‘Our Top Priority Is Digitalising Lagos’ Judiciary’- Onigbanjo
*A THIS DAY INTERVIEW
At a population of slightly over 20 million, Lagos State is unarguably the most populous city and the third largest economy in Africa, in addition to being quite cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse. The challenges of administering justice in such a State, are undoubtedly humongous. Moyosore Onigbanjo, SAN, the Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, is the one who currently carries this responsibility. How has he fared in this herculean task of administering justice to citizens of the State, through the over 400 Lawyers under his supervision? Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi tracked him down to discuss his eventful three and a half years in office, including some of his innovations, and achievements so far
As Attorney-General of Lagos State you head what has been described as the largest law firm in Nigeria, with over 200 Lawyers spread across various departments and units under your Ministry and direct supervision. What have been the major challenges administering such a huge outfit?
It is true that the Lagos State Ministry of Justice is one of the largest law firms in Nigeria, and it is indeed, a great privilege and honour to lead the 431 Lawyers grouped into 7 Directorates, 3 Agencies and 3 Units. There’s no denying that managing such a large organisation comes with its own challenges, ranging from retaining good hands, coping with trust deficit between government and governed, digitalising our processes and operations, and such other challenges that law firms and organisations of our size face. These challenges could however, not break us; rather we see them as rungs of a ladder to be climbed, in order to provide improved and pristine services to the citizenry. So, gradually we are digitalising our processes, our departments of Commercial Law, Public Prosecutions and Civil Litigation are undergoing deployment of technology to assist their service delivery. Furthermore, in our quest to continually support the staff in their personal and professional development, as well as ensure the optimal contribution of Counsel towards the attainment of the vision and mission of the Ministry, the Secondment and Mentorship programmes were initiated in October, 2021 to enhance career objectives, expand horizons as well as improve the efficiency of Lawyers in the employment of the State. Under the Secondment scheme, we have deployed some of our State counsel for a period of about two months to different law firms in the State, to enable them experience and learn first-hand the work processes and work flow in the private sector. The feedback we have received so far from participating firms and our State counsel is quite encouraging, and we are now on the verge of dispatching another batch of counsel for both the Secondment and Mentorship programmes.
You just emerged as the winner of the Best Attorney-General in the country in the recently concluded Esquire Legal Awards. How did you receive it, and what is its significance to you? What would you say have been your major achievements and would be legacies, in your three and a half years as Attorney-General of Lagos State?
Whilst I’m grateful to Esq Legal Awards for the recognition, I really do have mixed feelings about the award. Mixed feelings in the sense that, there is still so much to be done. It is difficult really to roll out the drums in celebration, when you look at the mountain of problems facing the administration of justice in Nigeria as a whole. Whatever one has achieved pales into insignificance, when compared against the number of issues yet to be resolved.
In Lagos State we can boast of some modest reforms in the justice sector space such as; the ongoing attempt to revamp our civil litigation practice through the proposed Administration of Civil Justice Bill which contains several innovations such as preventing parties from stopping/staying a matter from being heard or tried, whilst that party pursues an interlocutory appeal; a cost regime which imposes stiff costs for causing adjournments on the date fixed for trial or hearing of an application; introduction of electronic service of court processes; virtual hearing; court sitting on weekends and public holidays; stiff penalties for filing frivolous suits; etc.
You were elected as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the 36 States’ Attorneys-General. What is the focus and vision of this group?
From 15th to 17th June, 2022, the Body of Attorneys-General of the 36 States of the Federation held its inaugural meeting in Lagos, and I was privileged to be elected as the Chairman of the Body. The aims and objectives of the group are largely to harmonise the positions of the States with respect to various infractions of the Constitution by various authorities, organisations, and agencies to the detriment of the States. Also, to assist each other with capacity building, sharing knowledge and experiences, that will assist each of us to ramp up service delivery in our various States. The next meeting of the Body comes up in Asaba, Delta State, at the end of this month.
Mobile Courts became quite handy in the administration justice in Lagos; but, in recent times, their impact is not being felt. Not much is heard about mobile courts anymore, and they are hardly seen around now. What happened?
Yes, you are correct to the extent that the Mobile Court is a very useful innovation in addressing the menace that misdemeanours’ such as street trading, breach of traffic laws and unethical/ anti-social conducts on the roads, environmental nuisances have become. This year alone between January and August 2022, our prosecution team at the Mobile Courts have arraigned 8,029 offenders who contravened various laws. Recall that on the first anniversary of #EndSARS protests, when the Police arrested loads of protesters, it was the Mobile Court that was deployed to the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti to sit on a weekend and late into the night too, in order to ensure that none of the arrested persons spent the night in detention. Mobile Courts, like most courts, carries on their work daily without any fanfare or publicity, that does not mean it has disappeared. The Magistrates in Mobile Court have embraced non-custodial sentences for misdemeanours, to reduce the number of inmates at the Correctional Centres in Lagos State.
The No love-lost relationship between Director of Public Prosecutions and the Police doesn’t seem to have improved. Criminal prosecutions continue to drag on for years, on the excuse that the DPP’s Advice is being awaited. To what extent have you tried to improve on this often weak excuse that the Police always fronts, as being responsible for delays in criminal justice administration? For example, during one of the sessions at the 2022 NBA AGC, we were made aware that under the immediate past AG of Ekiti State, Wale Fapohunda, SAN, they put in place some Prosecution Protocols to circumvent these unnecessary prosecutorial delays by mandating that once an original case file is forwarded to the DPP, advice must be given within 7 days, and then the AG has 24 hours to decide on prosecution following the DPP’s Advice. Does Lagos State have any such measures in place?
We have witnessed an improvement in the cooperation among the critical stakeholders, within the Criminal Justice Sector in Lagos State. There have been improvements in the delays associated with criminal prosecution in Lagos State, because we have come up with robust criminal justice initiatives geared towards ensuring that criminal cases are determined within the shortest time possible.
To increase efficiency in our work processes, we introduced the process of applying for CTC of Legal Advice, which has now been digitalised and made more transparent. Members of the public can visit our website www.lagosstatemoj.org to check whether legal advice has been issued in respect of a case, using a charge No. To further eradicate the delays associated with treatment and transmission of case files, all duplicate case files are now treated and transmitted electronically from the receipt of file from the Police till the issuance of Legal Advice. We also introduced the ‘District Prosecutors Scheme’ to prevent Police Prosecutors from filing criminal charges in civil disputes, to either pressurise or intimidate parties and give an advantage to the Complainant. To curb this, we therefore, deployed State Counsel to Magistrate Courts to vet charge sheets before they are filed by Police Prosecutors. Currently, there are eight District Prosecutors’ offices in the State, namely: Yaba, Ikorodu, Ogba, Ajegunle, Ajah, Tinubu/Igbosere, Epe and Ebute-Metta. Out of the 6,513 number of case files vetted by District Prosecutors, 371 cases were diverted from the Courts, being civil related matters. This Scheme has largely prevented civil disputes from being mischievously converted to criminal cases. We must also state that in Lagos, we enjoy a good relationship with the CP and the State Police Command, and any issues that arise are resolved by keeping the channels of communication open.
There is also the Criminal Justice Sector Reform Committee, set up under Section 375 of the ACJL (as amended); this Committee, chaired by the Hon CJ of Lagos State, comprises all the stakeholders in administration of criminal justice in the State including the CP, the DPP, the NBA, several other stakeholders and myself. This is yet another platform, used to thrash out issues which might impede administration of criminal justice in the State.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State is currently undergoing a review. What are those new innovations that should be expected in the reviewed ACJL?
The Administration of Criminal Justice (Amendment) Law of Lagos State was signed into law on 5th October, 2021 by the Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu with the following innovative provisions. Section 200(2) of the Amended ACJL 2021 provides for Virtual Hearings, Courts can conduct criminal proceedings either in whole or in part through audio and video conferencing platforms, and members of the public can attend through the same means without the necessity of physical attendance in the courtroom. You recall that in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the use of virtual hearings was deployed to deliver judgements, and more than 500 Rulings/Judgements have been delivered to date. Through our Lagos Criminal Information System (LCIS) we have provided audio-visual screens and laptops in the five Correctional Facilities, to ensure the inmates can participate in the proceedings virtually. Prohibition of Media parade of suspects- Section 9(A) of the Amended ACJL 2021, provides that the Police shall refrain from parading any suspect before the media. We will continue to collaborate with the Police, to ensure this provision is implemented. Trial may be heard through closed hearing (not in open court) – By Section 371 of the Amended ACJL 2021, evidence may be received by video link, permitting the witness to be screened or masked, through written deposition of expert evidence in sexual related offences such as Defilement, Rape, Sexual Assault by Penetration. And, the personal details and identity of the victims of such offences or witnesses, shall not be disclosed in any publication. Victim and Witnesses Protection measures – By Section 373 of the Amended ACJL 2021, a new provision is inserted to allow parties apply to Court to order the non-disclosure of the identity of a victim or witness who may be in danger or at risk, until the Trial Court decides otherwise. The Court in the determination of protective measures for victims and witnesses, may consult the office responsible for Witness Support and/or Protection. Establishment of Criminal Justice Sector Reform Committee –a new Section 375 of the Amended ACJL 2021 is inserted, to promote and foster inter-agency cooperation amongst stakeholders in the justice system, Establishment of Crime Data Registry – By Section 370 of the Amended ACJL 2021, an electronic repository of information on awaiting trial inmates and convicts in Lagos State. We have been populating this database since 2018, and it has been a useful tool to the Judiciary, Ministry of Justice, the Correctional Centres and Police. We are working towards launching a criminal records registry where Embassies, organisations can apply for background/criminal records of potential employees, particularly, for sex offenders. It will also assist the Police and Prosecutors, in identifying repeated offenders.
With a bourgeoning population and coming as the most populous cosmopolitan city in Africa, the crime rate in Lagos State is unarguably the highest in Nigeria. The burden is on you, as the Chief Law Officer of the State, to ensure a safer city that will inspire the confidence of local and international investors. How are you doing in this regard?
The Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu, has been supporting the Nigeria Police Lagos State Command and other security agencies in the State, by providing necessary support through the Lagos State Security Trust Fund. The State has also acquired and provided equipment and training for the Officers and men of the Rapid Response Squad (RRS). You will also recall that Lagos State Government established Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corps Agency (LSNSA), which functions include gathering information and giving necessary support to the Police. The LSNSA numbering over 4000 men and women, are our boots on the ground, patrolling neighbourhoods on foot and bicycles. They engage in community policing and assist in preventing commission of crimes, or giving useful information in identifying potential trouble spots in the community. The officers of the Agency, are spread across the State.
Some Laws have also been passed to ensure Lagos is safer for all of us, one of such laws is the Victims Assistance & Protection of Witness Law 2022, which when signed into law by Mr Governor will mandate all hospitals to give the minimum treatment required to stabilise the victim of any crime or accident, until that victim is transferred to another medical facility. This law was passed in memory of a young lady, Moradeun Balogun, who sadly lost her life after being stabbed by robbers and the medical facility she was rushed to refused or failed to admit her, or even try to stop her bleeding. We are also in the course of amending the Criminal Law of Lagos State, while we are in the process of finalising the Lagos State Administration of Civil Justice Bill.
Why is it that Lagos State does not seem to be a part of the Amotekun initiative of the South West Governors? Is open grazing allowed in Lagos State?
The State Government amended its Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corps Agency Law in 2020, wherein Section 18 specifically established the Neighbourhood Corps Special Patrol Unit (referred to as the Lagos Amotekun Corps) with membership drawn from the Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corps Agency. The Amotekun Corps is to share intelligence, equipment and resources with its counterparts in Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo State. We also have a law known as Prohibition of Open Grazing Law, 2021, which outlaws open grazing in Lagos State. Before the advent of the outcry and clamour that led to the creation of the Amotekun Corps in the South-West, Lagos State, since 2016 had in existence the Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corp, upon which all the Amotekun Units in the other South-West States was modelled upon. We just simply preferred to retain the original name, rather than change it to Amotekun. Also, all the laws creating the Amotekun Corp in the other States, are also based on the Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corp Law 2016. So, Lagos State is very much part of the Amotekun initiative.
What is the status of the aggrieved retired Judges who went to court over their unpaid retirement benefits and emoluments? This development is surprising, since Rivers and Lagos State are the two States that have been repeatedly singled out for their concern for the conditions of service of the Judiciary
The Lagos State Government will continue to carry out its obligations to both the serving and retired Judges in the Judiciary of the State. The issue of retirement benefit of Judges that have served meritoriously in Lagos State is receiving attention, and parties have met to resolve the matter amicably. The matter will be resolved, and we have made payments to the retired Judges. We are however, putting up a claim that by virtue of the provisions of Section 84(7), Second Schedule Part 1, Item 44 and Third Schedule Part 1, Item 21 (e) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), the obligation to pay the pension and benefits of retired judicial officers of the States resides with the Federal Government. This is a constitutional point which we are taking up. However, until the court decides this point, we shall continue with the payment of the pensions and benefits of our retired Judges.
Is the Lagos State DNA Lab going to be rebuilt?
Yes, you will recall that Mr Governor inaugurated the Rebuild Lagos Trust Fund, which has been saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding the Lagos State DNA & Forensic Centre and other public assets that were affected during the #EndSARS protest. I am aware that they are on-track with the efforts to rebuild the DNA & Forensic Centre Facility that was destroyed during the #EndSARS protests. The Centre however, is still open, and offering partial services to the State and its citizens.
Certainly, the last hasn’t been heard of the #EndSARS Report, which your office seemed to take some exception to. What should Lagosians expect next?
Mr Governor set up the Tribunal of Enquiry on #EndSARS and Police Brutality. You will recall that the Panel submitted its report on 15th October, 2021, after which a White Paper was issued by the Government. The White Paper recommendations are currently being implemented; for example, we have forwarded a Bill to Lagos State House of Assembly for the creation of a standing human rights committee to investigate the issue of abuses by security agencies or any authority. Also, the State Government has paid compensation of about N500 million, as recommended.
Kindly, shed some light on the e-filing and e-bail initiative your Ministry just put in place
The e-Filing and e-Bail initiatives are under the control of the Lagos State Judiciary, under its Judicial Information System (JIS) and Bail Information Management System (BIMS) initiative. We however, provide support to the Judiciary in ensuring that these highly desirous and welcome initiatives, have the desired impact. We continue to hold meetings with the Judiciary and the Bar, in ensuring the desirable outcome. The JIS when fully operational, will provide electronic filing of court processes, swearing of affidavits and payments without the need to be physically present at the court premises. BIMS is to provide a databank for Defendants who have been granted bail by both the Magistrate and High Courts. This will help resolve delays with tracking, and verifying of Defendants and their sureties.
Thank you, Honourable Attorney-General.