of all defendants awaiting trial, as well as suspects who pass through the criminal justice process and are convicted for crimes in Lagos State. It is robust because it contains biometric details such as fingerprints and photos of defendants, categories of offences, the geographical spread of the offences, victim information and other relevant classification.
The LCIS keeps track of the suspect until he or she exits the criminal justice system. It has become an indispensable tool in the administration of criminal justice in Lagos State, and its information now heavily relies upon in the implementation of reforms in the justice system. So far, it has managed to enrol and take inventory of over 12,000 existing inmates in all the prisons in Lagos State.
A major dynamics is its capacity to assist in planning and statistics purposes.
The Audit and census taken in the prison in its first phase revealed some astonishing facts from; number of Awaiting Trial Inmates in the prisons, to the current grossly overstretched prison capacity. Also, through the information gathered so far, we have been able to identify prevalent offences and notorious crime areas in the state.
It is a sustainable system that can always be enhanced to collect more crime data, even for suspects that are not undergoing trials. A recidivist can be easily identified especially for sentencing purposes. Criminal records of convicts are now accessible with precision, confusion over the identities of inmates are now a thing of the past. Consequently, stakeholders have more confidence in the system.
To what extent has the Police and your Ministry used DNA Forensic Centre in criminal prosecution? Would you say the project is worth the expense?
The DNA Forensic Centre and Crime Lab is a capital- intensive investment that will enhance the quality of evidence and adjudication of cases in our criminal courts. The DNA centre is fully functional and has continued to advance in time. It is important to state that the government of Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode took that giant step to use technology in solving problems in the administration of criminal justice in Lagos.
The project has proved worthy of its expense but will need continued patronage. This science-based approach to proving crime has been adopted in some of our criminal cases. There are also plans to expand the centre as soon as possible to cover toxicology and other areas. DNA evidence now forms part of expert evidence that can be admitted by the court once necessary foundation is laid.
Recently, the DNA Forensic Centre got ISO certification and became the only Centre in Africa to obtain an ISO certification, so that several tests hitherto done out of the country can now be fully handled by the centre. DNA result can be adduced where necessary; even the defendants are at liberty to provide it to exonerate themselves. It exists to easily identify and indict offenders as well as exclude suspects without culpability.
The DNA Forensic Centre and Crime Lab will ultimately assist the Police in easy detection of crime rather than embarking on guess work, and will help in reducing the time to be spent in investigating crime with the use of technology to ascertain the offender.
The project is worth the expenses incurred because it has grown Lagos to the level of being relied upon by other states, embassies and individuals. Presently, we have various embassies trying to partner with the Centre. The Centre also assists in quick and easy dispensation of justice since it produces required evidence linking a suspect to a crime.
Sometime ago, the state government announced plan to build state-of-the-art prisons. What have been the obstacles, to bringing this laudable project into fruition?
The final approval from the Federal Government for the state government to build the new state-of-the-art prison and relocate the Ikoyi Prisons has not yet been granted.
Many looked forward to bringing to book, the culprits in the Otedola Bridge fire incident which claimed many lives and resulted in the loss of many vehicles. This didn’t happen. What is the state of that case?
What I can say is that Police investigation is still very much ongoing. There are theories that the tanker driver got burnt in the inferno, but the absolute veracity of that is yet to be confirmed. However, investigation by the police so far reveals that the registered owner of the truck has been traced to Kano State.
The owner cannot be held criminally responsible unless it can be proved that the truck was in a state of disrepair or had electrical or mechanical fault which caused the accident. Preliminary facts available to the Ministry of Justice would indicate that the accident was due to human error. Owner can, however, be liable in a civil suit for class action by victims and their families. The Ministry of Justice is determined to prosecute if the police can make available to it evidence of culpability on the part of the owner of the truck. As we all know, investigation is pivotal to criminal prosecution, and investigation by the Police in the Otedola Tanker fire incident as much as we can say, is still ongoing.
The incident of collapsed school building in Lagos resulted in the death of many school children. Kindly, shed some light on the state of building laws in Lagos.
To be frank, I think our building laws are significantly robust but our monitoring and enforcement will need further improvement to identify and prosecute offenders. The Synagogue case is ongoing and has reached the defence stage.
It is interesting to note that under the application for No Case Submission, the Court held that the defendants have a case to answer and invited the defendants to open their case. We are certain that the matter will be completed in earnest.
The Ministry is also currently prosecuting the suspects in the Lekki Garden building collapse so the public should await the outcome of the trial. Investigations are still ongoing in the recent Lagos Island building collapse and we shall take a position once a case file is received from the police.
Many cases have been disposed of through the plea bargain system. Has this served the course of justice to the offenders and to the people?
Certainly, plea bargain is being used extensively. As at April 16, 2019, about 105 cases have been disposed through Plea Bargain system. I set up a standing committee in the Ministry of Justice headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions to receive and review all plea bargain applications and make recommendations to my office for approval.
This system has worked brilliantly and I am confident that many defendants will begin to see it as an opportunity for closure so they can have another chance at being productive and law-abiding citizens in society.